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TV role models or real-life icons?

A recent CNN op-ed claimed that Law & Order: SVU's Olivia Benson is “the role model we need right now.”  The author called Benson “fierce and fragile” as she has spent nearly 20 seasons battling personal demons while trying the catch the real monsters of the world.

Furthermore, actress Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia, continues much of the character’s work and beliefs off-screen.  She’s the founder of an organization that helps survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.  So you can see why Olivia Benson is so powerful an icon for the author who is, herself, female.

But Olivia’s not real.  Real-life role models are trickier. 

There are the athletes.  Like Roberto Osuna who was charged with assault.  Or Michael Vick who supported a dog fighting ring.

Lance Armstrong came back from cancer to become a world champion, until he was later shown to be doping, cheating and bullying anyone who might expose him.  And Tiger Woods opened the all-white golf kingdom to black youth.  But he was living a double life as a dedicated husband and father while regularly cheating on his wife.

We love our actors.  There’s Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey who spoke so eloquently and yet abused his co-workers and may have molested a teenager.  Or America’s favourite TV-dad, Bill Cosby, who is now serving three to ten years for sexual assault as a violent offender.

Comedians are trusted to pull back the mask and reveal the truth while poking fun at us.  That’s why Louis C.K. was so popular.  His pro-women demeanour always seemed to support women’s rights; that is, until he admitted to his ongoing sexual misconduct off-stage.

And there’s nothing more inspiring than a celebrity who uses his or her status to improve the world.  Matt Damon heads an organization that works toward clean drinking water in underdeveloped countries.  But when the #MeToo movement went after his friend Harvey Weinstein, Matt couldn’t stop opening his ill-informed mouth and sticking his foot in it.

It was certainly a lot easier back when my role models were Mr. Rogers, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Who.  Even today, I can rely on the late friendly neighbour, cartoon Amazonian, and alien time traveller.

It’s dangerous to put a real human being in the position of “role model.”  It guarantees eventual disappointment.  Especially since it requires that they be perfect from the get-go.  There’s no room for growth and learning.

But shouldn’t a role model learn too?

That’s why TV and movie characters are perfect for the job.  We forgive them so much.  We allow for them to grow and become better people.  And there’s no ugly reality hiding around the corner.

We need to remember that.  Reality is not – and never has been – a part of it.  A role model should simply be an ideal that inspires us to always try harder.  Not a real person we can – or should – become.

Because then, once you do and you’re on top, you’ve got nowhere to go but down.