HOW surreal it is to find that the brave new world of the 21st century is an age of unprecedented inequality.

In Britain we are returning to Victorian levels of wealth and inequality: the richest 10% are nearly 100 times richer than the poorest 10%. Salaries for FTSE-100 chief executives are rising twice as fast as salaries for shop-floor workers. Meanwhile, there's a new backlash against gender inequality, a new alienation of minority religious groups, and non-whites in Britain and America are falling behind according to nearly every social and economic indicator.

But what I find even more surreal is the parallel universe created by a culture which celebrates role models, pays lip service to minorities, and revels in illusions of economic success and social mobility. Call me a killjoy, but whenever I hear people talk about role models or exceptional success, I'm thinking: what good does it do, really? If you hold up an example of someone who has made it, how do people actually get from here to there? I detect a defensiveness in those exhortations to celebrate; an unwillingness to face reality. I even suspect that these exemplars actually make things worse, creating the very visible impression that there isn't a problem after all.

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In our topsy-turvy world, the highlighting of exceptional triumph has become the public way we deal with inequality. Susan Boyle's success was described by Britain's Got Talent judge Piers Morgan as "a wonderful testament to the powers of persistence, positive thought, and living a dream". But her apotheosis illustrated the pious doublethink of the millions of viewers who found themselves able, through the redeeming vision of the "hairy angel", to feel better about every other working-class, middle-aged woman who is left in society's gutter. The Apprentice, The Secret Millionaire and Ladette To Lady stage seductive pageants of Thatcherite aspiration, and the impression that success is within everyone's reach sanctions the ubiquity of affluence and aristocracy in our media. "Kirstie [Allsopp] and Hugh [Fearney Whittingstall] are posh. They know that. We know that," says Andrew Jackson, who has commissioned their shows for Channel 4. "Maybe in the past they would have hidden it ... But over the past two or three years [posh] presenters have become less ashamed."

That wink-wink assumption is a useful get-out. "They know that, we know that." It's "know your place" passing as post-modern public awareness. And it points to the extraordinary complicity between citizens, their leaders, and the manufacturers of popular culture to forgive or even celebrate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The country house drama Downton Abbey becomes wildly popular at the height of the economic downturn and its writer Julian Fellowes enters the House of Lords.

For politicians and a public that are united at least in preferring not to face inequalities of economics and class, it's convenient that gender, race and religion have become the new priorities. The architects of New Labour in the 1990s found "diversity" a convenient substitute for class struggle. And in the US, identity politics has infected the political mainstream. But identity politics is all about symbolism. In 2002, when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the award for Best Actress at the Oscars, history was made. "This is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour who now has the chance after tonight because this door has been opened," she cried. But with Berry's tears of gratitude, a generation of producers and directors breathed a sigh of relief, because they could finally close the book on the problem of race in Hollywood. It doesn't feel like great progress has been made when, 10 years on, Octavia Spencer wins Best Supporting Actress for playing a maid in the 1960s in The Help – a film that has been criticised for not addressing systemic racism.

Role-model schemes have become obligatory in equal-opportunity policy, crime-prevention initiatives, human resources and educational projects. In 2007, for example, the British Government unveiled with great fanfare the "Black Boys' National Role Models" programme. But there is no point in showcasing exceptions unless the conditions that set the rules are changed. What is needed is more attention paid to the bottom of the hierarchy, not the top.

The role-model model diverts attention from exploring the real, root-and-branch reasons why people from ethnic minorities may not simply follow the good examples offered to them. Role models are the entrepreneurs of race relations, following a Thatcherite template of self-motivated success. They function as PR for those who would like racism to cease to be an issue in a world that is still profoundly racist.

When the New Nation newspaper published its "Power List" of 100 black role models in 2007, the Daily Mail announced that this "explodes the myth that African Caribbeans are not achieving success". The election of Barack Obama was in some ways a giant leap forward for race relations: I myself cried seeing him walk out with his family on that stage in Grant Park, Chicago. But there was a weird slippage in the way that people talked about race after his victory: as if we'd now entered a post-racial era, and could everyone stop talking about how black people are disadvantaged, please, because we've got one in the White House.

After Obama came to office, as the journalist and writer Gary Younge has noted, unemployment among black Americans continued to rise: it currently stands at almost twice the rate for white people. Rates of mortgage foreclosures increased twice as fast as for white people. This was not really Obama's fault. The wealth gap between black and white households in America has widened massively since the mid-1980s: white families are typically now five times as rich as their black counterparts. But I didn't like the way he avoided the topic of race and declined to offer material support for the black underclass, while silently capitalising on his own exceptional appearance.

Role models fit perfectly into a world where symbols rule: Disney's black princess Tiana, star of the 2009 animated film The Princess And The Frog, was unveiled with the kind of hype that ought to greet the appointment of a new Secretary-General of the United Nations. But the almost gleeful media circus that greeted golfer Tiger Woods's speedy fall from grace illustrated how easily praise for minority role models flips over into condemnation when they fail to perform the ideal parts assigned to them. These fairy tales are really flimsy.

