Celebrity culture and young people’s classed and gendered aspirations

Dr. Kim Allen’s (ESRI, MMU) presentation, ‘The X Factor Generation? Young people’s aspirations and celebrity culture’, offered a sneak peak of some early findings from her and Dr. Heather Mendick’s (Brunel) ESRC-funded project ‘Celebrity Culture and Young People’s Aspirations’.  The project explores how young people navigate celebrity culture and develop their self-identities relating to education and aspiration.  The significance of the focus on celebrity and aspiration is found in the repeated connection of the two in contemporary discourse. For example, after the stillborn ‘Big Society’ David Cameron now aims to bring forth an ‘Aspiration Nation’ (read here) yet he recently joked in Monrovia that, “If you ask children in the UK, all they want to be is pop stars and footballers” (read more here and here).kardashian 1

Kim described that celebrity studies is often dismissed as being shallow and apolitical yet the subject is attracting serious academic attention, with a new journal and conference.  Indeed ignoring celebrities in time when even the evidently erudite and high-brow Michael Gove declares that Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci are key influences on his approach to education (read here) seems bizarre.  Furthermore, the articulation of the celebrity-obsessed young person and the location for reduced opportunities within the individual’s delusional aspirations warrants critical academic engagement in the current socio-economic and political context in which opportunities for many young people are being denied by cuts, additional fees, and a failure to invest in opportunities.

kardashian 2The task, as Kim outlined, is to bring proper academic inquiry to the study of young people and celebrity culture.  The study builds on previous work by Kim and Heather Mendick (read here, here) and represents methodological advances on previous research by being young person centred, using interviews and textual analysis of online and offline material, and incorporating an analysis of affect.  In particular, building on the work on reality TV, visual moral economies and class, the research will understand celebrity as a social practice and young people as participatory actors agents in the process of interpreting and enacting meanings in their everyday practices.

The talk presented some fascinating focus group data with young people discussing the merits or otherwise of the Kardashians and Tom Daley versus Bear Grylls.  A key theme in the data we saw was that of the ‘unworthy celebrity’, where the Kardashians were famous for nothing and were mostly thought to be contemptible.  Perceptions were deeply related to class, sexual attraction, disgust, assumptions around achievement and ability, and the performance and reinforcement of particular understandings of masculinity and femininity. bear g

The odd finding for me was that a group of girls despised one of the Kardashians for having given birth on TV and helped in the process yet the boys liked that Bear Grylls eats snails and bugs on television.  I would’ve thought helping out while giving birth was more impressive than eating creepy crawlies but this proves the point of the research – that we should research how young people navigate celebrity in media and in real life rather than project our opinions.

James Duggan

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