Forthcoming Book: Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth

Written by Heather. Posted in News

Today we submitted our draft book to Bloomsbury. It will be called ‘Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity’ and be out in early 2018. Here’s the abstract and brief chapter outlines…

This book uses the lens of celebrity to explore young people’s education and employment aspirations under austerity and after four decades of neoliberalism. Based on interviews with 148 young people in England, the authors investigate youth transitions into adulthood at a time of socio-economic ‘crisis’. They address the questions: What kinds of futures do young people desire and imagine for themselves? What is required of young people in the process of achieving these futures? And how are inequalities of social class and gender embedded in these? They explore the tensions arising from young people being incited to aspire and to invest in the possibility of social mobility at the same time as their opportunities are being eroded. They call this context austere meritocracy. Borrowing from Lauren Berlant’s work, they argue that this sets up relationships of cruel optimism. This means that it involves hopeful attachments to objects that symbolise ‘the good life’ even while these objects are becoming increasingly out of reach, and while these attachments make the objects more difficult to attain. They show how celebrity is central to austerity’s cultural politics operating to regulate young people’s aspirations and as a way for them to negotiate the current socio-economic conditions. The authors develop these arguments through chapters looking at young people’s talk about work, authenticity, success, happiness, money and fame. Each of these chapters contains a celebrity case study, showing how celebrity representations prop up austere meritocracy’s idealised behaviours, values and ways of being and their others.

We will have 9 chapters, brief outlines follow (apart from for the conclusion where we talk about Trump and Brexit)…

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter provides an overview of the impact on young people of the financial crisis and the subsequent global recession and austerity programmes. The authors show that young people have disproportionately suffered from debt, unemployment, public spending cuts and housing shortages. They set this in the context of earlier neoliberal education and social policy, noting the enduring role of aspiration. They argue that the current socio-economic context represents key breaks from this and can be characterised as an austere meritocracy. The authors identify the defining feature of austere meritocracy as its investment in individual aspiration, effort, resilience and thrift as solutions to increasing inequality and deprivation. The authors argue that celebrity is central to how these discourses circulate. The chapter also outlines the methodology that they used to study discourses of aspiration through young people’s celebrity talk.

Chapter 2: Youth

This chapter’s starting point is Phil Cohen’s argument that young people carry a burden of representation as indicators of the state of society. Young people are framed as both the cause of societal problems and the solution to these. They figure in conflicting discourses of youth as troublesome/at risk and youth as hope/potential. In the context of a financial crisis, youth becomes a key resource for national recovery and problem youth, a site of moral panic. The authors looks at how young people experience these two discourses and how they use celebrity talk to tell stories about being young and to negotiate the tensions between them. In their talk, child stars, such as singer Justin Bieber, figure as cautionary tales about the risks of making bad choices and falling in the wrong crowd. Figures like diver Tom Daley epitomize the idea of youthful potential fulfilled via effort and determination.

Chapter 3: Work

This chapter shows that hard work is the idealized route to education and employment success within austerity. The authors use young people’s celebrity talk to demonstrate their investment in hard work, drawing on its centrality in representations of celebrities like actor Will Smith. This investment challenges stereotypes of young people as aspiring to an easy life and earlier studies of schooling showing effortless achievement is most highly valued. This new valuing of effort opens up successful subjectivities beyond white middle-class males. However, the authors also show that it reproduces social class, gender and race inequalities through contested judgements of what counts as work and who counts as hard working, exemplified in discussions of reality television star Katie Price. They locate young people’s investment in hard work within wider societal shifts that include the distinctions between ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers’ which are used to justify austerity policies and the resulting inequalities.

Chapter 4: Authenticity

This chapter shows that young people invest in authenticity both within their own aspirations and in how they evaluate celebrities. They value jobs that offer opportunities for self realisation and celebrities who stay true to themselves despite the pressures of fame. The authors locate this focus on authenticity within broader social shifts, arguing that it supports capitalism. The chapter also shows how dominant judgements of celebrity authenticity reproduce inequalities of class, gender and race. However, some young people assert the authenticity of celebrities otherwise derided as fake and undeserving. This illustrates a tension for them between the demand that they aspire to authorised pathways and the people and pathways that they experience as authentic but that are not socially valued.

Chapter 5: Success

This chapter identifies two dominant discourses of success in young people’s talk. The first is entrepreneurial, corresponding to the future-oriented, flexible and resourceful individual at the centre of austerity. It dominates in images of celebrities as diverse as technology entrepreneur Bill Gates and diver Tom Daley. It downplays obstacles to success including how social class, gender and race shape choices and opportunities. The second is the stability success discourse that figures in young people’s accounts of ‘having enough’ and ‘getting by’. These convey a more pragmatic approach to what is possible and impossible for them. These two success discourses intermingle in young people’s accounts creating tensions. These ideas of success can only exist through explicitly and implicitly evoking a spectre of failure. The authors explore this through case studies of two young people who respectively ‘aspire’ to hedonism rather than deferring gratification and to manual labour rather than professional work.

Chapter 6: Happiness

The authors begin with Sara Ahmed’s concept of happy objects as things in which people invest as causes of happiness. Drawing on interview data with young people, the authors identify three happy objects that direct young people’s orientations to the future: family relationships and friendships, career fulfilment, and financial stability. Young people also relate celebrity happiness to these objects. Celebrities such as Beyoncé and Will Smith who embody family happiness and career fulfilment become happy objects with whom the majority of young people align themselves. The authors includes examples of two young people who break society’s written and unwritten rules of happiness, to explore how far it possible for those imagining their future within an austere meritocracy to resist neoliberal logics. One young person uses celebrity discourses of feminism to orient herself away from family as a source of happiness. The other refuses to orient herself to anything at all.

Chapter 7: Money

This chapter explores young people’s talk about money in the context of austerity. Facing a precarious labour market, young people feel a strong duty to financially support themselves, but only rarely aspire to be rich. Instead, thrift and having enough to get by are idealised as evidence of responsible citizenship. The authors examine the central role that financial restraint plays in the cultural politics of austerity, showing how this plays out in Kate Middelton’s positioning as a ‘thrifty royal’. The authors show how, in contrast, conspicuous consumption is presented as evidence of undeserving wealth, exemplified in criticisms levelled at footballers’ salaries. The chapter ends by analysing how young people made sense of the extreme wealth of celebrities like entrepreneur Bill Gates, arguing that discourses of entrepreneurship and philanthropy inoculate such celebrities from accusations of greed and excess.

Chapter 8: Fame

This chapter disrupts stereotypes of young people as fame hungry. Commentators frequently bemoan a generation of youth who reject the socially-sanctioned values of hard work and self responsibility, seeking fame in and of itself. In contrast, through analysing young people’s talk, the authors show that most distance themselves from aspirations for fame. Instead, young people enact distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ celebrities. The authors demonstrate that fame must be legitimised through evidence of skill, hard work and authenticity, and enjoyed only as a by-product of these rather than as an end in itself. Thus fame can only be part of young people’s aspirations when framed within these qualifying discourses. This position is embodied in the representation of actor Emma Watson. YouTubers, micro-celebrities who acquire fame through the video sharing site, also embody this. They are austerity’s idealised celebrities fitting with wider work subjectivities based on self-branding.

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