MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Role Model

“Role Model” is an individual whose activities and experiences provides a “model” around which others can understand the meaning of a concept or form of life at the level of their own individual practice. Indeed, it is difficult to see how an abstract concept can be integrated and understood by someone, until they can see how it can be “lived.”

The concept of “role-model” originated in the education debate in the 1970s, with the idea of a teacher being a role model for her students. The first recorded use of the term was in June 1977 in the New York Times magazine. The idea was a development of “roles” used in group dynamics, and introduced into the Women’s Liberation Movement and other social movements via the Peace Movement, but originally developed by social psychologists working on conflict resolution in U.S. ghettos in the 1930s.

In the contemporary “celebrity culture,” the term has come to be used in reference to public figures, sportpeople, and so on, and functions as a means of heading-off struggles for the improvement of the conditions of the mass of the population: while the vast mass of poor women work for peanuts in sweat shops, a few women would break through the “glass ceiling” and join the boys around the corporate pig trough, and as a result they would be a “role model” for all those young girls who would probably end up gluing Nike shoes in an Free Trade Zone, but at least they would have a “role model.” Thus “role model” is an important pillar of Liberal Feminism.

Thus, according to this dubious theory, if Michael Jackson becomes immensely rich and famous, then this is a great benefit for all the black kids living in poverty in ghettoes, because they can “model themselves” on Michael Jackson; and a kind of vicarious fame and fortune “trickles-down” to them, and their poverty and alienation is bearable.

The term “role model,” has a similar meaning to “icon” in Charles Sanders Peirce’s Semiology.