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The Young and The Feckless: Model Behavior

Spurred by Raina Kelly's recent Newsweek piece about turning 40 and adopting Madonna as her role model, I've been pondering the idea of life stage role models, particularly as it relates to those of us at the quarter-life. Just who is out there for Gen Y women to look up to or to emulate?

Photo by NoIdentity

I have to say that I drew the proverbial blank when considering the question. There are no lack of more senior role models, but who among our twentysomething/thirtysomething peers (still living if you please!) fits the bill? I posed this question to fellow Millennials, both online and offline. Names like Amanda Palmer and Lady Gaga came up (which makes this video all the more apropos), but there were no clear frontrunners and much head scratching.

I think one difficulty in identifying a Gen Y role model is tied to the fact we can't pin down what the aspirational aspects of her persona should be. What are the qualities, accomplishments and character traits we want in a pedestal-dweller? Should she be successful in the corporate world? In sports? Arts? Politics? Should she be married? A mother? A home owner? An activist? What about paving and paying her own way and not exploiting her sexuality to do so? Exercising creativity, influence and career savvy? Defying gender roles and refusing to conform to typical beauty standards? Vocally identifying as a feminist? Where does name recognition fit in?

All of these questions tie into the broader challenge of articulating our own self-identity (for both Gen Y women and men) and our efforts to define success in a way that reflects our values and asserts our autonomy, but without having a framework other than the tried and true American Dream with which to work. Do we simply personalize the Dream for our generation (out with conspicuous consumption, in with mindful conservation and minimalist living) or do we reject it outright? And if we do, what are the alternatives? As individuals, we can choose not to go down the ladder-climbing, home-owning, 2.5 children-raising path, but what about at the collective level? We have yet to define an alternate conception that isn't predicated on individual rebellion against the traditional. And if we can't determine what constitutes success for our twentysomething selves, how can we reasonably identify those who embody this TBD ideal as our potential guideposts?

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22 comments have been made. Post a comment.

In my view, feminism is

In my view, feminism is about breaking down rigid roles and defining identity for ourselves. It's about authenticity. But having just ONE ideal or one person who embodies perfection, in my opinion, puts us right back at setting up false dichotomies and rigid and pointless boundaries. It denies authenticity. By all means, find people to admire for various qualities they possess. Strive to follow examples you admire to become a better, more well-rounded version of you. But the people you emulate should have values you determine for yourself are worthwhile. They should be values true to who you are.

F*ck yes, figuring out who you are is difficult. But it requires looking less outward and more in.

Re: In my view...

I'd agree with you, Jade, that figuring out who you are is both a difficult task, and one that can only be done by looking inwards.

I think however, that J-Mau has a point outside of this. Self identity has ALWAYS been a process of looking inwards. Anything that comes from an external source that isn't internalised, cannot authentically be attributed to personal identity. BUT for past generations, the process of discovering the self was for some, aided by the presence of strong figures in their generational group, that could be seen as role models - people who inspired others to pursue themselves in authentic ways.

My father asked me a few years ago who my role models were when I was growing up. I couldn't answer, and this stumped him. When I asked him the same question, he answered immediately. When we asked my mother, she too, immediately listed two or three people who she looked up to in her childhood and youth, whose work and efforts helped to inspire her to pursue her authentic and unique interests.

I can certainly think of a number of women who I've looked up to and who I have gained energy and motivation from in more recent years - having worked in social justice in Toronto, there's an incredible set of women who have made a difference: June Callwood, Jane Jacobs, Ursula Franklin. But all of these women belong to a past generation - Callwood and Jacobs have both passed away, Franklin is over 90. In their 20's and 30's each of these women were kicking up huge clouds of dirt, and each single-handedly changing the world.

I think that the concept of uniqueness has been hijacked in current culture, and I think that this is a part of why we don't have the same kind of crazy-strong role models that there once was. I think it's obvious that women doing amazing things are still present and still deserve recognition. But the media is not interested. Instead of highlighting the people who could be strong role models, you've got to search for them. What you get instead, are role models that take a cookie-cutter model of authenticity and creativity, usurp the power of the self, and sell a message anti-uniqueness under the guise of women-power. It's not about strong women. The message instead, is about fitting in. So instead of having people to aspire toward, be inspired by, we end up having to fight against cultural messaging - we don't have role models, and we've got to spend a whole lot of energy making sure that we don't get sucked in to false role models.

