Julie Burchill Julie Burchill

The problem with ‘role models’

The last great original pop star: Amy Winehouse (Roger Kisby / Getty Images)

Watching the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh at the weekend — that Land Rover, that lack of eulogy — I felt an alien emotion steal over me. Shortly after the last blast of the bagpipes faded away, I realised what it was: I’d like to be like that. Amusingly, the only person this working-class radical feminist has ever felt this emotion towards was a reactionary prince. Somehow, the very incongruity made perfect sense; I can’t think of anything drearier than having a ‘role model’ who was in any way like me.

There are quite a few modern phrases which annoy the heck out of me. ‘Reaching out’ should only be used by a member of the Four Tops, while ‘Going forward’ should only be used of cars. (I just heard Shami Chakrabarti say it four times in one interview on the Today programme!) But one of the worst must be: ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ The phrase originated, understandably, during the black civil rights movement of the 1960s when one group of people were legally considered less human than others. With the state stopping one from achieving one’s potential in such a manner, the craving to see the possibility of advancement must have been immense. But we are not like this, and the expression is now mired deep in the dullard logic of identity politics.

And though the phrase was understandable, it was never true. Rosa Parks never saw another black person on an Alabama bus refuse to give up their seat to a white passenger. Barack Obama became US president without seeing a non-white resident of the White House. Malala Yousafzai had never seen a 12-year-old girl take on the Taleban. Helen Keller had never seen anything after the age of 19 months.

‘I love the All You Can Eat buffets.’

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