What has happened to all the role models? It seems like they’ve started dropping like flies. In light of the recent sexual assault allegations in particular, it feels like the “good” ones are being proven just as bad as anyone else. In other words, they’re not who we thought they were.
Have you heard the saying, “never meet your heroes”? Meeting your heroes humanizes them—their capes come off and we see them for who they are, flaws and all. To look up to someone your whole life only to find out that they were a lesser version of what you admired, can be a tough blow.
One of the most difficult role models for me to lose was former senator Al Franken. This man went from comedian to influencer, always leading from a place of acceptance and non-judgement. His views and his outspoken nature are something I’ve always admired about him. When I heard that he was being investigated for sexual assault, my immediate reaction wasn’t one of disgust, but one of intense disappointment. I thought, “not you too!” Then the rest of the emotions found me, one by one.
Do I still agree with his policies and his rhetoric? Absolutely. But now I’ve had to separate my role model’s ideas from the man himself. I can’t look up to someone who is an abuser. And while many see his crimes as less than others, I’m not going to debate here what levels of sexual abuse are acceptable and what levels are too far. Suffice it to say that all sexual assault is in the “NOT OK” column.
How do you reconcile the love you have for a person’s ideals and the disgust and horror you have for their actions? If someone can answer that question honestly, please let me know. I’m not sure that it has a true answer.
The worst part of this new wave of discoveries is, of course, the damage it has caused to the victims. There is no question in my mind that no matter how much it hurts to lose a hero, it hurts worse to be assaulted.
Going back a few years, there was another household hero who fell from grace. Someone who portrayed Black families in a positive light, and strived to be a role model for Black fathers when that positive image was lacking on prime time TV: Dr. Bill Cosby. What a blow to America as we knew it! Bill Cosby was admired and loved by so many. To hear that he wasn’t actually the role model we all thought he was, to know that he caused so much pain and harm to so many women, was devastating. Watching this man we all once admired be vilified and crumble in his old age, watching his legacy fall apart piece by piece—through no fault of anyone but himself—was very tough to witness.
There is a dichotomy here. On the one hand, we can model our behavior after someone we think of as setting a positive example. But the danger comes in when we think they can do no wrong.
The singer “P!nk” is one of my 12-year-old daughter’s heroes. She exemplifies strength and acceptance, although sometimes I take pause at my child listening to her lyrics so closely. (I think back to listening to Sublime at her age and maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned about P!nk, but I digress…) At that age it feels like everyone has a hero, a role model, a person in the limelight they wish to be, or be around. The concern for me is that this person will inevitably crush my child’s dreams when she realizes that her favorite human, is just human.
And that makes me wonder, is it time we hang up this idea of heroes once and for all? Is it better to hold someone in your mind as an unflawed example of who to be, or to never think of anyone as a hero?
The topic of role models raises many more questions than I have answers for. I really don’t want to tell my child to be cynical, or to take everything with a grain of salt, but maybe that’s what’s necessary to balance out the extra sweetness of idolizing a person. There is no way that any human being can live up to perfect standards and expectations, and maybe we should all be preparing our children for that reality.
Still, I’d like to offer her the opportunity to adore a person for who they are and what they do, while telling her it is completely OK to criticize their actions when they go against her principles. I do believe there can be a balance between that perfect picture we paint in our minds, and what to do when reality hits. Knowing right from wrong is more important than justifying the actions of a role model simply because they hold that title.
I think of it this way: when you end a relationship with someone you once loved, you can still look fondly back on the positive memories that you have. At the same time, you can also recognize the faults and flaws that led to the demise of the relationship. Both can be true at the same time.
It’s unrealistic to see someone as all good or all bad. I still believe that some horrible people have done some good, and some good people have done some horrible things. At the end of the day, all our heroes are just humans when they take their capes off.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on the leaders we follow, you can find those over here.