Britney vs. Hillary: The Role Model Myth

In the wake of Britney Spears's latest legal troubles, in which the pop star lost custody of her two kids after a standoff at her home, perhaps the nation's courts should brace themselves for the inevitable tidal wave of custody battles that will surely follow. After all, Spears has been long touted as a role model for millions of girls and young women, and they will presumably be following in her footsteps. Or will they? Here's a quick look at Britney's track record as a role model: In April 2005, Spears announced she was pregnant. She gave birth to her first child that September and her second a year later. Surely millions of teen girls decided to be like their role model and become pregnant? No, the teen birth rate continued to drop. In January 2007, in photos seen around the world, Spears famously shaved her head bald; would this be yet another behavior and fashion trend example for the pop singer to set? The non-stampede of teen girls rushing to shave their heads was deafening. Impressionable youth?   Worrying about celebrities' influence is easy, as it requires a little speculation and no facts. According to a Nov. 27, 2006, ABC piece about bad celeb behavior, “The rash of celebrities flashing their nether regions worries Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute of etiquette and manners. 'My concern is the impressionability of young people,' he said. 'I think that some young people are going to say, 'Wow, if Britney Spears and Paris Hilton can do that, I wonder if I can do that.'" Don't worry, you didn't miss the news stories about the millions of impressionable young women who suddenly began flashing their nether regions: It didn't happen. In October 2007, syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote a column fretting over the influence he imagined that Pam Anderson, Paris Hilton, and other "role models" have over young women. According to Goldberg, we may soon see legions of girls paying off poker debts with sex, as Pam Anderson did before she (temporarily) wed playboy Rick Salomon. Post, Goldberg, and countless other media pundits clearly have a low opinion of young women's intelligence. The assumption that teens are mindless consumer culture zombies who slavishly mimic celebrities' behavior is insulting to millions of intelligent, independent women. Those who promote this claim, from media pundits to feminists, have bought into one media myth while trying to debunk another. The real role models It's easy to assume that anyone in the public eye is automatically a role model, but buying a celebrity's CDs (or following tabloid news about them) is not the same thing as admiring or idolizing him or her. There is little or no evidence that Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or their ilk are actually seen as role models by young women. Sure, pop stars, models, and entertainers help set fashion trends, but they have very little influence as role models over young people's behavior. At the same time that the news media was documenting Spears's troubles, a Dec. 14 Gallup poll released a list of the women that Americans most admire. The list was not populated with thin celeb train wrecks such as Britney, Lindsay, and Paris. Instead, the most admired woman was Hillary Clinton, followed by Oprah Winfrey, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a distant third. The women who Americans most admire are all intelligent, powerful women, not pop stars. Take that, Britney.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is