Sure, people can absolutely become unique and authentic without role models - I've done a pretty good job, as most people do. But I wonder if it would have been a bit easier if I had turned on the news one day at age 14 or 15 and got to watch a story about a social justice activist (my own personal area of interest) whose book I could then buy, and who I could learn from, rather than the Spice Girls jumping up and down, telling me that Girl Power is simply a matter of learning how to be comfortable in spandex.

Re: In my view...

Right, but my broader point was there doesn't just need to be ONE role model who embodies all ideals, as the article seemed to imply. And I'm not really persuaded by the argument that the problem is the media's message to fit in. Role models become role models precisely because they buck the tides; because they dare to do what others are afraid of doing or haven't even thought possible.

One of the reasons I think it is more difficult to point to one or two people these days is not because there is a lack of talent or a lack of interest, but because media and culture are so large and so diverse. Generations past, people had a choice of just a few stations to watch on TV, for example, so it was more likely that they would be watching the same things. But media, and especially the internet, offer so many choices, that you can easily individualize what you are exposed to and create your own experience. It's more likely that you'll get what you want and minimize exposure to what you don't want, but it leads to fragmentation, polarization, and disassociation. Add to that an increasingly diverse society, people just aren't going to be moved en masse by the same ideals anymore.

I think the discussion on this post provides some bit of anecdotal evidence of that point as well. Others have offered their own suggestions of who they turn to for inspiration and guidance.

However, having such fragmentation does raise a question that the article did touch upon, and that is: what does this mean for the collective? What are the consequences for collective goals and unity? I'm not sure anyone really knows the answer to that at this point. I do think there are signs, though, that our society is going through a massive and fundamental change. Post-financial crisis, people are taking a step back and rethinking what their goals are, what they want their legacy to be. And I think there's a lot going on where people are eschewing old boundaries and "ways things have to be done" and trying more innovative strategies. With the help of the internet, I think communal ties are being redrawn: shaped less by locale and more by interest. In a way, things are becoming a little more small-d democratic. I personally find it inspiring to watch and I think the end result could be really empowering for a lot of people. But it's only after the changes begin to settle that I think we'll really be able to see what the implications will be, although others could most definitely be more prescient than me.

Re:Re: In my view...

I'm actually not arguing that there *needs* to be one role model, but rather that our lack of consensus around/collective understanding of success and the means of defining ourselves individually makes the search for a traditional incarnation of the term very, very difficult, even *if* we were to attempt to single out an individual or a handful of them.

Re: Re: Re: In my view...

I understand your argument, but it does sound as though you're suggesting it's problematic that there is a lack of societal consensus of what success looks like for our generation and that there is a lack of a framework to follow. I'm just personally not all that bothered by it. I think it's fine if the path to self-discovery is a bit on the individualistic, personalized side. I don't think it's inherently problematic. (And I think it probably has always been that way - probably at least more than memory serves.) But that does get back to the point that we both raised: what are the implications for the collective from here? I think that is the more interesting question. I think it goes in hand with the fact that how we define society and how we engage in it might be changing. It is important to remain aware as those changes progress so that we can respond with sensitivity.

Unexpected Model Behavior

Strangely enough i'd never really considered the questions you asked prior to Lady Gaga bursting onto the scene even though i do like Madonna very much and respect her head for business. i'd been in a couple of bands myself but never thought i would conceivably find myself being a fan much less put someone on a pedestal (other than a case where i was in love). Fortunately, since i'm a really old fart i'm not worried about finding a younger role model. Trying to find some kind of intellectual basis for why i would pick Lady Gaga as a role model is a little difficult for me (other than the public panty wearing bravery i adore, or that she wants fame and knows how to get it, or that she's creative and entertaining) but Amanda Palmer did answer that rather nicely in her YouTube video. i think YouTube is indeed getting more popular for us bloggers. Lady Gaga does speak out nicely on some gender issues from my perspective, but the, so does Margaret Cho. i wonder how i would feel about the feminist search for a role model if i were 40 years younger and female. For now i still adore both Lady Gaga and Madonna.

