Peter Fraser has been has been involved in media education for 25 years, first as media studies teacher and for the past five years freelance . He has been chief examiner for OCR Media studies A-level for 14 years and is currently working with The National Television Film school, as part of the British Film Institute‘s film academy, alongside chairing the Media Education Association that support teachers of the subject, and blogging regularly. Pete has been involved with the CelebYouth research since the beginning as a member of the Advisory Group. I this post Knowledge Transfer Fellow Akile Ahmet discusses young people, celebrity and our research with him.
What are your views on youth and celebrity culture?
I think pretty much in line with the findings. The first thing I will say, being a media teacher, kids aren’t as dumb as people make out they have got complex and differing positions at the same time: just because they are a fan of One Direction doesn’t mean they can’t also be interested in politics for instance. I think that’s one of the things that is too simplistic is our view of young people and the assumptions of either their vulnerability or how dangerous they are. In fact, young people are just the same as older people – complicated!
What barriers do young people face?
They’re up against it as there are all manner of pressures and assumptions placed on them. Like older people, their problems are connected to deeper structural problems in society, the economy and so forth. But in the media saturated world, these pressures are more visible than it was when I was growing up – things are much more immediate and are endlessly talked about. So the things politicians say about if you don’t get this qualification you won’t get this, I think that’s nonsense because even if everybody did all of the things that were asked of them phenomenally well, there still would only be a certain amount of jobs to go round because of structures and they wouldn’t all get places at so-called good universities. Meritocracy’s being sold as a myth. So ultimately the biggest barriers they face, the biggest problems they face are to with the whole political, neoliberal economic structure.
You mentioned that young people are being sold myths, can you expand on that:
I think it’s this constant telling young people that these are the ways to get on in the world. For example, there’s been a lot of demeaning talk about media studies and the so-called soft subjects and they are put up in opposition to so-called hard subjects and the story gets told by everyone from education ministers to media commentators that you need to do these subjects in order to get on but actually if you knew anything about how the exam system works and how universities work and the numbers involved and so forth you would know that whatever they claim it’s still only going to be limited to a small minority of people and it’s usually those who come with a high degree of cultural capital from their home backgrounds. So it’s a meritocratic myth, that’s part of the problem. It’s no wonder that young people think well what’s the point?
What are your thoughts on our key findings?
The findings around hard work tie in with the things that I’ve just been saying; young people are like older people on the whole.We’re sold about the “social security scrounger” who’s not prepared to work and deemed as not having any character. Well how do we address that? Stick the army into schools: that’s a way to get character! And that’s just not true. It’s always possible at an anecdotal level for people to talk about that person there who watches Jeremy Kyle or the family up the road and to then make sweeping judgements. When actually in reality, the kids that I’ve taught over the years, whilst there is always a certain amount of bravado and pretending that they’re not doing any work in front of their mates, are hardworking, committed, want to do well and think that’s the way to get on. So it’s not surprising when they look at celebrities, they like ones that reflect their desire to get on and succeed.
I found the findings on Will Smith’s popularity really interesting and I’m interested that Bill Gates is viewed as a celebrity – I was shocked by that. I mean the word celebrity has changed since I was taught by Richard Dyer as part of my film degree 30 years ago. The definition is much, much broader and certainly that seems to be the case in kids’ minds. And when I thought about that I can see why they would apply it to Bill Gates and Richard Branson – they’re successful business people and so have that kinds of status. I think people like Bill Gates in particular and all that charity work in he does carries a lot of resonance and that becomes part of his image that resonates with kids rather than some more-obvious celebrities who tend to be represented as troubled and selfish. I’ve heard stories about footballers going off and doing charity work and visiting kids in hospital but those tend not to get much coverage.
To some extent, their view of a particular celebrity is based on the sort of media coverage of them. I’m not a subscriber to a simple media effects model but nonetheless if you’re endlessly getting positive stories about people it’s hard to read against the grain of that. On the other side of the coin, the celebrities that they were keen to slag off like Kim Kardashian again you can correlate that with their overall coverage, and again it’s quite difficult to read against that.
Beyoncé is quite an interesting case study. I think it goes back to Madonna, the ways that powerful female artists have taken control or appear to have taken control of their own careers and their own image very early on. That resonates with a certain fan base, and they speak up strongly. Like Beyoncé, with her recent album, everything was her own decision, and that becomes part of the star’s image – oh here is the powerful independent woman. By contrast say Nicki Minaj, they viewed her as more manipulated and I think that is quite an important thing in the way that young audiences make sense of celebrity.There is such a strong distinction between the celebrity who is just famous for being famous and the celebrity who is famous for being good at what they do, be it a football, business or music. It’s part of that authenticity, it’s like manufactured bands vs people who play their own instruments and write their own songs – that has quite an appeal for audiences. So the appeal of Beyoncé as authentic to a fan, is similar to boys and their rock bands in the 1970s; it is much easier to dismiss something that you see as manufactured.
I asked Pete what other resources would he like to see emerge from the project:
From Richard Dyer’s work on ‘stars’ in the 1980s, they produced this pack called ‘stars’ featuring Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Dyer came up with three concepts: star image, star vehicle and star power. I think these are still quite useful so you could use celebrity image and celebrity power. The vehicle one is obviously more complex, like what is the star vehicle for Bill Gates? I mean star power can be economic, industrial power in some way. But a star like an actor who goes onto become a producer you know there is a lot of things there, there is also a lot of commercial power and their image and significance. So I think a kind of update of those basic starting points with some additional stuff with a slant towards audiences and meaning would be quite good and you could find a space. I mean you’ve got some fantastic material and the report cards are a good example of that and how audiences make meaning of what they know of a star and then giving them that creative space of what do I know about this and that reveals the meaning that they already have of them.
I think if I was using it I would throw in disabled celebrities because I don’t think that came up at all. I think disability is still not on the agenda and the government is making it difficult for disabled people with their policies – trying to make the disabled and the poor invisible, so it’s something that the kids need to have their awareness heightened about these things.
So how do you think we could increase the impact of the research?
A lot of time and money are invested in online resources but I’m not sure how useful they are. I’m more of a grassroots person. So actually if a couple of teachers use stuff properly that has a bigger impact than the more superficial stuff with larger numbers. If you get the right individuals who will give things a go and come back and say well this good, then they’ll recommend it to someone else.
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