Most of us see the mass media as something from which other people need protecting. We, in contrast, view ourselves as having the strength to withstand its influence and the insight to see through its lies. Usually these other people are younger than us and they’re more likely to be male than female, and more likely to be working class than middle class. This tendency to see other people as vulnerable to media corruption has been found so often in research studies that it’s become called ‘the third-person effect’. In this post Heather looks briefly at how far this came through in our group interview data.
Evidence of the third-person effect
The third-person effect is evident within our participants’ group talk, with participants’ strong and frequent ascription of celebrity influence to other – particularly, younger – people. For example, here’s Ryez, a young man from Manchester in Year 10, and Luigi, a young woman from London in Year 12:
Ryez: I think that celebrities shouldn’t be too fussed on how they look all the time coz celebrities looks have a big effect on how their fans and younger people want to dress. It’s like, they have all these make up artists and all the stuff done to their face and that makes it impossible for like younger girls, they don’t have all the money to spend on all this like surgery and stuff. It makes it hard for them to look good I guess. Well, but in their eyes, but in other people’s eyes they look fine.
Luigi: I think she’s Katie Price fake, and like obviously coz she had so much plastic surgery, and all these kids think like, they want themselves to look different because she looks different, and she looks better. Well, sometimes, sometimes not. But yeah, bad role model.
Here, as throughout our data, it is younger girls – usually aged between 9 and 12 who are constructed through the talk as in danger due to their permeability to celebrity culture. It is these young girls who are the typical fangirls, Beliebers and Directioners. This image of the girl fan plays on wider ideas of female vulnerability. It also persists even when contradicted by the young people’s experience of fandom. However, although common, the third-person effect was not all-pervasive.
Claims of celebrity influence
Many young people were comfortable admitting to (some) celebrity influence on themselves when this was positive. So, for example, there was talk about being inspired by diverse figures including Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Tu Pac and Mary King. Within such talk, celebrity influence was constructed as more complex than simple mimicry. People would not admit to changing how they dressed or styled their hair due to celebrity. For example, when young people in rural schools in the South West talk about Tom Daley as an influence, they speak of how he shows what it’s possible for someone their age from the South West to become. Here the negative as well as the positive can sometimes be helpful. As Ginny puts it ‘you’re getting, not direct advice, but you’re sort of learning from someone else’s mistakes.’ In Ginny’s rejection of ‘direct advice’, she positions herself as active in making sense of celebrity actions.
We are still analysing our data, but I think that we can see in them the beginnings of an alternative to the idea that it is always ‘other’ people who are influenced by celebrity and media messages. In this next extract the two boys, George and Dr Lighty locate celebrity influence outside themselves in girls, suggesting that Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are ‘a big causation to why girls have changed a lot’. Two girls, Strawberry and Pringles, insist on their own independence from celebrity influence, with Pringles supporting Strawberry’s claim that she dyed her hair red long before any high-profile celebrities did so. But a third girl Taylor takes a different approach:
George: And you’d be surprised how many people actually like worship what she (Nicki Minaj) does. …
Dr Lighty: Her and Rihanna are a big causation to why girls have changed a lot.
Interviewer: Do you reckon? In what way?
Dr Lighty: They dye their hair red, and-
Strawberry: I didn’t dye it because of Rihanna.
Dr Lighty: No, I know I know.
Pringles: She’s always had red hair.
Strawberry: I dyed it red years ago.
Pringles: But people have gone red because of Rihanna. …
George: They (celebrities) can influence so many people, and like do so many things.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you’re influenced by celebrities?
Lewis J: No.
Dr Lighty: Yeah.
Strawberry: Not that much, no.
Dr Lighty: Coz like say fashion, for example.
Taylor: You think you’re not, but you actually are.
Dr Lighty: If you saw a celebrity dressed in this way you’ll want to dress in this way.
Dr Lighty: Because it gets them you know, popular
Strawberry: Personally, just not.
Taylor: Like a certain look. Yeah, the most popular look everyone goes for.
Strawberry: I go for what I like.
Pringles: So do I.
Strawberry: I wear clothes that make me feel comfortable.
In Taylor’s assertion that she is ‘definitely’ influenced by celebrities and her provocation to others that ‘you think you’re not, but you actually are’, we have a strong rejection of the third-person effect and a claiming of an inevitably-mediated subjectivity. We are excited by this since it seems to hold the possibility of different discussions about our relationship to the media.
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