Our universities are continually invoking us to do research that has ‘impact’. They’re thrilled when we get media coverage and, being honest, I also enjoy the aura of glamour that comes with media attention. So, we were pleased when we were contacted by the person in charge of media promotion for this year’s BERA Conference, saying that he was considering press releasing our paper. In this post, I reflect on this experience of talking through possible journalistic angles on our work and on why it all fell through.
Our BERA Conference paper looked at the role of hard work in young people’s talk about celebrities. In it, we show how young people value hard work. My first thought, when contacted about a possible press release, was that this could make a great good news story: a powerful response to those seemingly interminable headlines bemoaning how all young people want to do is win X Factor, marry a footballer or win Big Brother.
However, being typical academics, we didn’t want this to be all that was said about hard work because we also feel it supports the neoliberal idea that individuals can overcome social inequalities by simply working really, really hard. We need only think of last week’s Conservative Party Conference to see how powerfully this notion of hard-work-as-a-solution circulates even in the midst of cuts and growing inequalities which restrict who can go where in education and the labour market. We also think it’s crucial to talk about how some activities get to count as hard work and others don’t. We don’t want to get diverted into thinking about whether or not modelling or making a sex tape require work or not, but to point out that they don’t get seen in this way and this means that the women associated with them are dismissed as bad ‘role models’ who take easy routes to fame.
So with this complicated story to tell about hard work, we waited with trepidation to find out what the BERA Conference press representative would make of our paper. The good news was that he didn’t try to simplify our message about hard work. The bad news was that he ignored it. Instead he picked up on a single line in our abstract and our powerpoint presentation that indicated we were doing 12 celebrity case studies. He wanted to know: Who were these celebrities? And, how did we select them?
After we supplied this and some additional background, he came back with this possible headline:
WILL SMITH PROVES TO BE TEENAGERS’ FAVOURITE CELEBRITY, RESEARCH FINDS
This wasn’t completely crazy, young people do seem to like Will Smith a lot. As part of the individual interviews, we showed participants pictures of our 12 case study celebrities and asked them to imagine they were their age and at their school. Who would they want as a friend? And, who would they want to avoid? Will Smith scores very well as a potential friend (it’s neck and neck between him and Prince Harry to see who does better on this overall). For example, in one London school, 8 out 0f 10 students wanted to be friends with him, giving reasons such as those below:
‘He’s quite a cool, quite a flamboyant man.’
‘He’s not really vain, like most other celebrities are on the table here. He’s quite real.’
‘Will Smith is the coolest person on earth. … There is no-one cooler than Will Smith, erm, and why wouldn’t I want to be friends with him, like?’
‘He’s funny … Like easy to get along with.’
But in another way, this headline was a misrepresentation of the research. Not only was it peripheral to our work, but we hadn’t done some big survey and we hadn’t tried to find out who was the favourite celebrity among young people – we weren’t even sure what that would mean.
But more than this, we didn’t want to just celebrate Will Smith. Kim’s work on him has turned up some unsettling material. In particular, in inspiration videos on YouTube and through quotations distributed daily through Twitter, Will Smith represents the power of a ‘sickening work ethic’ to overcome all obstacles and become successful.
After Barack Obama was elected he said:
For me, it was something that I’ve always believed. I’ve read the Declaration of Independence. I’ve read the Constitution. I have the preamble memorized. It’s something I’ve always believed in, and when Barack Obama won, it validated a piece of me that I wasn’t allowed to say out loud – that America is not a racist nation. I love that all of our excuses have been removed. African-American excuses have been removed. There’s no white man trying to keep you down, because if he were really trying to keep you down, he would have done everything he could to keep Obama down. Yes, there are racist people who live here, absolutely. But they’re not the majority anymore. I’m an African American, and I was able to climb to a certain point in Hollywood. On that journey, I realized people weren’t trying to stop me. Most people were trying to help me. Before Obama won the presidency, it was like, I’m the exception. Tiger is the exception. Michael Jordan is the exception. Bill Cosby is the exception. But there’s something about being the leader of the free world, with every other position on earth below that. You can’t argue with that. If Barack Obama can win the presidency of the United States, you can absolutely be the manager at Saks. Come on. It was such a fantastic experience for me to be able to say out loud that I love America and not be called an Uncle Tom.
Thus, while Will Smith is indeed popular with young people in the research, we’re interested in why this is and what function Will Smith might serve in propagating certain ideals and post-racial fantasies about success, aspiration and hard work.
It’s difficult to capture all this via email. This is what I wrote:
We’re trying to understand why he’s such a source of pleasure and inspiration for young people – we’re calling him a ‘happy object’ drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed. She uses this term to describe something that represents things seen as socially good – e.g. marriage and career success – so that, through feeling happy about it, we align ourselves with ‘normal’ and socially approved ways of being. Tentatively applying this to Will, we feel that he stands for the idea that we live in a meritocracy and that racism doesn’t matter any more, so by aligning with him, we can feel like inequality can be overcome through hard work. We’d see this as a problem because it erases ongoing racism and its effects and ends up blaming individuals rather than looking to structural reasons why some people succeed – within education etc – and others do not.
The correspondence about press releasing our work ended shortly afterwards – without a press release!
I hope this doesn’t come across as bitter. In the end I felt mostly relieved to not be the focus of BERA’s media work – it feels quite early in the project for us to be trying to make confident and neat summations of what our research findings are. But I do want to share this story as a way of sparking off a discussion about when and how we should engage with the media? In an age of impact where we are encouraged to communicate our research to various publics, what might get lost – or compromised – in translation? And how might we counter – or at least manage – this potential for misunderstanding and simplification?
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