We have a lively debate running today on the subject of whether or not celebrities should be considered role models. It followed Jodie Foster’s emotional speech at the Golden Globes, in which she spoke openly for the first time about being a lesbian. Frenzied debate erupted online, with countless campaigners saying that, as an exalted and world-famous actress, she shouldn’t have waited until she was 50 before letting the rest of us know that she’s comfortable with her sexuality.
It’s a recurring trope, this business of telling celebrities they should be setting an example to the rest of us. And I can see that if, say, you’re a singer called Chris Brown and you assault your girlfriend, who also happens to be famous (as Rihanna certainly is), then a further downside of your disgusting behaviour might be that one of your more stupid fans might think it marginally less wrong to do the same to his girlfriend. But generally speaking, I think this celebrities-should-be-role-models lark is utter tosh.
For one thing, who are we talking about here? The slightly famous, quite famous, or very famous? Do Premiership footballers have a responsibility not to dive or punch each other, because kids might be watching on telly – whereas Division Three footballers don’t because they’re less famous?
Then there’s the question of what specific matters we’d like these celebrities to be role models in. Presumably it’s such minimally contentious subjects as domestic violence. But even then I’m not so sure. Take drugs. I remember very distinctly when the Spice Girls put out a statement saying they’re against drugs. Get high on life instead, they said.
Fine, but what if the real issue with drugs is the murderous stupidity of our policy of criminalising them? What if the debate we really need is about decriminalising drugs immediately? Should we defer to Emma Bunton and Mel B on these matters of policy too?
Above all, I just cannot see the logical connection between achievement of fame, if that’s what you want to call it, and the moral obligation to behave in a particular way. Why does the former create the latter? If a hitherto unknown person acts in a film that sells out at the Box Office, why should he or she suddenly be ashamed of youthful indiscretions, lest that incur the wrath of tabloid hacks?
In fact, the impulse to see celebrities as role models is the mark of a society that has lost its moral anchor – that is, religion. Our secular age has been voided of a codified morality, but looking for it in the habits and manners of the rich and famous is the social equivalent of appointing a drunkard to run the brewery.