There are lots of concerns these days about the kind of role models that young people look up to.
Social commentators fear that the youth of today have been captured by popular culture and the so-called cult of the celebrity. This is backed by a growing amount of research suggesting that the increasing attachment of young people to celebrity “heroes” is shaping their identities and aspirations in damaging ways.
For educators, there are additional concerns that children and young people look up to those whose short-lived fame is based on luck, physical prowess or limited talent – rather than more enduring and socially beneficial achievements. Some even worry that this encourages children to reject the more traditional pathway to success of academic achievement, hard work and educational qualifications.
Despite these concerns, very few people have examined who it is that children and young people actually admire. Even fewer have looked at who it is that they dislike – and how their dislikes may be as revealing of their values as their admiration.
What children think
In a recent study, we asked participants to provide two lists of “up to three famous people that you most admire and dislike”. We decided to frame the questions to include only “famous people” as we were worried about the difficulty of analysing responses that referred to family members and friends. In our analysis, we refer to those they admire as “heroes” and those they dislike as “villains”.
The 1200 children and young people – who were in years six, eight and 10 at the time and attending 29 schools in different areas of Wales – provided more than 7000 names. After sorting and organising the data, we decided to focus only on those famous people who were identified as a hero or villain by at least five respondents. This gave us a somewhat reduced tally of 3478 responses – 1683 of which were “heroes” and 1795 were “villains”.
Looking at the top 20 nominations we can see that the concerns over young people being captured by popular culture are justified: while there is clearly a range of nominations – the most popular only received 3 per cent – 18 of the 20 are from the fields of pop music or sport.
The nature of their celebrity status is also strongly gendered. With the exception of athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, all the female heroes in the top 20 are pop singers. The male heroes do include pop stars, and one boy band, but are mainly footballers and rugby players – four of whom play for Welsh national sides.
Interestingly, the identities and fields of achievement of the top 20 villains are also very similar to the heroes.
One very noticeable feature in the two top 20 lists is that four individuals appear in both. In fact, if we look across the responses as a whole, the majority of our 84 villains were other people’s heroes. This suggests that admiration or dislike may be less to do with the famous people themselves and rather more to do with the way in which children and young people appropriate them in order to foster particular allegiances.
Expressing a love or hate for this popstar or that football player is one of the ways in which social ties are made and remade. If it is the case that who you admire or dislike says more about yourself than the objective virtues or vices of your chosen famous person, this may explain the relatively low nominations for those who have done truly heroic or villainous acts.
Take, for example, Adolf Hitler, who places 12th on the villian list, after seven pop acts and David Cameron. Hitler’s legacy is far worse than those of Justin Bieber, or indeed the British Prime Minister, but it seems that for a child or teen, it is far more socially pertinent to say that they hate Bieber’s brand of pop stardom over the truly horrendous acts of Hitler in the 20th century. That is not to say that given an option between the two they would think the singer is worse than the Fuhrer’s, however.
So does it really matter who children admire and dislike? The answer is not as clear-cut as it may seem, and there still are some serious issues to be considered.
The landscape of celebrities is highly classed, raced and gendered – and our young people’s nominations reflect this landscape. As men are over-represented in most walks of public life generally, it is not surprising that they are over-represented in our data.
Where’s the diversity?
With the exception of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, the overwhelming majority of famous black and minority ethnic (BME) people nominated in our survey were from the fields of pop music and sport. There were no BME writers, academics or actors nominated more than five times, and nominations for BME women outside the fields of pop music and sport were even harder to find.
These patterns suggest that the use of famous people and celebrities in the development of identities and allegiances may provide the glue for developing social ties. However, the fields of their achievements – particularly for women – are relatively narrow, which is as likely to compound as to challenge notions of female and BME success.
To determine which is more important for children – having a range of diverse heroes to look up to, or being able to build social ties through celebrity associations – is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, it is good that children engage with sport and popular culture to find heroes that affirm their national, ethnic or gender identities. On the other, it is a shame that their heroes’ fields of achievement conform to stereotype.