Fame, Folk devils and Generation X-Factor

In recent months a number of articles have appeared in the UK national press, reporting renewed concerns about the impact of celebrity and consumer culture on young people’s aspirations. Celebrity culture features in these as a contemporary folk devil, conjured up as the source of various societal ills, and diverting attention from the structural causes of inequality.

Many writers have been quick to ascribe the disenchantment of those young people who participated in the August 2011 riots to the influence of celebrity rather than economic factors and the widening social class inequalities that are resulting from the Coalition government’s policies. For example, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith blamed the public disorder on a ‘get rich quick’ X-Factor generation, while social care consultant Melanie Henwood, writing in the Guardian, labeled young rioters as “the Big Brother generation” who suffer from “the mistaken expectation that they too can be celebrities, be rich, be famous, with little effort or talent required”.

More recently, David Hanson chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (a leading body representing private schools), attributed a rise in the number of girls being enrolled in elite prep schools to parents’ attempts to protect their daughters from a damaging ‘WAG culture’ and ‘something for nothing’ lifestyle of modern celebrities.

These figures are the latest in an increasing number of politicians, media commentators and high-profile education figures who have blamed celebrity culture for low aspirations and poor educational attainment without any evidence for such a relationship.

In our own published research on young people’s educational aspirations, we show that young people do not uncritically ‘buy into’ celebrity culture, unbridled consumerism and success without hard work. In fact, they are often fiercely critical of fame without talent and admire celebrities who ‘graft’.  Our work also suggests that such debates pathologise young people’s relationships with celebrity and neglect how, for some young people, an investment in celebrity can be better understood as a product of their alienation from education rather than simply producing this alienation. We will have a chance to explore this in more detail from September when we start a two year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to look at the relationship between celebrity and young people’s classed and gendered aspirations.

Hanson’s proposal that private schools can somehow protect young girls as some kind of ‘safe haven’ from the forces of celebrity culture, not only denigrates the important work of teachers in state schools in supporting young people’s aspirations but also represents the present government’s love affair with private education as a model for improving the perceived failures of state education.

The gendering of these debates – the intense focus on girls’ assumed obsession with celebrity and its ‘corrupting’ influence on their educational and emotional wellbeing – is also intriguing and troubling. It reflects recent policy and government commissioned reviews around ‘sexualisation’ which have tended to neglect boys’ engagement with popular and consumer culture and their sexual identities and practices reinforcing simplistic binaries of girls as victims/ boys as oppressors. Isn’t this intense focus on girls’ relationship to celebrity just another way in which young girls’ sexual and gender identities are governed?  And as it’s private schools that are being heralded as safe havens from the ‘damaging’ effects of WAG culture, such debates privilege middle-class parenting and resources.

This is not a new phenomena: 15 years ago, Valerie Walkerdine provided a poignant account of young girls’ relationship to popular culture (including the UK TV series Mini Pops). Furthermore, concerns that young people are doing less well in school seem misplaced: The kids are alright, in fact year on year they’re doing better at school than ever, achieving better exam results and with more young people going to university. So where is this ‘new’ problem? Why are these concerns about celebrity culture and young people’s aspirations so prominent now? What is of interest to us is the wider context in which these folk devils are reappearing. A context which has been obscured within these public debates about celebrity and its so-called damaging effects on young people’s aspirations: rising youth unemployment, cuts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance and Further and Higher education funding, rising university fees. These factors cannot be ignored. They cannot explain everything but may provide some insight into why – if at all – young people may invest in celebrity culture as opportunities for gaining value elsewhere are swiftly being taken away and why others are so keen to jump on this as an explanation for so much more.

Kim Allen, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University, UK, and Heather Mendick, Brunel University, UK



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