Thinking out loud...

Well, to be honest, I don't really think it's so necessary that we define ourselves in terms of our generation. I feel inspired by people of all ages. granted, i do feel the camradarie of shared life experience in terms of pop culture milestones and such. But that's not going to stop me from picking up the work and drawing from the life experience of older or younger. Its true, as an artist I want to feel like I am collectively working with my peer group to make some kind of meaningful contribution. I have conversations with my friends about what our genre of art can be classified as, what our generations school of art makers will come to be known as (my take is sacred dada), and i feel a part. But I also see the need for us inter generationally come together. So I really don't know. On the tip of generation y innovators, i would say Wynne of Tracy+Plastics, Kathleen Hanna, JD, I mean, that's just for starters and the most visible of our peer group. I really don't find myself at loss for thinking of truly awesome artist and women of our age. Just thinking out loud here. I liked your video blog.


Josie Long

"What about paving and paying her own way and not exploiting her sexuality to do so? Exercising creativity, influence and career savvy? Defying gender roles and refusing to conform to typical beauty standards? Vocally identifying as a feminist?"

I am constantly inspired by the comedienne Josie Long, who has achieved so much without conforming to any gender stereotype or 'beauty standard', is vocal (in a non-patronising or boring way) about her feminism and at the same time highlights and makes comedy from the ridiculous nature of gender roles (amongst many other things). Working as she does in such a testosterone-fuelled environment (comedy) she shows that you can still be true to your ideals, non-competitive, non-offensive and still very funny.

If I had to pin down one role model for young women then she would be it.

YES! Josie is amazing. She

Josie is amazing. She deserves more recognition, both for her comedy and for her nonconformity.

Aren't role models supposed

Aren't role models supposed to be older than you, though? I'm not going to model myself on someone from my own peer group -- to regress to middle school for a moment, that would be "posing" or "jocking" off somebody. I can be inspired by them, want to work with them, in response to them -- but I'm not going to idolize them.

My "role models" are mostly dead people, and even with them I rarely admire someone's entire life. I might think aspects of their lives are worth emulating, but I don't necessarily tie that to my judgment of them. Creative people, I try to judge them by the work that they put out to be judged by... sometimes that involved the way that they lived, sometimes not. "Role model" definitely implies, to me, a sort of hierarchy and I don't buy into that ... I can respect and appreciate when someone has more knowledge or skill than me, but I'm not going to bow down to it or anything.

Also, as someone who grew up pretty damn poor, I'm finding these posts somewhat othering. I know that none of them apply to pretty much anyone in my family of my generation, including me. I'm not responding to the middle class life of my parents and I don't have any flexibility to rely on their little bit of the American Dream, as they're both barely making rent (actually, my mom is currently NOT making rent). None of my family are worried about how soul sucking their desk job is going to be and how much student loan debt they have, because they, like most people of their generation I would assume, didn't go to college. What about Gen Y kids who aren't affluent, college-educated, white people (which, I would again assume, would be most Gen Yers)?

Re: Aren't role models supposed

I agree re: the middle-class assumption of the American Dream, but I would argue that as an aspirational model, its basis in upward mobility has long been held up to all classes as something both attainable and transformative. I don't believe it actually *is* attainable or transformative for most of Gen Y, both because it doesn't reflect our values and/or we simply don't have the financial resources (or the access that would allow us to accumulate them) to achieve its benchmarks.

Note: Madonna is 51, so she

Note: Madonna is 51, so she is older than Raina Kelley. So perhaps unintentionally she did choose a role model older than herself? Not expressing an opinion on whether role models should be older, the same age, younger, or what have you...Just that the role model we're discussing here IS older than person looking up to her.

This is my first ever post -

This is my first ever post - so exciting! :)

As a 19 year old feminist, I think that it's not too difficult to find role models in the pop(ish) world who are young and still have a lot to say. I was surprised that no one has mentioned Ani Difranco - when I started listening to her in high school her music made me feel way better about love, lust, and bouts of insecurity. Also the fact that she's older, has a baby, and still totally rad is heartening. I think Tegan and Sara are also role models, although probably for a younger crowd than the mid-twenty-somethings, because of their musical honesty and very open queerness. If we look in non-mainstream avenues, there are plenty of women who are super-popular but don't necessarily get "radio-time" - Andrea Gibson, anyone? These women, like I said, are not totally mainstream, but very popular in many communites.

