Celebrity culture and young people’s ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’

Written by Kim. Posted in News

As the CelebYouth project has demonstrated there exists much public concern that young people today are too heavily influenced by ‘popular culture’ and in particular the ‘cult of the celebrity’. There have been particular concerns that children and young people admire individuals whose short-lived fame is based on luck, physical prowess or limited talent, rather than more enduring and socially beneficial achievements based on ‘hard work’. Relatedly, it has been claimed that the ‘cult of the celebrity’ is creating a climate in which young people seek to realise themselves through ‘fame’ and reject the more traditional pathway to success – academic achievement, hard work and educational qualifications. Despite all these concerns, very little research has been done on who it is that children and young people actually admire and dislike. In a recent paper in the journal Discourse, Sally Power and Kevin Smith address this gap, drawing on research into the heroes and villains of 1200 children and young people living in Wales. In this blog post they present an insight into their findings.

The children and young people we researched were asked to identify which three famous people they most admired and which three they most disliked. They nominated a wide variety of people – stretching alphabetically from Adele and Adolf Hitler to Zara Philips and Zayn Malik. While there were nominations for political activists and writers, nearly three-quarters of all nominations were for pop stars and sports-men and –women.

The Top 10 ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’

Heroes n % Villains n %
  1. Jessie J
54 3.2
  1. Justin Bieber
470 26.2
  1. Taylor Swift
47 2.8
  1. One Direction
112 6.2
  1. Beyoncé
44 2.6
  1. Nicki Minaj
75 4.2
  1. One Direction
44 2.6
  1. Lady Gaga
68 3.8
  1. Lionel Messi
41 2.4
  1. Simon Cowell
60 3.3
  1. Leigh Halfpenny
40 2.4
  1. Harry Styles
50 2.8
  1. Cristiano Ronaldo
38 2.3
  1. Katie Price
48 2.7
  1. Jessica Ennis
38 2.3
  1. Wayne Rooney
46 2.6
  1. George North
34 2
  1. Luis Suarez
42 2.3
  1. Rihanna
34 2
  1. David Cameron
37 2.1

Athletics - IAAF World Championships 2011 - Day Four - DaeguThese findings indicate that concerns about the ‘capture’ of young people by popular culture appear to be justified. With the exception of Jessica Ennis (athlete), all the female ‘heroes’ in the Top 20 are pop singers. The male ‘heroes’ do include pop stars (and one ‘boy band’), but are mainly footballers and rugby players. Only two politicians were nominated – with Barrack Obama in 40th place and Boris Johnson (Conservative London Mayor) in 100th place. In general, the ‘disliked’ nominations are drawn from a wider range of fields, including actors, presenters and politicians – with David Cameron (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) making it into the ‘top 10’ most disliked – two places ahead of Adolf Hitler.

mandelaIf we take these nominations as indicative of young people’s values then there would appear to be good grounds to believe some of the worst fears about the influence of popular culture on young people’s values. For example, it could be argued that their choices display a lack of ability to discriminate between contributions that are of lasting social value and those which are more fleeting. Are the achievements of Nelson Mandela (only appearing as a ‘hero’ in 34th place) to be relegated behind the achievements of pop singers whose names many may now find hard to remember at all? Does Justin Bieber really deserve to be disliked by so many more young people than Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden?

However, this would be a very simplistic interpretation of the data. One very noticeable feature of the responses is the finding that the majority (55 per cent) of the named 84 villains also appeared as other people’s heroes. This suggests that expressions of admiration and dislike may be less to do with the famous people themselves and rather more to do with the way in which young people appropriate them in order to foster particular kinds of allegiances. Seen in this way, admiration or dislike for particular famous people can be seen as a form of identity work of affirmation and cultural belonging. For example we can see clear gender differences in the respondent’s nominations.

The Top 10 ‘heroes’ by gender

Boys’ heroes n % Girls’ heroes n %
  1. Lionel Messi
36 5.1
  1. Jessie J
53 5.4
  1. Cristiano Ronaldo
35 5
  1. Beyoncé
42 4.3
  1. George North
28 4
  1. Taylor Swift
42 4.3
  1. Leigh Halfpenny
28 4
  1. One Direction
41 4.2
  1. Gareth Bale
26 3.7
  1. Jessica Ennis
33 3.4
  1. Shane Williams
25 3.6
  1. Rihanna
33 3.4
  1. Steven Gerrard
24 3.4
  1. Demi Lovato
31 3.2
  1. Adam Sandler
19 2.7
  1. Justin Bieber
30 3.1
  1. PewDiePie
16 2.3
  1. Adele
27 2.8
  1. Ryan Giggs
15 2.1
  1. Nicki Minaj
23 2.4

 

Similar patterns of nomination can be found in terms of ethnicity. Over 70% of nominations from our white respondents were for famous white people, while our Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) respondents are twice as likely to have nominated a famous BAME person than our white respondents. As the findings of CelebYouth project attest, the landscape of celebrities is highly ‘raced’ and ‘gendered’ and our young people’s nominations reflect this landscape.

These patterns suggest that the use of famous people and celebrities in the development of identities and allegiances may provide the ‘glue’ for developing social ties and affirm the achievements of women and black and minority ethnic people. However, the fields of their achievements – particularly for women – are relatively narrow which is as likely to compound as to challenge notions of female and minority ethnic success.

 

Find out more: For a fuller account, see Sally Power & Kevin Smith (2016) ‘Heroes’ and ‘villains’ in the lives of children and young people. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

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