This is a blog about young people’s views on celebrity, inspired by headteacher @MooreLynne1, who shared Celebrity-Culture, Quick Wins and the Impact on Student-Aspirations. This research was published by Brunel University and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Headteacher Lynne Moore in her blog discussed young people’s aspirations being embedded in a ‘quick-win culture’ and links this to contemporary celebrity. Her position has become common-sense: Iain Duncan Smith blamed the 2011 riots on X Factor and government reports call for policies to tackle the ‘harm’ the commercial world is believed to do to children and young people. From music to football, from X Factor to YouTube, celebrity is viewed as the antithesis of hard work. Yet, Lynne’s blog is full of questions. For example, pondering the re-branding of Rihanna, she wonders what does ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ actually mean to our young people? About footballer’s wife Colleen Rooney, she asks: do young women see her as an independent woman or as someone who, having been treated badly, is sticking it out to continue with her lifestyle?
It is questions like these that we set out to answer, by speaking to 148 young people aged 14-17 in schools across England. This blog is about that research and how it tells a very different story from Lynne’s.
Young people still have a deep understanding of success as reliant on hard work.
The Media Hype:
One of the main reasons we started to research the role of celebrity in young people’s aspirations was that we were both perplexed and exhausted hearing public figures making claims about this without any clear evidence, and with the voices of young people conspicuously absent. Yet these notions that young people are celebrity obsessed and seek easy fame rather than achievement based on hard work seem to take on a truth-like quality, becoming common-sense, even among those who work with young people on a daily basis.
Through the course of this project we’ve been lucky enough to engage with teachers and other professionals. These engagements have opened up interesting discussions about how celebrity features in the lives and aspirations of the young people with whom they work. We’ve been excited to see teachers being provoked by our work to explore the views of their students. For example, Jon Rainford did just this and wrote:
“What really surprised me was that it wasn’t until the very end of the discussion that anyone even started to suggest being a celebrity was the ‘easy’ route to being successful and even when they did, this idea was pretty much shot down by the rest of the group with counter arguments. It would be fair to say that the consensus was that the negatives far outweighed the positives for most of the students … I find it interesting that even those students who spend most of their free time immersed in idolising celebrities and pop culture, didn’t see this as their route to success and identified ‘better’ ways of being successful, such as getting a good job and working hard. Even in a world of talent shows and rags-to-riches media obsession, there still seems to be a deep understanding [within my students] that success is reliant on hard work.”
We suspect other teachers may, like Jon, find themselves really surprised by young people’s celebrity talk.
Jon’s findings echo ours. Over and over again, young people told us how important hard work and determination are to them. Indeed, these are the main things that they used to distinguish those celebrities who they feel deserve their status from those who don’t.
These statements are typical:
- “The Kardashians are only famous for really stupid reasons, like as opposed to athletes who are famous, because they worked really hard for four years, and they come from the Olympics; they compete and work really hard against other athletes … and then they get some kind of recognition.”
- “If you’ve watched the new Cadillac Records film, Beyoncé starred as Etta James and she just showed her life and how it was for her as a young woman trying to get into the music business … and how men would just, like, think ‘oh yeah women, all these women can’t do what we can do and all’. And that really showed me that no matter what comes in your way, you can always get passed that, and you always have to stay strong.”
It’s important to celebrate young people’s belief in hard work but also to ask questions about it.
Our data provide evidence that challenges the common-sense we outlined at the start. It busts the myth that young people no longer care about hard work and forces us to look elsewhere than to celebrity culture to explain the riots. But it also raises important questions.
First, who gets to count as hard-working? Across London, Manchester and the rural South West where we collected our data, it was white middle-class men from the fields of business, science and technology and Olympians who were seen as the most hard-working celebrities. In contrast, those people following routes to fame traditionally associated with working-class and/or female celebrities, such as, modelling, football and reality television, were more likely to be dismissed as pursuing easy pathways and so not deserving their wealth and fame. These judgements do not derive from objective comparisons of the work involved in becoming a sprinter rather than a footballer or working in technology rather than in modelling, but rely on and reproduce wider inequalities that we see within education, employment and beyond .
Second, does a belief that hard work is rewarded, place unequal pressure on young people? Hard work was overwhelmingly seen by young people as a way of transcending poverty, racism, sexism and other forms of inequality in order to achieve success. This emphasises the power of individuals to overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams and can be highly motivating. However, a focus on hard work takes no account of the current economic context, with its high rates of youth unemployment and rising poverty. It also erases the different advantages and disadvantages people have in achieving success and ignores the impact of the ongoing discrimination that shapes people’s opportunities. We hope that through this blog we can open up more conversations with teachers who are supporting young people in thinking about their futures.
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The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and was a collaboration with Laura Harvey and Aisha Ahmad, published here on TeacherToolkit.me by Heather Mendick (Brunel University) and Kim Allen (Manchester Metropolitan University)