Who deserves to be considered a role model?

Far too often, the idea of why some celebrity is a role model for young people is presented in a random media outlet. It might be a sports player, a singer, a film actor, a business person – it doesn’t even matter these days.

What needs to be addressed is – who deserves to be considered a role model?

Sometimes (and I would suggest often), these individuals do not seek such adulation. They are simply doing their job, and lots of people like them for doing their job. Let’s be honest; very few of us can honestly say that we have received a round of applause for doing our jobs.

Merriam Webster defines a role model as:

a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others

That seems intuitive, right? As long as they display good behavior, there is nothing to worry about – they must be a good role model.

However, it is not that simple. People change, and more recently, the focus on the tiniest intricacies of the behavior of celebrities and people of note means that role models have changed.

Part of that change has been the shift in role models from parents to celebrities. This is a shift that was reported in 1989. As written by Fatherly.com:

She discovered that in the mid-1950s about 55 to 75 percent of kids pointed to their parents, their family members, or other authority figures in their personal lives as inspiration. Then, culturally speaking, there was an earthquake. By 1988, on the other side of Woodstock, Watergate, and the first generation of non-working teenagers, the same percentages of kids were pointing to professional athletes, movie stars, and celebrities — not parents or friends — as the people they most admire.

Celebrity Role Models: New Phenomenon, Bad Idea; by Lizzy Francis, December 3 2017.

How has the change come about?

Basically, whole industries have come about to support the stories around celebrities and famous people. The University of Technology Sydney said in 2015:

It has become a truism that professional athletes, whether they like it or not, “are” role models for others. Talented sportspeople hardly win every time, and sometimes they do not exemplify fair play. But many athletes convey attributes about performance, character and resilience that draw admiration from fans.

Athletes of influence – the reality of sports role models; University of Technology Sydney, 21 December 2015

The increasing professionalism of these activities has seen sportspeople, celebrities, and presenters become more media savvy, presenting a more positive image. As a result, they almost always say the right thing at press conferences and when seen as their best behavior. They seek to develop a playful persona that can deal with most public appearances and have a sense of humor where possible. Assistants handle their social media and interviews, ensuring that as little as possible goes awry.

Some choose to push back. Charles Barkley is an example of someone who did not want to be considered a role model since he felt others were better than him. He acknowledged that he was not a particularly virtuous person.

Do they get a choice anymore?

I think that celebrities, in whatever form, do not get a choice anymore.

If we think about what TMZ and its effective modus operandi was, it shows that celebrities had to be on their best behavior all the time. There is no opportunity for them to hide. There are plenty of stories where people have had to reconcile with the conduct of their celebrity crushes.

At the same time, these people chose to be in the public eye. We all choose to be on social media, blog, write, and do so many of these things to put ourselves out there. In doing so, we run the risk of becoming role models and being placed in society’s crosshairs.

Does that mean that people should be able to choose whether or not they should be role models? Well, I believe they do that by their choices in life. If you are willing to stand up in the public eye, you must be willing to take on the additional responsibilities that come with that.

Is that lack of choice a bad thing?

I’m not sure that it is necessarily a bad thing. It ultimately comes down to how the individuals deal with it.

In Australia, women’s sports teams have some of the proudest fans in the country, according to research done in 2018. Equally, Bachar Houli was noted for engaging with the wider Islamic community while playing for Richmond and Essendon AFL clubs.

Such active roles are essential for sports clubs, which expect “proper” behavior on and off the field from their players. That expectation comes from fans, members, sponsors, and the wider community.

As a result, any time a sportsperson misbehaves, fans face a dilemma, and sponsors are more often seen as the moral arbiter. Whenever a TV presenter says something that impacts people, advertisers start leaving. If an actor is found to have done something wrong, they can lose jobs and have to pay significant sums to compensate for that.


While there may be millions of role models out there now, instead of our parents and teachers, it also means that children, teenagers, and young adults are forced to face a new paradigm. They are discovering that more often, people are not infallible. People do make mistakes – sometimes, enormous ones. The question then arises – how do I reconcile that with my fandom?

For some, they will find a way. Others will look for a new person to idolize; some will become disenfranchised with the industry, moving on entirely. I can’t say what any one person will do. However, it is vital to give people their time and space. Be respectful of public figures and understand that they are people too.


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