Kids are wise to the myth of stars as role models
Give Jennifer Saunders a break. She went through six months of intravenous chemotherapy, lost her hair, grew it back again and finally recovered from cancer. Now she's been spotted, and photographed, enjoying a cigarette as she does her shopping in the chi-chi Notting Hill area of West London. (And she really does look like she's loving it, the evil harridan. Blissfully content, like a cat who's got the extra-thick Jersey cream.)
The reaction was immediate, intense and absurdly disproportionate. How dare the woman. Smoking, putting her own health at risk again, after all she's been through. Setting a terrible example to fellow cancer survivors. Flaunting her own recklessness. She's not just letting herself down, she's letting us all down with her disgraceful, irresponsible, ungrateful behaviour.
If she'd been an alcoholic, and had a liver transplant, that liver should be damn well hoicked out again. One columnist even said that, in indulging in that one cigarette, Saunders "might as well run headlong into the firing squad".
Yes: the firing squad of public opinion, which has already had a mighty good blast at her, for the indictable crime of being a bad role model to the masses.
The one good thing is that Saunders hasn't apologised – yet. Unlike Manchester United footballer Chris Smalling, who recently attended a fancy dress party as a suicide bomber, complete with a silly tea-towel on his head, a circuit-board slung round his neck and a fake beard that looked like a very cheap merkin. He also had a bottle of Jagermeister and cans of Red Bull wired to his body, on the dubious grounds that his costume was a tribute to that popular student drink, the Jagerbomb.
Whatever. Who knows, who cares what a dopey footballer gets up to in his spare time? But sure enough, Smalling had to issue a humble apology, "fully accept[ing] in hindsight that it was an ill-thought out and insensitive decision". I'm sure that would-be suicide bombers, hurt at his pathetic portrayal of them, will take his apology in good part.
Shuffling up with another drippy public mea culpa is Liam Payne, the doe-eyed, quiffed one from One Direction. The boyband member apologised after he was photographed standing on the roof ledge of his apartment block, having climbed from his 35th floor balcony. The young twit took to Twitter, appropriately enough, to express his regret and beg everyone's pardon. "It was a stupid and irresponsible thing to do," said the grovelling Payne. "I am sorry, and do not endorse any fans trying to repeat this, as it is extremely dangerous".
It's widely accepted that people like Payne do have a particular obligation to keep out of trouble, and to set a good example, because their fan base is young and therefore impressionable.
I'm not convinced. Children aren't half so gullible or easily led as bossy, paternalistic society makes them out to be. I don't imagine we'll suddenly see a host of pubescent free-jumpers in One Direction T-shirts shimmying up the nearest tall building, then pausing half way to reconsider, because their idol said it was a daft thing to do.
Likewise, I haven't noticed an epidemic of teenage girls twerking and sticking their tongues out, simply because Miley Cyrus considers that gyrating against a gormless bloke in a terrible suit, as she notoriously did at the VMA awards, is the last word in radical subversion.
It's adults who witter on about role models, agonising over the nefarious influences their offspring are exposed to by these supposedly irresponsible public figures. Young people themselves have far more sophisticated powers of judgement and discrimination than we give them credit for. It's rarely a case of monkey see, monkey do.
I don't buy the idea that celebrities, whatever their perceived constituency, have some kind of duty of care to the general public, simply because they happen to be famous.
There is no onus on them to provide guidance on how we should live our lives, or to set some kind of elevated standards to which the rest of us can only aspire.
If Jennifer Saunders fancies a fag, let her have a fag in peace. If Chris Smalling (below) wants to play dress-up, let him freely experiment with fake beards. If Liam Payne wants to teeter on the edge of tall buildings, let him teeter: it's his own look out.
Anything else is just hypocritical moralising, masquerading as legitimate reproach and concern.