And to respond to J, as I am an "affluent, college-educated, white" person, maybe you feel like these might not apply to you. But I'm certain that if you're looking for a certain kind of role model who emulates a certain part of your life, there are plenty of strong, pseudo - famous women out there who can do that.

Actually, in terms of the

Actually, in terms of the alienation, I was referring to this column in a more broad sense. This particular topic, of all that have been the subject of the column before, has probably had the most possibility for inclusiveness.

I myself am fairly affluent, college-educated, and white, though -- aside from the whiteness -- not born into it. Aside from my soon-to-graduate sister, I am the only college educated person in my immediate, or even extended, family. On the whole I come from poor drop-outs, and having grown-up in such an environment, I can say that almost none of the people around me were aspiring to the American Dream -- they mostly just aspire not to be homeless or hungry, and occasionally have some fun while they're alive/ before their job destroys their body.

It really feels like every time I read posts from this particular blog I start zoning out, "careers, college, are we spoiled?, careers, exploited people just out of college, careers...etc." And I went to college and I have a career, and I may even be pretty spoiled... but I do know the rest of society that's not me is a part of our generation, and I'm just wondering where they are in all this. Every time I read about the college debt everyone supposedly has, for example, my brain glazes over --that is not a problem most people are privileged to have. So far the column has paid some lip service to exploring class, but I've yet to see much of it. And there's not even been a mention that I've seen of specifically looking at the experiences of minority or LGBTQ Gen Yers, which might be particularly interesting. I think most of the topics so far have been valid topics, but really quite one-sided, and in a disproportionate way.

"And to respond to J, as I am an "affluent, college-educated, white" person, maybe you feel like these might not apply to you." Well, as to role models, I actually said that I'm not looking for role models -- though I may admire and emulate certain aspects of an awesome person's life or work -- and that I'm certainly not looking to idolize anyone from my own peer group, as that would be weird. But to respond to this rather testy statement, just because you are those things doesn't mean that people who aren't *won't* like what you like, but it also doesn't mean that they will, or that they don't have the right to be irritated at their cultural reality being continually excluded from public discourse. I think the idea that there has ever been some sort of consensus on what a role model is and should be *is* an American Dream, one that never had any basis in fact save for it being a self-perpetuating part of a dominant narrative that was drowning out the voices of most of this country.

Re: Actually, in terms of the

A discussion re: class/privilege and the Gen Y experience needs to happen. I've mentioned that in previous columns and in other outlets (the assumption of privilege is one of the key reasons I take umbrage at the Millennial archetype that gets bandied around). But I return to the questions I initially raised around this issue - Where are the insider voices? Where are the people who are living the non middle-class Gen Y experience? And how do we ensure that there are outlets/fora for their voices should they wish to participate in the dialogue?

I don't have the lived experience to speak authoritatively on this issue in anything other than anthropological/observatory terms (and I can certainly devote column inches to that, but I doubt that more generic breast-beating is what anyone is calling for) and I don't kid myself that as a young white woman from a middle-class background that I wouldn't be absolutely pilloried (perhaps even deservedly) for presuming to speak to the perspective of those in whose shoes I most certainly haven't walked a mile.

"I don't have the lived

"I don't have the lived experience to speak authoritatively on this issue in anything other than anthropological/observatory terms (and I can certainly devote column inches to that, but I doubt that more generic breast-beating is what anyone is calling for)"

You cite sociological data in other posts, why not seek out data on this subject? I recall thinking, about your morality of money post, I think it was, "how do these statistics about this generation being worse off than their parents break down with regards to race and class?" Is this information not out there? I did say you've brought it up, I absolutely agree that you have, but I feel like just saying, "Yeah, we need to talk about it," and then devoting more column inches to the white, middle class Gen Y experience, is still kind of ignoring it. And lived experience is still anecdotal at best. Even middle class white people have different experiences of the world but while they may disagree with various assertions about their generational experience, at least they aren't made to feel like they aren't even *in* a generation.

