Questioning Celebrity Role Models

Guest post by Erin Taylor.

Jeanette McCurdy has been making a lot of headlines recently. McCurdy is a familiar name to some; she played Sam Puckett, a member of the main ensemble of the children’s show iCarly. I watched iCarly as a middle schooler, and I loved Sam. She was never traditionally “girly”; she rarely, if ever, wore pink, she was loud and messy, she loved motorcycles and fried chicken. And yet, this wasn’t played for laughs, and she wasn’t a bit character. Sam was clearly female, and no one ever questioned it (unlike on many children’s shows that feature less stereotypically female girl characters). There are many ways to be a girl, and Sam wasn’t afraid of being who she was. Definitely a cool and rare character to see on what was one of the most popular children’s shows at the time.

Jeanette McCurdy is another young Hollywood star who had to come of age under the media microscope.

Jeanette McCurdy is another young Hollywood star who had to come of age under the media microscope.

Recently, McCurdy has been under fire for some photos of her in lingerie that were released by her boyfriend. The controversy behind these photos makes little sense; she is 22 years old, and the photos were sent to her boyfriend (both people were over 18 years of age), yet parents are in an outrage. Many feel that she sets a poor example for the girls who watch her on television (whether on iCarly, or on her current show, Sam and Cat). Some have even speculated that the release of these photos, and the controversy that they generated, has caused the recent cancellation of her current show. In reality, the cancellation likely has much more to do with the booming music career of her co-star Ariana Grande, who is choosing to devote time to her music, but it’s interesting to note how quickly our society jumps to slut-shaming. With all that has occurred, there has been a lot of pressure for McCurdy to step up and apologize for making a mistake, for setting a poor example.

She stepped up. She spoke. But she didn’t apologize.

Instead of releasing a phony apology to save face, Jeanette wrote a Reddit post discussing the pressure she feels to be perfect, and the fact that she refuses to step up to the plate and pretend to be something that she isn’t. She encouraged fans of her show to look for role models in real life, as celebrities are like strangers, and what the camera produces is, so often, not true to life.

” I…love a cute dress, a good pop song, and a vanilla-scented candle,” she wrote, “But these things don’t define me or determine that I am any kind of a role model. What defines a person as a role model is the way they live their life. And no offense, but none of you know how I live my life…I am proud of the way I live my life. I am proud of my choices. I am proud that no one can call me fake or say I don’t stand up for myself. I am proud that my friends and family would say that I’m a good person. But in order to be thought of as a real, true role model, I believe you have to know a person and their actions, inside and out. Calling a celebrity a role model is like calling a stranger a role model. The knowledge you have of a celebrity is no more than a caricature drawn by media tastemakers specializing in selling you an image you’re dying to buy.”

As Melissa has said in the past, “sometimes your mind [will] try to fool you with [the way celebrities look] as you think to yourself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ The secret to remember is, ‘Neither does she.'” Jeanette’s answer discourages slut-shaming in the media, and encourages people to use real-life references as their role models. And I think it’s awesome that she never apologizes for what she did. She isn’t necessarily defending her actions, or claiming that she is perfect; she’s not. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t a good person.

Ironically, her actions show a lot of traits that would be fabulous for young girls to model; self respect, responsibility, honesty. The vitriol leveled at her was absolutely ridiculous, but she handled it with grace and a calm head. It’s so refreshing to see truthfulness like this, especially in such a difficult situation. Jeanette’s words have made me rethink, in many ways, the concept of celebrity role models.  I often look up to celebrities, or, at the least, people whom I have never met, whether bloggers, actors, or authors.

For example, I really respect Mayim Bialik, and aspire to be like her in many ways. However, I have never met Mayim. All I know of her, I have received through the veils that the internet and television provide. I see a tweaked and distorted image, created using only the information that she (together with her PR team) chooses to release. As media-savvy as I might be, I’ll admit that this isn’t something that I usually consider while I am reading her latest post or checking out a photo she shared on her facebook page.  Mayim is a pretty tame example (it seems fairly clear from her blog that she isn’t trying to generate a perfect media image or create unrealistic expectations), but idolizing anyone that one hasn’t met can be dangerous.

As Jeanette says, the images we see on screens, whether television or computer, are perfected and held to an unrealistic standard. The media creates “role models” that people can never truly become, and this can leave girls feeling disappointed and flawed. And, just as Jeanette points out, this false “perfection” is just as damaging for celebrities to attempt to  meet; after all, they are real people, too. And, and unlike people whom one knows personally, they cannot discuss their choices with you, explain their imperfections, or talk about why they did what they did. The same distance that seems ideal while creating a perfect image becomes detrimental while trying to maintain it in the face of inevitable imperfection.

