Fieldwork report one: What celebrities are young people into?

Written by Team. Posted in News

After a lot of work finding schools, we have begun fieldwork and carried out six focus groups in two schools. In this post, we (Kim and Heather) share some of the things that surprised us in our 14 to 17 year-old participants’ talk about celebrities – from arguments about diver Tom Daley to animated discussions of classic Hollywood and Bollywood film stars.

One of the reasons that we want to do this research is our feeling that academic work on celebrity is characterised by a privileging of analyses of famous people, who as Graeme Turner writes are treated as ‘media texts interesting in their own right or as pointers to broader cultural formations or political issues’. As such, the focus has been on those figures who are deemed by academics to be culturally significant or interesting, including: Beyonce, Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Beckham.  A scan of the programme for the Celebrity Studies inaugural conference  (held at Deakin University later this month) includes papers on well-known stars such as Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan, Jamie Oliver, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. Public and media discussions which bemoan young people’s ‘obsession’ with contemporary celebrity are also driven by presumptions about which celebrities are significant and by those who, as Chris Rojek notes, are constructed as ‘noteworthy or exceptional by cultural intermediaries’. This was recently exemplified in a feature on the BBC4 radio programme Woman’s Hour, in which discussions of the most ‘powerful’ celebrities focussed predictably on Cheryl Cole, Katie Price and MP turned reality TV star Nadine Dorries.

Apart from a few education and youth studies researchers – including Mary Jane Kehily and Anoop NayakBarbara Read  and emerging doctoral work by Victoria Cann – there have been relatively few attempts to identify which celebrities young people are interested in. We’re guilty of this too: In our work elsewhere and on this blog, Heather’s written about Reality TV star Jade Goody and Kim about cyclist Victoria Pendleton, while Laura’s analysed talk show host Jeremy Kyle. But in this project, we’re going to analyse 12 celebrities who will be selected based on the figures who generate the most discussion among the 144  young people across the country taking part in the group interviews.

Starting with those celebrities discussed by young people – rather than based on our adult concerns – inevitably challenges commonsense public and scholarly notions of celebrity power and cultural significance. Indeed, we expected that what they said would surprise us and so far we haven’t been disappointed…

Heather went to a rural school in the South West of England, which we’ve called Hardy College, and spoke to 25 young people, all White and the majority from working-class backgrounds. She had two groups that were mixed male and female, one group that was all male and one that was all female. Tom Daley, the UK Olympic diver and soon to be Reality TV star – was a local boy and very popular among the young women (for his achievements and his body), with some boys taking issue with the overtly sexual aspects of his persona – his LMFAO YouTube and stuffing a sock down his trunks. Harry Potter star, Emma Watson was very popular as was comedian Russell Howard and singer Ed Sheeran. Virtually no footballers came up – though Wayne Rooney was briefly labelled a “donkey” – but there were many minority sport stars mentioned in one group, including from cycling, surfing and equestrianism.

The dynamics in the all male group were fascinating. They were the only group who chose to start by talking about celebrities they disliked before talking about those they liked. They were uncomfortable talking about female celebrities except in a few cases, such as discussing recent controversial I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here contestant Helen Flanagan or the cast of US TV sitcom Friends. They resisted cross-gender identification even to the extent of not being able to express any interest or desire to take the job of a female celebrity. However, they didn’t have problems with cross-race identification and named several African American celebrities they admired: above all, they stated that they wanted actor Will Smith’s life.

Meanwhile, Kim visited an inner-city school in the North and conducted group interviews with twelve year 12 students, with a very different demographic profile to the participants in Heather’s school: they were all from black and minority ethnic groups and many were recent migrants from counties including India, Afghanistan and Iran. This diversity played out in the group discussions which challenged and disrupted the Western and metropolitan preoccupation in scholarly work on celebrity (see Robert Clarke’s 2009 edited collection ‘Celebrity Colonialism’ on the dearth of postcolonial scholarship in Celebrity Studies).

Data from this fieldwork has provoked some interesting questions about not just the global and local dynamics of contemporary celebrity culture but also about how young people make use of popular culture as they move through and negotiate different social and cultural contexts.  Many of the young people in the Manchester school named ‘favourite’ national celebrities from their home countries who were generally not on our radar: Bollywood film actors (in particular Salman Kham and John Abrahams); Afghani singers; Pakistani cricketers; Indian badminton star Saina Nehwal; and Somali-born British Olympian Mo Farah. They also spoke at length of (past and present) political activists, human rights campaigners and artists who raised awareness of political and racial conflict in their home countries. Politicians engendered strong negative reactions, rooted in personal experiences of racism, war, poverty and family unemployment including: Dutch anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders; Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; George Bush (‘just evil’); and British Prime Minister David Cameron (for ‘taking away jobs’ and only working to benefit ‘people at the top’).

While these discussions reveal young people’s awareness of wider injustice and inequality through discussions of celebrity, we can also see how celebrity culture might operate to mask these – inculcating beliefs in the ethics of individualism and meritocracy rather than critical engagement with wider structural inequalities and practices of discrimination. Indeed, a vast number of African American actors, musicians and sports people dominated the discussions of most respected and favoured celebrities among the young people in the urban Northern school, including: Jay Z and Beyonce, Chris Brown, Will Smith, Rihanna, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan. What emerged in the discussions of these celebrities in particular was the centrality of notions of ‘authenticity’ read in both the star’s private and public self ( the importance of ‘keeping it real’), and an investment in neoliberal discourses of self-reinvention, enterprise and meritocracy (issues we’ve discussed elsewhere). Their investment in celebrity narratives of success ‘against the odds’ was perhaps captured most clearly in a shared and enthusiastic appraisal in President Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ slogan – described by one participant as showing young people that ‘if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can make it’.

Despite some differences in the data generated across our first two fieldwork sites, there were some similar common themes which are worthy of comment, and we will wait to see if these are replicated in the fieldwork in the four other schools. Very briefly, these include:

  • discussions of dead celebrities such as Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson and from a few, a strong interest in stars of silent cinema and/or the classic Hollywood era such as James Dean and Scarlett O’Hara
  • a general – though not straightforward – take up of gendered hierarches between ‘achieved’ celebrity and those who are deemed ‘famous for nothing’ (Kim Kardashian being regularly cited here as only famous because of who her parents are)
  • the dislike of and/or disinterest in all politicians except Barack Obama and Boris Johnson
  • the desire for celebrities who do ‘inspiring’ things and charity work but a cynicism about how ‘genuine’ celebrity philanthropy and activism are (often deemed just a ‘PR’ stunt)
  • a strong negative reaction to former Disney and Tween celebrities including a visceral response to Justin Bieber – often oriented around a perceived ‘inauthentic’ and overly sexualised performance of femininity and masculinity

As Feminist cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has written, ‘consumption enfolds and engages individuals with the material world and it articulates identities and communities’.  Identifying the celebrities who have significance to the young people in our research is only the first step. The next is to explore critically and in greater depth how and why these particular celebrities come to be mobilized in the ways that they do, and how these relate to the individual and collective identity work of the young people in the research.  No doubt further surprises await us.


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  • School of Sport and Education, Brunel University
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