Malala vs Miley – who's your role model?
Being a role model isn't something that's chosen, and often the subjects are not able for the associated stresses
Published 10/10/2013 | 05:00
It is little over a month since Miley Cyrus twerked her way to infamy at the MTV VMAs. The performance kick-started a global debate about whether or not Cyrus is an acceptable role model for young girls.
Since then, there has been a series of open letters from universal mother Sinéad O'Connor urging Cyrus not to prostitute herself for the music industry's evil ends. British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned Cyrus as not a fit role model for his nine-year-old daughter Nancy, and in a recent survey, parents voted Cyrus the worst role model for young girls, beating off competition like Lindsay Lohan.
It has, however, been some time since Cyrus behaved like a good girl. She probably hasn't been a good role model since she was 15 and appeared naked, wrapped in a bed sheet with tousled hair on the cover of Vanity Fair.
She apologised for that shoot at the time, but the following year she was pole dancing on stage and a phone hack exposed intimate images of Cyrus which were intended for her then boyfriend, Nick Jonas of The Jonas Brothers.
When she cropped her hair she seemed to be waving a symbolic farewell to Hannah Montana and her own adolescence. The twerking incident at the VMAs was just Cyrus putting the lid on the coffin of her role model days. The Hannah Montana character has long since been cast off.
In fact, Cyrus pronounced on Saturday Night Live last week that Hannah Montana had been murdered. As Cyrus swings naked on a wrecking ball in her current music video it's fair to say Hannah Montana is well and truly dead and buried.
Still, role models are invaluable to young people. They inspire them, they show them them what they can achieve and what is possible with hard work and self-belief.
But one of the problems with making young girls like Cyrus into role models is that they grow up. They become adolescents who traditionally rebel and experiment, which doesn't make for a good role model – but suppressing that rite of passage isn't natural either.
Perhaps putting these figures on such pedestals only increases the pressure and makes them fall even further.
Look at Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, all once golden figures who overcame all kinds of obstacles in their personal lives to achieve enormous sporting success, all since fallen spectacularly from grace – Woods as a sex addict, Armstrong as a drugs cheat and Pistorius, left, currently charged with the murder of his girlfriend.
The term role model is distinctly old-fashioned in our world of mentors and ambassadors. It is attributed to the American sociologist Robert K Merton, who began working on the concept in Columbia University in the 1940s, but the idea of someone we can look up and admire has been around forever.
Role models used to be world leaders, campaigners for peace, justice and equality, but now they are pop singers and actors.
Global fame has made celebrities the new role models. With fame comes responsibility and the expectation that celebrities will set a good example for their young fans but it is not a compulsory requirement.
Cyrus has never asked to be a role model so it's unfair of us to expect her to be one. Likewise, pop star Rhianna felt the pressure of being a role model for young girls all over the world when she was physically abused by her boyfriend Chris Brown and then got back together with him.
Her Instagram feed is littered with highly sexualised images of her posing semi-naked on a stripper's pole, semi-naked on a yacht, semi-naked and smoking unusual-looking cigarettes, none of which represent great life choices for young women.
Perhaps we should stop looking to pop stars for our role models and revert to finding them amongst our own communities and families.
Someone like Joanne O'Riordan from Cork, a young woman living with Tetra-amelia syndrome (one of only nine people in the world with the condition which means she has no limbs) is a true role model. She has spoken in front of the UN and taken Enda Kenny to task for reducing disability benefit, and she has just launched her film No Limbs, No Limits.
Likewise, Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for attempting to go to school and get an education, is now nominated for a Nobel Prize and has visited Ireland twice in the last two months to receive honorary prizes.
After a month of wall-to-wall coverage, the backlash against Cyrus has started to wane.
Cyrus probably made the most compelling case for taking herself off the role model list, at least for a couple of years, when she said on her Saturday Night Live appearance: "I'm only 20 years old, I need some freedom to grow up and make mistakes."
As a successful young artist, Miley Cyrus must have lots of good qualities – she's clearly hard-working, ambitious and determined, but she is also rebelling against the good-girl image she has carried for so long. And that is her right.
In the meantime, we have real-life role models to look up to.