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Holly’s Letter from America: Parents must take the lead against trashy celebrity culture


Here in America, I tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus. And Justin Beiber, Selina Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, and all the other other teenage – or not-so-teenage – celebrities. Their dysfunctional relationships, audacious behavior, drug abuse, sex lives, partying, etc. is paraded constantly before our eyes.

We live in a strange world where emotionally unhealthy people with very little self-control or sense of purpose are held up as icons to be worshipped. Their bad behavior is portrayed by a schizophrenic media as naughty and tragic, but also as exciting and glamorous. So, we keep admiring them, no matter how they act.

The longer I am a parent, the less I understand our fascination with celebrities. Being a parent, I think, opens your eyes to what is really important in life – things like unconditional love, selflessness and stability. Yet, the celebrity culture seems to turn everything on its head: what is essential for a happy life is not valued, while the less important things – such as wealth, fame and beauty – are touted as the only way to happiness.

Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in the Guardian that we need celebrities because we have a natural tendency to admire people who seem glamorous and successful. We should ‘anoint’ good celebrities, he argues so that we can channel our admiration appropriately (Angelina Jolie seems to be the principal object of his admiration). I disagree. In fact, I think it’s a dangerous idea, because celebrity culture is based upon myths about what it means to live a meaningful human life.

For instance, celebrities are portrayed as skinny – but with big breasts – unbelievably beautiful or handsome, wealthy and famous. The message we get is that, because of these things, they are therefore of more value than us. And they have more fun, better sex, and more meaningful relationships. Indeed, the wisdom from celebrity land is that beauty, wealth and fame are the things that give anyone value, and they must be pursued above everything else.

Now, these may be myths, but they are very powerful myths. Because celebrity culture is an integral part of our wider culture, these myths can affect us. Sadly, they can also have a great influence upon our children. So, how do we help our children understand the myths of the celebrity culture as myths?

I would suggest that how we answer this question has to do with what we perceive our role to be as parents. Is our role to bring a child into the world and then let that child uncritically absorb whatever ideas happen to be prevalent in society at the time? Or, is our role to provide leadership to the child regarding the ideas he encounters? Indeed, are parents leaders? As a society, do we perceive them as leaders? Hardly. And yet, here is some startling news from the American media: In February, Forbes magazine ran an article by Rob Asghar, in which the job of ‘stay at home parent’ was ranked as the #1 ‘toughest leadership role’, beating such positions as university president, congressman, and CEO.

Why does Asghar consider parenting to be such a challenging leadership role? Quoting American family therapist Joanne Weidman, Asghar argues that ‘the greatest leadership challenge for a parent today is to be countercultural …’ We must be ‘thoughtful, intentional and articulate’ about ‘determining what on the children’s achievement hamster wheel is good for [our] family’. In the same way, we must also draw ‘boundaries around what is not’ good for our family.

On this view, parents are leaders because they have a vision of what is ‘good’ for their family that is not dependent upon current cultural expectations and norms. And, it’s interesting that Weidman uses the word ‘countercultural’. This implies that there is much that is valued in our dominant culture that will not be a part of our vision of the good life.

We and our children are surrounded every day by images and messages that do not tell the truth about what is means to be a happy human being, or live a good human life. As parents, we have a duty to reason with our children, to help them see the deception behind these false messages. They may disagree with our reasoning, and think that we are the ones who are deceived, and not them.

And, sadly, there will probably be other parents who discourage you from having and implementing a vision of the good life for your family. They will protest that you are overprotective, and ‘forcing’ your values on your children. But of course, this isn’t supposed to be easy. There must be reasons why parenting is such a tough leadership challenge.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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