We love our celebrities. We love it when they rise out of nowhere and become “overnight successes”. We build them up, put them on a pedestal, make them our heroes. The actors, the musicians, the sports stars, the politicians, even some guy who took his shirt off on a reality show. Yes, we love to build them up. And then we love to tear them down. Because when it comes to our celebrities, it’s all or nothing. Either they meet all of our expectations (pretty or ugly), or they don’t, and off with their heads if they dare to disappoint us.
This post isn’t really about Tiger Woods (it did make for a catchy title, though), but more about our expectations, judgments and most importantly, our ability to define ourselves by our own standards. Everyone these days is screaming for positive role models. There just aren’t enough of them to go around. Those damn celebrities are failing to provide us with a blueprint. We need our positive role models, because we need someone to show us how to be.
We ask our sports stars to teach our kids how to be upstanding, moral and productive citizens. We make them responsible for instilling not only the hope and dreams of a better future, no matter where you come from, but also for teaching us how to handle the reality of those dreams in a responsible and morally upright manner. I have a question about that, though: What makes them qualified to do that? These are just people, with no more practice at being human than anyone else. They’ve managed to achieve something, often something pretty awesome, but how exactly does that make them responsible for becoming perfect in every way?
We take a basketball player from the inner city and make him a hero because of his athletic talent. Good for him. We praise him and feel proud when our kids tell us they want to be just like him. Just like him. And that’s where the problem starts. Suddenly, everything that basketball player does, on and off the court, is subject to our own, individual moral compass. So maybe, if this kid from the hood who suddenly finds himself with millions of dollars and in an overwhelming situation decides to buy a Ferrari and party a little, that’s ok. We can understand that. But God forbid he’s caught with drugs or a prostitute, well then, throw him to the wolves. He’s disappointed us. What are our children supposed to think? I mean, obviously, they want to be just like him, so, if he takes drugs and screws around, then they’ll think that’s ok. After all, they have no ability to think for themselves, right?
But it’s not just the kids. Hundreds of thousands of women and men were devastated and furious when the news about Tiger Woods’ infidelities came out. Furious. As if his actions had any effect whatsoever on them or their opinions about marriage. Did his cheating cause his fans’ marriages to fall apart? Did it have any bearing on his ability to play golf – the actual reason he was famous in the first place? No, it didn’t. I mean, I could understand it if his fame was due to him being the best married man alive. And yet, his popularity as a golfer suffered because of his actions.
Why do we do this? Why do we identify with celebrities to the point of forcing them to fit into our own, personal little picture of perfection? Here’s my theory: Most of us are terribly insecure. We grew up being trained to think that other people’s opinions of us are more valid than our own. So, if mommy or the teacher smiled at us and was pleased with us, we could feel good about ourselves. If they frowned or shouted, we were obviously bad, wrong or even broken. There was something wrong with us, and we felt bad about ourselves. Other people set the tone for how we feel about ourselves. And that leaves us with a constant desire to fit some kind of mold, the perfect mold, the one that will get us the acceptance we so desperately crave.
Enter the celebrity. We choose a star to emulate. They are good looking, successful, bigger than life and they get lots and lots of approval. We begin to identify with them. If only we could be more like that star. First, we wish we had their abilities, then we wish we had their lives (or at least the version of their lives we see, which by the way, have nothing to do with reality), and finally, we want to be just like them in every way. Because, if we can only be just like them, we can be happy, like they must surely be.
And that’s why we get so angry when they inevitably fail us (no one is perfect, especially when they’re being judged by someone else’s idea of perfection.) Their image, the very idea of them was our ticket to the good life. If we could emulate them, we’d get there too. They didn’t just mess up. They took away our freaking chance at happiness, damn it! Oh, and our kids’ chance at success and perfection as well, of course. Because who will they learn from if not our actors and athletes? How could they do this to us?! Bastards!
Sounds kind of ridiculous when I put it that way, doesn’t it? I’m sorry if I’ve burst anyone’s bubble (although, if I know my readers well, those bubbles go released long ago), but I just think it’s hilarious when people get so bent out of shape about the various misdemeanors of the stars.
What is a celebrity, really? A celebrity is a person who generally (yes, I know, not always) has some kind of incredible talent and has parlayed that talent into success and fame. They’re good at something, say, acting or playing baseball. They’ve worked hard, just like any other successful person. But guess what? That does not make them a better person than you. It does not make them a better human being. It does not qualify them to become the template for perfection. And asking them to fulfill that role is just unfair. How would you like it if you achieved some success, say, you landed a new, fat contract at work, and suddenly, everyone around you expected you to be perfect (and again, according to their own idea of perfection)? Would your personal life stand up to the scrutiny? Would you welcome the responsibility of becoming a role model? You’d most likely think it was ridiculous. After all, how does your success at work suddenly qualify you to be some kind of guru? It doesn’t.
By the way, this works with negative expectations, too. If a star comes out as a “rebel” or “bad boy/girl”, we ask them to fulfill our hedonistic fantasies. They give us permission to be free of the rules (something we intrinsically crave) and just be “ourselves”. The assumption, of course, if that we’re all degenerate, criminal, druggy whores at our very core and it’s only the positive role models and the law that keep us in check (but that’s another blog post altogether…) So these “negative” role models are now stuck with the job of being consistently shocking, and they’d better not turn out to be boring!
I’m not saying you shouldn’t follow celebrity gossip, if you like it. But there’s a huge difference between indulging in a guilty pleasure, and identifying it as such, and using the actions of people you’ve never met as an excuse to feel bad. They do something we like, we approve of them and feel good. Our world view is intact and we can continue to dream of one day being like them. But if they do something we disapprove of, our dream is shattered and we feel horrible. And then we blame them for our horrible feelings. Talk about giving away our power…
I honestly don’t care if Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. I don’t know the man. He’s not my friend, he’s not a family member, his actions don’t affect my life in any way. He could get is rocks off punching midgets for all I care.* I have no emotional reaction to what he does or doesn’t do, because I have no expectations of him. Why should I? If I think an actor is talented, I can admire that about him. I can even find him incredibly good looking. But I still don’t have any idea who he is, only what he does. And so, if I find out he’s a degenerate, does that mean I suddenly think less of his talent? If I enjoyed his work before this knowledge, would I suddenly decide I no longer like it? Van Gogh was a nut job, but I still admire his paintings…
The only one who can disappoint you is you. The only way anyone else can affect you emotionally, is if you let them. Stop letting them. Stop trying to appease the masses (who will NEVER be appeased) by tailoring your actions to what you think others want to see. Just figure out who you really are, strip away the masks and be your own damned role model. And that goes double if you have kids. Because who do you want showing them how to live? Some kid who admittedly has a lot of athletic talent, but who hasn’t even figured out who he is yet, and whom you have absolutely no control over anyway, or a connected parent who’s realized that the only thing that’s truly important is that we listen to our own inner voice and always, always, ALWAYS reach towards joy.
*legal disclaimer: I am not insinuating in any way that Tiger Woods actually punches midgets. Or that I have any knowledge about his “rocks”. Also, I don’t condone or encourage midget punching. Unless it’s consensual, of course. Then, you know, you go for it Tiger.