I have reached a strange age in life when many of my childhood heroes are dead or fallen.
Like most life transitions, it happened swiftly and without warning. Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher passed away in 2016. Grieving publicly on social media about dead celebrities gave me permission to openly mourn the deaths of two of my greatest role models — my mother and uncle.
Their deaths and the fall from grace of Bill Cosby, who was “America’s Dad” when I grew up in the 80s, caused another shift to occur – I grew up.
Growing up differs significantly from “adulting,” a term I loathe. An aspect of “growing up” is the ability to look at the past without it ruling your present and determining your future.
It can mean realizing some people are doing the best they can with the tools they have and it’s up to you whether you continue to allow them space in your head and your heart. Growing up can also mean the hard-won wisdom of knowing you’ve made it this far and you’re excited about what’s to come.
What Lizzo and J-Lo Taught Me
Recently, I have been thinking about growing up as it relates to role models and celebrities.
How do we relate to role models and celebrities when we are of the same age or older than role models today? And why do celebrities get younger as we get older?
For example, as much as I enjoy Lizzo’s music and unmitigated ambition to succeed in a business that was one-size-fits-all, her message of female empowerment is as old as Bessie Smith and geared to a younger demographic. Besides, I’ve been navigating romantic relationships for 30 years. If I don’t know how to walk my “fine ass out the door” by the age of 46, I have learned nothing in life.
“Thank God for Jennifer Lopez,” is a sentence I never thought I’d say. But I enjoy watching her work a stripper pole in Hustlers at the age of 50 with a body of a 25-year-old that only hard work, a strict diet, no alcohol, and a net worth of $300 million can buy.
Since I’m on the subject of Jennifer Lopez, I have been recently obsessed with photos of her with fiancé Alex Rodriguez. Lopez is a woman who loves love as all of her branding, music, and interviews attest. But what I love about the lovebirds as presented in paparazzi and studio photos is Rodriguez seems to be able to handle all that Lopez is. Rodriguez seems comfortable, even giddy, in the whirlwind and multimedia empire that is La Lopez.
I am old enough to know I’m being sold the brand of Lopez and Rodriguez. However, viewing their photos made me realize that I want a romantic partner who is content with and even celebrates all of me. I am rather “extra.” I’m demanding, ambitious, empathetic, caring, direct, brilliant, and goofy and that’s within the past 10 minutes.
I also know that I’m not the “Netflix and Chill” kind of person for longer than 48 hours. The world is calling and so I must go. I would like a partner who wants to go with me and see what we can explore together. I may have never arrived at the realization had it not been perusing photos of Lopez and Rodriguez late one Friday night. Maybe we can still have situational role models as we crest middle age.
What History Teaches Us About the Future
The subject of my relationship to the idea of role models and celebrities is also on my mind because we’ve reached the time of year of idol worship. We recently celebrated in January Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. February and March mark Black History and Women’s History months, respectively.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is among the holiest days of the year for me. I spend the day reflecting, renewing, and reengaging in the fight for social justice. In recent years, the day has been marred by various factions remaking Dr. King in their political image. Therefore, the totality and complexity of his message gets lost amid tribalism and ideology.
Black History and Women’s History months are important because we need to honor and celebrate distinct lineages that have contributed to the improvement of our collective humanity. There would be no Oprah, for example, had it not been for Madam C.J. Walker, who was an entrepreneur. Walker was the wealthiest self-made woman in the United States by the time of her death in 1919, the same year that hundreds of blacks were lynched all over the country.
What often happens, however, when we venerate our sheroes and role models is we elevate them to superhuman status. The chasm between myth and reality grows so wide that a young artist who admires Frida Kahlo is afraid to pick up a paintbrush because she fears she lacks Frida’s talent rather than using Frida as inspiration to discover her own voice.
Maybe the ultimate lesson we learn from our role models and childhood heroes is that their lives were meant to be mileposts, not the journey itself. At some point, we must put away childish things and love the mature person staring back at us in the mirror.