As “messy” people, doesn’t it make sense to look to “messy” role models? The fact is, no one can be a perfect role model, and the perfection that the media is trying to sell to us is detrimental, not only to young girls, but also to  young actors. I applaud Jeanette for encouraging people to show their whole self, no matter how messy it is, and I hope that we all can learn to follow her example.

 

Erin Taylor is a student and caregiver who spends a lot of time thinking about how gender stereotyping and media messages affect kids. As a caregiver and a human being, she is committed to working along with others toward a world free of these kinds of biases; for herself and her generation, for the kids with whom she works currently, and for those whom she hopes to raise in the future. Erin blogs from anfsdc.blogspot.com, or you can find her on Facebook at facebook.com/violettheyukasaurus.

 

When Pop Culture Really Counts: Ashton Kutcher Gives Incredible Speech

Ashton Kutcher says really sexy = really smart.

In today’s celebrity worship culture I find myself rolling my eyes at the rich and famous more than I find myself inspired by them. And I’m not sure Ashton Kutcher would have been my  first guess as a source of inspiration, but his acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards this week hit it out of the park.

For all of his young fans, boys and girls alike heard a celeb they admire and/or crush on talk about hard work, that really smart = really sexy, and thinking outside of the box can lead you to build a life. I highly recommend you watch this video with your tween or teen because it delivers some pretty awesome talking points.

His first point was that he never considered himself too good for any job, that he never quit a job before he had another lined up, and that many times opportunity looks a lot like hard work.

His led into his second point about being sexy (to the objectifying screams of teen girls shrieking “Take It OFF!” from the audience) by saying that the sexiest things in the world are to be smart, thoughtful, and generous. I think this was important to hear from someone who is arguably a sex symbol. His message was that “sexy” is more about who you are and what you do over what you look like.

And he finished up by encouraging the audience to think outside the box, believe in their dreams, and quoted Steve Jobs by telling them to build a life, not just live one.

The video is about four and a half minutes long, and gets going around the 30 second mark. Ashton is my age, 35, so he may be realizing that with his Punk’d days over and his portrayal of Jobs changing his career, his influence over teens may be waning. At the Teen Choice Awards he acted like a matured, wise older brother imparting advice to those in the audience who could hear his words. Ashton is a very smart guy and knew the cameras would be rolling, capturing his words. I think it a great representation of a celebrity using their public platform to do good. Hopefully tweens/teen everywhere are sharing this video with their friends and taking some of the advice to heart.

Watch it with your kids and talk to them about their thoughts and impressions, you won’t be disappointed. I think our culture sells teenagers short quite often, but my guess is, if you tune into yours, they may have some really smart things to say.

Once You See It, You See It Everywhere

Tomorrow I’m going to share a great story from my good friend Sara about how she saw some gendered marketing to kids and spoke up about it….at our county fair. The reactions of the people she spoke with were really funny and encouraging.

In the meantime, check out what some of our PPBB Community Members shared with us via email and on the facebook page:

Andria's daughter watches as her dad learns from a mechanic how to change the headlight in their family car.

 

“Hi Melissa! I wanted to send this to you because it made me so excited to see a female mechanic showing my husband how to change the headlight on our car. My daughter was excited and was asking all about fixing cars! It’s true! You can’t be what you can’t see! Glad she saw a women doing a stereotypical man’s job! Thanks for all your awesome advocating on behalf of all the daughters out there!”  -Andria Lewis

“I went to our local Hallmark store to get a birthday card for my three year old daughter after I couldn’t find a suitable one at Party America the prior day. I was thoroughly disgusted by my choices. Every single card for younger girls was about how the birthday girl is “pretty” and “sweet” and “snuggly”. I’d say 80-90% of them either had some sort of sexualized princess on the card or referred to the birthday girl as a princess. The “boy” cards, on the other hand, focused on how the birthday boy is adventurous, strong, smart and fun. It is no wonder girls are still dealing with gender bias – kids are being taught this before they can even read. I ended up buying my daughter a mickey mouse card from the “boys” section. There is no reason it couldn’t have been in the girls section but I’m sure most people stick to their “section” since half of the cards wouldn’t work since they refer to the “birthday boy”. My daughter may be sweet, snuggly and pretty but those aren’t my favorite qualities about her and I should be able to find a card that celebrates the other, more substantive, qualities that I love about her. Guess I’ll be looking elsewhere in the future or ditching the birthday cards all together. She could care less if she gets a card after she unwraps the bulldozer she’s getting to play in the dirt in the backyard….. one of her favorite things to do.” -Lisa Nicolls

 

