Should great power equal great responsibility?

Over the past week it has been reported by several news outlets that musicians Rihanna and Chris Brown are apparently ‘weeks away’ from confirming that they have reconciled romantically. Ordinarily such news could quite easily be dismissed as trivial gossip but to anyone readily aware of the couple’s turbulent history this news in fact presents a complex moral dilemma.

As many will be aware in 2009 Brown was sentenced to five years’ probation and six months community labour for a brutal assault carried out on then-girlfriend Rihanna. The attack left Rihanna with visible facial injuries and Brown with what many at the time considered an unsalvageable reputation. Their relationship abruptly ended with Rihanna – in one of the few interviews she gave following the attack – citing one of the main reasons behind her decision to leave Brown as an inability to continue the relationship in the knowledge that young fans of hers suffering in violent relationships might see her decision to go back to her abusive lover as a sign that they should also be willing to do the same. She was applauded by many for this choice. However, in the three years that have passed since his sentencing not only has Brown’s career made a near-complete recovery with his amassing two US number one albums and a Grammy award (a controversial topic in itself) but it would also appear now that he could be on the brink of fully rekindling his romance with the woman he once savagely beat. These rumours alone have ignited a ferocious response with many branding Rihanna a terrible role model to the young people who look up to her. This story obviously sheds further light on the ever-divisive issue of whether or not it can ever be appropriate to forgive and forget in scenarios of domestic violence but what particularly interests me is that it raises the question of just how much do we/should we rely on celebrities to communicate sound moral messages to the youth of today?

Whilst I take the view that the responsibility for shaping the moral values of a child should always lie ultimately with the parental figure(s) in their life it would be naïve of me to ignore the fact that influence from the media on a child’s overall world view is completely unavoidable. Every day children are bombarded, certainly not unwillingly, with images and messages that constantly mold their attitudes regarding how they should perceive specific people (themselves included) and specific issues. Many would argue that individuals in the music industry have one of, if not the most, powerful platforms for widespread influence in the world. Taking Rihanna herself as an example: here we have a woman who is currently followed by over 26 million people on Twitter, liked by over 60 million on Facebook and was this year named as one of the most influential people in the world by Times Magazine. Social networking plays an increasingly prominent role in the lives of young people with each passing day and her position within that world allows her to communicate literally any fleeting thought that pops into her head to what would in 2006 have equated to more than the entire population of the United Kingdom. Has this hugely influential position at all affected the content of the material she posts? Not at all. This year alone Rihanna has been criticised on several occasions for sharing photographs and messages that contain everything from profane language to drug use to what many would consider soft-core pornography i.e. hardly the kind of thing any parent would want their children exposed to. Though I agree that such content is completely inappropriate for children and that it has become perhaps far too easy for them to access it I would also argue that realistically celebrities such as Rihanna should not be expected to act as beacons of morality to our children purely because they are celebrities.

Celebrities are to my mind made up simplistically of two types of people: People who pursue a craft in which a by-product of success is public recognition and people who crave fame and will do more or less anything to get it. The point I’m making here is that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in either group who walked up to the career advisor and said ‘when I grow up I want to be a role model’.  There appears to be an unspoken clause in the hypothetical contract of celebrity that anyone in the public eye should be willing to conduct themselves in a manner befitting with the moral standards of society. I stress that this unofficial rule is exactly that – unofficial. Once again using Rihanna as an example; it seems illogical that people would expect a young, childless woman whose profession thrives on controversy and uninhibited self expression to tone it down for fear of upsetting people she doesn’t know. The same goes for her various social networking exploits. Twitter and Facebook are designed for sharing details of your personal life so if her personal life happens to involve things that society vilifies but she deems appropriate to display then why should she hold back? After all is it her fault that millions of people care at all about what she says or does? Returning to the original news story, perhaps people are right to criticise the decision to reunite with an abusive ex but at the end of the day our decisions, and indeed our mistakes, are ultimately our own to make – so why should this courtesy not be extended to those under the spotlight?

Though the actions of celebrities that fall on the darker side of morally grey undoubtedly pose a threat to the moral integrity of today’s youth it’s arguable that so too, perhaps more so, does the naivety of parents who expect that people in the public eye are automatically going to behave in a saintly manner.

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