As the L'Oreal slogan, "Because You're Worth It", illustrates, anti-feminism now appears in feminist disguise. Expensive and time-consuming hair-dying treatments are the new "me-time" empowerment. The bonds of sisterhood are forged in pole-dancing classes. The guru-cum-drill-sergeant Gok Wan shouts "Go, girlfriend!" as his makeovers squeeze into tummy-tuck pants. And a patriarchal culture is let off the hook via the media's delighted emphasis on all the little women-friendly exceptions. The overwhelmingly male World Cup fever that grips the country every four years – when every pub is filled with roaring blokes – is offset by newspaper images of female fans sportingly daubed with tribal face paint. The archaic assumption that every girl's ultimate dream is a fairy-tale wedding is legitimated by Kate Middleton's well-publicised omission of the word "obey" from her wedding vows. Ideology does its work through the thousands of "size zero" models who are so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible. But it does even more work through the "plus size" models whose rare appearances are beamed around the world.

If any woman can make it, either pencil-thin or plump, then whether she does so or not becomes a matter of choice. Choice feminism is like socio-economic "opportunity": failure becomes your fault. And choice has replaced structural change as the sign of liberation. If women spend their time roaming the aisles of Primark or working in a lap-dancing club, then that is their decision. It is not the result of unfavourable circumstances or cultural pressures. And just as the free-speech argument is often invoked to allow a platform for right-wing extremism, it's telling that the choice argument is most commonly invoked in order to justify conservative choices. Like that moment in Sex And The City when Charlotte is challenged by her careerist friend Miranda on why she's taking her husband's advice and leaving her prestigious art-gallery job. "I choose my choice! I choose my choice!" she cries, before explaining that: "The women's movement is supposed to be about choice, and if I choose to quit my job, that is my choice."

Nowhere is the illusion of choice more prevalent and pernicious than in the "question" of whether mothers should work. The "Mommy Wars" – the American (and British) media's ongoing obsession – is presented as a two-sided debate. But a debate isn't a debate, and a choice isn't free, when one side is regularly sanctified and the other pilloried. Educated women across the developed world are applauded for leaving challenging careers in order to wipe their babies' bottoms full-time. and if they stay working, they're not allowed to regard their jobs as important: the highlight of Sarah Jessica Parker's day, she assured a British TV chat show audience in 2009, is picking her kids up from school. Readers of the Daily Mail and the New York Sun are used to this kind of thing, but it's even worse coming from the Observer and the New York Times, because it lends the world of Mad Men a patina of liberal respectability. Contemporary culture has taken the boring old story of female oppression and repackaged it as a new form of feminist liberation.

In the modern developed world, when people basically have everything they need, films and TV help to manufacture demand. The media not only keeps us entertained, it makes the grass look greener on the other side of the screen. But it's a complex form of envy. Take Sex And The City. The TV series and films make much of their feminist credentials: these are four go-getting women enjoying their men, social lives and careers. But although these "sisters" are supposed to be having fun, fun, fun, they spend most of their energy fretting about finding The One. The shots that stick in my mind are of Sarah Jessica Parker's face falling as she is let down for the zillionth time by Mr Big.

The series appears to portray women as happy and successful, but do they really look happy to you? It's the happiness equivalent of the kind of Emperor's-new-clothes syndrome that frames Tina Fey in 30 Rock, Lea Michele in Glee and America Ferrera in Ugly Betty as – well – ugly. As one blogger put it: "If Tina Fey is ugly, I'm doomed."

The pesky point about women and equality and media representation is this: if they are shown as equal to men on screen, that's denying the reality, which is that they should of course be equal to men, but are not in fact treated that way. But if they are shown pandering to men's whims, and given metaphorical slaps on the face, that is more realistic; but also more discouraging. It creates the kind of world view in which it's normal for women to have a tough time. If enough films show men going out with women half their age – a la Richard Gere and Winona Ryder in Autumn In New York – then that becomes the done thing. Most of the time, film portrayals of women and ethnic minorities are so formulaic and negative that there's not even an attempt to provide role models. When challenged, film-makers respond that audiences are conservative, and they are giving them as much as they can handle. But I think they belittle audience expectations. In a way, the media can't win. But in another way, they are playing a very shifty game. They're the guys who make the culture, after all.

Who is ultimately to blame for the production of screen-based confections that make us feel worse about our lives, give us a false sense of progress, and offer illusory solutions to real-world problems? Is it the fault of the producers or the consumers? What is clear is that there is a collusion going on; that we are bound together in a feedback mechanism. The announcement that there would be a bank holiday to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was greeted with eye-rolling cynicism; but somehow, as the day approached, the bandwagon of media publicity became a juggernaut.

As we lurch from one media sensation to the next, there's a general avoidance of the ups and downs of life, the power imbalances between different types of people, the effects of poverty or war. The very immediacy of the footage from the war in Iraq, the on-the-ground embedded reporters bringing Operation Desert Storm right into our living rooms, was an ideological cover for the airbrushing out of civilian casualties. It's as if everyone wants to pretend that real-world problems are not there; or that we can solve them by imagining a fantasy world in which they are simply magicked away. It's that unhealthy alliance of public relations and political correctness again. It's true that media images can help to set the tone of a culture, to shape its norms and its possibilities. But replacing idealism with illusions doesn't get us anywhere.

© An edited extract from Get Real: How To Tell It Like It Is In A World Of Illusions by Eliane Glaser (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

Eliane Glaser is a writer, broadcaster and an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Her first book, Get Real, analyses the growing gap between appearance and reality in modern life. In today's world, public spending cuts that target the poor are billed as "giving power to the people" and multinational oil corporations trumpet their green credentials. What's going on? Glaser's new book offers a passionate and entertaining guide to spotting and decoding the delusions we live under.