“I was in the mall the other week and saw that they put in a Learning Express. I was like “Oh thank god! Educational toys! Finally we can get away from the pink princess gendered crap.” I’m apparently still more trusting and innocent then I thought. While there were no boy and girl labels on the isles there was clearly the pink side and the blue side. Want to know what was in the pink section under “Fine Motor”? Come on you know you want to know. Manicure sets. 15 different manicure sets! 6 jewelry making kits, 3 perfume crafting sets, and a dozen or so arts and crafts sets that were clearly marketed to only girls. Seriously? Seriously?! How is that educational? How is that learning?! You can be damn sure that there weren’t any cologne making sets over in the blue section. So. Freakin. RAGEY!! Oh. Oh! You wanna top off this crap fest? Nearly every book in the pink section was about girl fitness. But not really fitness so much as how to stay slim and trim. My wife had to walk me out because I was about to lose it all over the teenager behind the counter who she gently reminded me was innocent in all this.” -Theresa Costello

 

“I just started working out at a new gym here in town. Not gender biased at all — women and men are pushed as hard as possible, no one accepts that a woman can’t do what a man can do, except for one thing….The weight bars for women (smaller diameter so we can lift with correct hand position) have pink ends. I’m sure they come from the manufacturer that way. I totally wouldn’t have noticed it if I wasn’t reading your blog. Just the bar has the pink end. All of the weights you put on the bar are black. And those aren’t in special “women” or “men” sizes. But I do make sure I wear glitter and perfume so everyone knows I’m a lady.” -Christy Skalecki (with a bit of sarcasm!)

 

“I’m a 33yr old single mom, doing my best to raise a strong empowered daughter. I’m also a Welding student at my local trade school. Tonight I stopped into Walmart on my way home from class all sweaty and gross and still wearing my welding overalls. One of the teen girls working there commented on my overalls and we got to talking about welding school. To me, it was just another conversation like any other. To her, it meant a lot more. Her eyes lit up as we talked and at the end of our conversation she thanked me for going to welding school and standing up for females (by doing so). I was stunned and humbled. I wanted to share this story because I want us all to remember that we can make a difference in ways we never expect. I saw a girl working a job she doesn’t enjoy (that will never pay well) gain a degree of empowerment tonight. She saw that there can be more in her world than she thought. I don’t think she’s gonna run out and become a welder, but maybe there’s something else she really wants to do, that now seems more attainable. I sure hope she follows her dreams!! No matter how many people say nasty things to you for standing up for girls or doing things considered to be outside your ‘gender’ role, remember that we are making a difference and don’t let it get you down. Hooray for empowered girls AND boys!” -Jessica Geurin

Media Literacy Means Real Role Models

A comment that frequently comes up during conversations about pushing back against sexualized or sexist children’s media is that if those of us complaining simply parented our children, we wouldn’t have an issue. The companion comment is the suggestion to find real role models for our kids, and not let the television babysit them or toys raise them.

So putting aside what feels like an obtuse nature to that kind of commentary towards parents and families not known to the commentor, I do support the idea of our kids have real role models to look up to. For my kids, our family has a group of college girls whom we adore.

Amelia and Hayley, heading outside to eat lunch together.

The 7yo Original Pigtail Pal was surprised at lunch today by our friend Hayley, who is just home from college. Amelia has been to Hayley’s softball games, hospital bedside when Hayley fought and beat a rare brain tumor, graduation party, and Relay for Life events. Hayley comes by to take the kids to the park, out for ice cream, and even just to pile up on the couch and take a good nap.

I don’t see caring about media literacy as being mutually exclusive to actively engaging in the parenting of our children or failure to provide good role models. The products I don’t care for introduce characters to my children that couldn’t hold a candle to girls like our Hayley, and the MOST important thing is….my kids know it.

 

Update: Three years later and Hayley is still CANCER FREE!! Here she is celebrating “All Clear” scans and wearing her Full of Awesome tees for the occasion. I asked Hayley once about her thoughts on how having to stare down brain cancer may have changed her body image (for better or worse), especially given the statistic that adolescent girls are more afraid of gaining weight than getting cancer, losing their parents or nuclear war. As an adolescent with cancer, I wanted to know how that impacted her when she heard that. Hayley said that she was proud of her scars from her brain surgery, they were her battle scars and she wore them with pride. Hayley also said that when she was going into surgery, recovering in the hospital for days, or enduring six weeks of radiation not once did she think, “Gosh I wish I was thinner right now.” Instead, her thoughts were, “I’m so thankful I’m alive.”

Hayley is a role model for my little girl, and I’m so proud of her and the young woman she has grown into.

Hayley gives a thumbs up to staying cancer free!!

Hayley gives a thumbs up to staying cancer free!!

Hayley is FULL OF AWESOME at beating this cancer thing! BOOM!

Hayley is FULL OF AWESOME at beating this cancer thing! BOOM!