The Salem News
---- — Methinks there is perhaps just a bit too much ado about role models these days. Have you noticed the recent matter on the importance of role models?
I have two issues with it. The first is that role models are written about as if no one can do anything significant or become anyone of substance absent an appropriate and reliable role model. This is simply not true.
Let’s start with what online manual WikiHow says: “Role models are important. They help us become the person we want to be and inspire us to make a difference. Choosing wisely means that you are influenced correctly and will help you be the best person you can be. To be like someone, you have to work hard.”
This passage is emblematic of how the media get it wrong on role models. I read it and the following questions come to mind: Are they really that important? Is it impossible to become successful without following a role model? Do all up-and-comers want to become exactly like their role models?
I’ve spent my entire career covering the evolution of women’s roles in American society. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read that women could not succeed without role models in their chosen fields. It would be impossible, for example, for young girls to dream of becoming astronauts until Sally Ride showed them how.
I knew I wanted to be a network TV correspondent from the time I was in high school. Women were few and far between in those jobs in the 1970s when I graduated with a master’s in journalism, yet it never occurred to me that I could not get there for lack of role models.
I didn’t need a woman ahead of me to show me it could be done. In my mid-20s, I managed to land a job as a correspondent in the Atlanta bureau of NBC News. I was keenly aware the field was fraught with sexism, but I did not get the job as a result of following in some role model’s footsteps.
Similarly, if you follow the role model theory to its logical conclusion, it would not have been possible for a young African-American male to dream of becoming president before 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. It must still be impossible for young African-American females to contemplate a presidential run, because there’s never been a black female president. Yet I’m sure there are plenty who dream.
My second issue with this is that the media often portray role models as leaders — but the two are often different things. Lots of famous people can be role models, but few of them are leaders.
A recent New York Times article described a study of role models. It said, “One group was shown pictures and paragraph-long descriptions of women leaders like the former newscaster Connie Chung and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”
I gasped when I read that sentence. Chung, a leader?
Chung was a talented news broadcaster, but calling her and others who have landed big jobs “leaders” is to stretch the definition beyond recognition.
When I think of leaders I think of people who’ve dedicated their lives to a cause to make the world a better place. I don’t think of successful news broadcasters (unless they have also campaigned for women’s rights or minority rights in the media, which, to my knowledge, Connie Chung never did). I don’t think of Fortune 500 CEO’s or Saturday Night Live comedians as leaders. Famous, yes. Leaders, no.
Leaders are people such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gloria Steinem or John Lennon (who campaigned for peace in addition to making music and achieving rock stardom) or Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
I hope writers soon start to recognize that not everyone needs role models and not all role models are leaders. It would make their coverage of this topic much more compelling.
Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.shns.com.