"and I don't kid myself that as a young white woman from a middle-class background that I wouldn't be absolutely pilloried (perhaps even deservedly) for presuming to speak to the perspective of those in whose shoes I most certainly haven't walked a mile."

There is a difference between speaking to their experiences and speaking about those experiences, as in, you could make mention of them, in a specific way. No one is asking for deep insight or amazing mind-blowing proclamations -- you could just seek out information on them and report what you find. Surely there is academic study/reporting going on about generational trends across the socio-economic spectrum!

I'm not trying to attack you, and I'm not really ticked off or anything... I actually think you're a good writer, I've read some of your other blogging and find you to be intelligent, well-reasoned, and interesting. You seem to be actually responding to me in good faith and listening to what I'm saying, which is good enough for me, ad thanks for that. I just think that as the writer of a blog representing Bitch Magazine in some way (as in, not a purely personal blog and for a magazine that, I think, places importance on inclusion) and purporting to discuss generational issues, you have some responsibility to seek out that information and those voices yourself and put them here. Just asking, "Where are they?," in your position, is not enough.

Re: "I don't have the lived

You've hit on a good point and one that I should have acknowledged in my previous response - in many cases, the data really isn't out there. A lot of the analysis of Gen Y/Millennial issues comes from corporate America and is driven by marketers (and I've raised this point before on True/Slant, I believe) and anyone who doesn't fit their target market (which obviously doesn't include those without the means to purchase their products) tends to get the short end of the analytical stick. The same goes for the other large segment of generational analysis, which focuses on workplace culture and Gen Y as employees. This analysis takes into account only those members of Gen Y who are working in corporate America in upwardly mobile positions. It's not a leap to infer that this refers largely to middle-class, college-educated (and majority white) men and women.

The Pew Research Center's series on Millennials does include some studies disaggregated by race: but, by and large, there is a definite paucity of data relating to non-white, non middle class young adults within the generational context. This is a crying shame and something that needs to be addressed (ideally by an organization with the means to conduct the depth of research it deserves, though I'd obviously welcome the opportunity to play a role).

In the meantime, I will, however, personally commit to putting together a future post (an annotated bibliography of sorts) that does highlight the existing resources and references related to the non-white, non middle-class, non-heteronormative Gen Y experience.

Re: Actually, in terms of the

I'm sorry if I came off the wrong way - I was trying to be honest about where I come from to put my view into a sociological perspective. I was mentioning some role models that I have, but because you had before mentioned that you felt like a lot of the blogs didn't apply to your situation, I didn't want to be like, "Everyone is just like me and must have my role models" because, as you said, that does tend to be the dominant discourse. I was not trying to exclude anyone, but as I do have privilege that is so often ignored, I wanted to acknowledge that different people have different life experiences and therefore *might* have different role models whom they feel are more relevant to them.

amanda palmer

I'm 18, just out of school and have no idea what to do with my life.

My ultimate role model is Amanda Palmer. She is a strong, creative, honest, passionate woman who refuses to conform to the beauty standard, is positive about sexuality, and has love and beauty in her heart.

Her and Joan of Arc. They are my favourites.

Amanda Palmer??

I do think that Amanda was

I do think that Amanda was insensitive with this particular project, but I don't think that this should define her worthiness to be a role model. I full know that this does NOT excuse her from the offence she's caused, but I really don't think that she meant (or realised) any harm.

I really do think her honesty (about her life, problems, sexuality, feminism, abortion), passion, and love of beauty and art makes her a person worthy to inspire young (and older) people.

Inspiring Post made me think a lot, and I ended up doing my own little blog post about my role models. Although I think that the kind of women we look up to may depend on what generation we belong to, I don't think that it's so large a factor. Also, I don't believe that a role model is older than you by default: as I wrote on my own post, for a long time my little sister was a role model to me simply because there were great things about her that I felt worthy of emulation.

I think that there are two types of role models: people that we look up to because there's something about them that we want to emulate physically and mentally (for better or worse), and people that we look up to because we simply admire them and don't necessarily want to be them. For the former, my role models are my mother and her sisters. For the latter, Grace Jones, M.I.A., Peaches, Bjork, and Mary Magdalene (no I'm not joking).