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The Problem With Heroes

What 2017 should teach us about viewing celebrities as heroes.

Illustration by Mark Airs/Ikon Images/Getty

Does everyone need a hero? Someone to look up to and imitate? Received wisdom says we do. We often talk about the power of role models, especially for those who have historically faced discrimination, such as women and ethnic minorities. There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that female students can grow in confidence and perform better if they have contact with female professionals in STEM subjects, for example. But when you ask people who their hero is today, they’re far more likely to mention their favorite musician, actor, business leader or someone else in the public eye.

If 2017 taught us one thing, it’s that all that glitters is not gold. Some of the most respected people in public life fell from grace. In Hollywood, the allegations against Harvey Weinstein set off a series of revelations about powerful men accused of sexual harassment or assault. In fashion, photographer Mario Testino was alleged to have groped several young men. In comedy, Louis C.K. admitted he had masturbated in front of several women. In music, Gene Simmons of KISS was accused of making “sexually offensive contact” with a TV and radio broadcaster. And in the media, former colleagues of NBC broadcaster Matt Later claimed he had, among other things, regularly made lewd comments and on one occasion, exposed himself. The list goes on. In almost every industry, high-profile figures found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

“Talented” does not necessarily mean “good”—but we like to think it does.

Our culture is enamored with celebrity. Columns, talk shows and trending articles remind us every day of our fascination with the famous. Kids want celebrity as an end in itself. Celebrities have become almost superhuman in the eyes of the public. They represent an elite class. They are idolized and idealized. And that’s where the problem starts: Heroes often let you down. “Talented” does not necessarily mean “good”—but we like to think it does. We want to like our favorite actors or musicians for who they are as well as what they do. And we will leap to their defenses again and again until we learn they have done something truly indefensible.

There is nothing wrong with fame. In fact, it’s natural for people to want approval and attention for their achievements. No man is an island. And in the reputation management game, part of the job is to get talented and hardworking individuals into the spotlight. There are those among us who want to raise their profile as good people because it serves as a form of protection against negative press or unfounded, aggressive criticism. There are those who have worked hard and tried to give back to society, hoping (understandably) that they might be appreciated. There are people who have a message they think has great social importance and want to promote themselves so they can share it with others. And there are people who simply want to improve their job prospects.

But there are people who have not only good qualities but also very bad qualities—and celebrity often blinds us to this fact. The events of the last year will have teenagers ripping down posters and aspiring actors, musicians, journalists and comedians learning that the people they most hope to be like may have done terrible things. But what we need to do is understand, as a society, that if we make heroes out of every person we see on the front of a newspaper or a magazine, we’re likely to be disappointed.

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