Stop Hailing Women as Good or Bad Role Models

Illustration for article titled Stop Hailing Women as Good or Bad Role Models

I know you have open letter + pumpkin spice fatigue, but hear me out: Did anyone think it was a real gas that when Sinead O'Connor was scolding Miley Cyrus, we learned that Cyrus considered O'Connor a role model herself? I was in junior high when O'Connor made the angels cry for ripping up a picture of the pope live on SNL, and I can tell you right now: But nobody I knew thought she was a good role model for girls, much less anyone. I love her music, but to love her was to align oneself with an androgynous, blaspheming weirdo who happened to have a good voice. Ya dig?


One group of women's perfect role model is another group's batshit weirdo, so could we please stop christening women good or bad role models as if there is any one such thing? Also, it's just a backdoor way to slut-shame/police behavior. Own it! It's just another version of the same game of trying to pin what women do — famous or otherwise — into a neat little box of an appropriate use of their brains, talents and bodies that we'd like our girls to emulate. And it's a slippery slope lined with shredded religious icons and questionable bodysuits.

Take Lorde. I think she's terrific. Team Lorde! I like cool girls — who doesn't? — and sure, everyone could be more like Tavi Gevinson. No question. But Tavi Gevinson exists because the rest of the world is more like Miley Cyrus. And if everyone were like Tavi Gevinson, well, then Tavi Gevinson would need to be more like Miley Cyrus too.

But I just read a defense of why Lorde is the 'perfect role model for girls' and yes, individually, everything listed as why Lorde is a cool, awesome chick is A-1 steak sauce in my book. She's confident. She's talented. She stands by her views. She's a feminist.

She's also 16. I'm happy when a 16-year-old appears to have her shit together, and I'm way the fuck less surprised when she doesn't. Being 16 is about figuring yourself out. It's OK to not know. You don't have to be so self-possessed. Perfect is its own circle of hell.

But this only adds to my point: Critiquing famous (or any) women's behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It's exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don't want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I'm not disputing that teens copy famous people's behavior too (and yes I'm staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.


What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

And that we don't put near as much scrutiny on men with this in mind — that we indulge the Sheens and shun the Lohans — ought to offer more proof that this is another pressure to perform pretty that lands so much heavier on women's shoulders.


We say we don't want to dictate women's behavior, but the message is clear: We will find a way to criticize you for being what we think feeds the enemy, what we think diminishes you and us, and if we can't pin it on your actions directly, we'll pin it on your victims — the young women you influence.

When I was a kid, I loved and imitated all kinds of things that were put in front of me. I wanted to look like Madonna at one point, and coincidentally, also Robert Smith, but their lives were distant, mystical fantasies to me, nothing I could recreate, much less understand as a teenager, beyond a matching lip liner. I loved Sylvia Plath — a woman who could blow any pop star we could think of out of the water in terms of smarts and brains worth emulating. But, uh, she killed herself — not exactly a great role model for girls, huh?


If I start listing every woman who influenced me in the popular imagination, it is a long-ass list of inappropriate women who are fun and smart and mean and painfully complex, from Nancy Drew to Nancy Spungen. I have always liked complicated women, because that's how I felt. And I think young girls find their way to women who reflect something in them. I don't think they become corrupted by an image that doesn't resonate.

But if you want to help control for your daughter what resonates? Show her a wide range of women. Seeing everything from feminist heroes to punk-rock fuckups (sometimes both — Patti Smith, anyone?) will cut through, and even offer an immunity to the short-lived appeal of so-called "bad role models." Seeing that women can be all kinds of things, and that they don't have to be trapped by one image, one act, one note, is freeing.


So if you're worried your daughter is going to be just like Miley Cyrus, please, march her ass down to a library, or the Internet, and start clicking. No, you can't single-handedly eradicate the fame machine, but you can dilute its strength. When you show her every kind of woman there is, it's going to be much, much harder to justify her only refashioning herself after the one with the most face time.


Besides, it's not the fame machine's job to find me a good example for my daughter to model. It's mine. The truth is, when it's all said and done, my kid is far more likely to be just like me than like some famous person. In which case, it would be far far easier to blame a Cyrus.



I kinda get upset when people use Marylin Monroe as a role model. I mean, yeah— she isn't what most people would consider a beauty by today's standards... BUT SHE COMMITTED SUICIDE! (just like Plath) We should never idolize people that kill themselves! that sooooo jacked up!