Role Models for Girls: Choice of Two, Take Your Pick

If you were looking for a role model for young girls, who would you pick?  An athlete posing nude in Playboy or a teenage movie star with the reputation for being likeable, professional and wholesome?

On June 10 two Washington, D.C. newspapers profiled two famous young women. Both articles used the term “role model” to describe the young ladies and their impact on fans.

The Washington Times ran an Associated Press feature on Amanda Beard, the Olympic gold medalist in swimming at the Athens games.  The story detailed her “business decision” to pose nude in the July issue of Playboy.

The Washington Post featured Emma Roberts, the 16-year-old star of the upcoming Nancy Drew movie (in theaters Friday, June 15) whose reputation in Hollywood is for being wholesome. The feature discussed Roberts' upbringing by a single mom who has instilled in her daughter the almost counter-cultural ideal that “there are consequences for your behavior.”

The contrast between the two “role models” is sharp.

In the feature on Beard and her decision to contribute to the porn industry's degradation of women by posing for Playboy, the Olympian is quoted as saying, “I'm kind of used to people not necessarily agreeing with everything I do, and that's totally fine. This doesn't change my personality or who I am.  It's just a business decision, a career decision.”  She is “unapologetic” and “after all has modeled in men's magazines before, notably a spread in FHM that left little to the imagination.”

Her manager is quoted as saying, “She's more of a role model today because she's willing to stand up and take the heat.” 

Beard said, “I'm healthy. I work out like crazy. I'm not one of those people that's partying into the wee hours.  This, I think, is a better role model than most.”

As an athlete, Beard is a consummate role model. The demands she puts on her body to train are admirable.  But that body becomes exploited on the pages of Playboy, no matter how you cut it.  And to apply the “role model” label to the decision is irresponsible. Surely all those mothers of young swimmers want their daughters featured on the pages of Playboy too?! 

Though, maybe they do.  In the story Beard says many moms asked her to autograph her spread in FHM.

Then there's Emma Roberts.  Arguably, comparing the two is a little like comparing apples and oranges.  Beard is a young adult at 25, out on her own, making her own decisions.  Roberts is 16, still living at home and under mom's authority.

But Roberts understands the power of her celebrity.  In The Washington Post's story she said, “You want to keep your private life as private as possible.  You don't have control over what people write or say about you…but you don't need to go parading yourself, I don't think.”

While Roberts was probably speaking more about the headline-grabbing bad girls of Hollywood – Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears – she clearly understands the words “role model.”

Elizabeth Allen, the director of the film Aquamarine, said about Roberts, “We're lacking role models for young girls, for audience members, and that's why I'm happy Emma is so successful… (because of her mom) she's not going to be raging out of control.”

In fact, as much as the Post feature sings the praises of the teen movie star, it is also a tribute to the power of a strong parent.  Roberts' mother says her daughter is regularly grounded for being “mouthy,” must handwrite thank you notes, and was not allowed to have a car for her 16th birthday.  She is always supervised, on the set and at home.

Again there is contrast with the profile on Beard.  In that article she commented about her grandmother's reaction to her Playboy spread, “My grandma was like, 'Oh she doesn't need to do that, but it's her choice.'”  She also said her divorced parents backed her decision too, though her father was in favor of her idea that she “take like black tape and kind of mark out certain things so he doesn't feel awkward looking at it.”

Ya' think?!  Perhaps dad has some stronger feelings than that.

Nancy Drew vs. the Playboy cover girl.  Parents of America, who would YOU choose to be a role model for your daughters?


Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.