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Discuss how celebrities may influence young people’s aspirations in the 21st century
Celebrities are regarded as ideal figures who exhibit exemplary behaviours and are symbols of contemporary life (Holmes and Redmond, 2006). Celebrity operates as a site which circulates discourses of aspiration and work (Mendick et al., 2018), and functions within a variety of discursive practices where youths can position themselves (Willett, 2011). Young people are thought to undergo an identity crisis during adolescence, where they negotiate different aspects of the self and seek out other identities (Erikson, 1968). They experience the process of de-idealisation of their parents; they no longer satisfy the position of role models (Goosens and Marcoen, 1999). Consequently, celebrities may begin to fulfil the space for an exemplary adult figure and provide a site for young people to negotiate their identity, including their aspirations and sense-making around success (Mendick et al., 2015). In the early 21st century, the UK entered an era of austerity which unleashed uncertainty for youths and their imagined futures (Mendick et al,. 2018). Consequently, youths may turn to successful celebrities to develop their aspirations. In this essay, I will explore how celebrities may influence young people’s aspirations through discourses of austere meritocracy. I will discuss why Emma Watson may be an influential celebrity and draw on Harris’s (2004) notions of the can-do girl, as well as examining the influence of microcelebrities such as Zoe Sugg on young individual’s aspirations.
Technological advancements have allowed celebrities to be omnipresent on multiple media platforms. In western contemporary societies, young people are becoming increasingly ‘tethered to the internet’ (Turkle, 2011, p.153) and thus celebrity culture has become embedded into their everyday lives. The ubiquitous nature of celebrities positions them on a pedestal for public admiration, which attributes them a superior position in society (Marshal, 2010). Organised religion is declining in the 21st century with a recent survey revealing 70% of young people in the UK have no religion (Bullivant, 2018). Despite this reduction, it is instinctive for humans to learn from high-status figures as imitating prestigious individuals is more likely to lead to success (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Consequently, some theorists (Rojek, 2001; Maltby et al., 2002) propose celebrity culture has emerged as an alternative to religion to satisfy the desire to learn from reputable figures. Thus, celebrities function through an aspirational discourse and will inevitably influence youths’ aspirations whilst they undergo identity work. An individual’s self-concept is formed by an actual and ideal self (Higgins, 1987). Young people are encouraged to work towards the ideal self as part of a self-reflexive project (Giddens, 1991). Celebrities are thought to act as a guide for the ideal (Caughey, 1978) and thus youths may turn to celebrities to form their aspirational selves. Thus, in contemporary societies where organised religion is declining and celebrities are attributed with an ideal status, young people’s aspirations will inevitably be influenced by celebrities.
Additionally, celebrities may be key sources of aspiration for young people in the 21st century due to living in an era of austerity. The financial crash in 2008 led to political, social and economic turmoil in the UK. Young individuals have been particularly vulnerable to the consequences, such as the growing housing crisis, rising youth unemployment and cuts to education (Mendick et al., 2015). This has caused youths to lose optimism in their imagined futures therefore creating a narrative of generational decline (Mendick et al., 2018). However, aspiration has remained a dominant discourse in the UK political agenda; exemplified by the current Prime Minister stating she wants ‘Britain to be the world’s greatest meritocracy’ (May, 2016). This may have led to cruel optimism for young people (Berlant, 2011); society is encouraging youths to remain attached to aspiration and achievement, despite the meritocratic promise being undermined by austerity. Consequently, youths may form their aspirations as austere meritocracy, where it is up to the neoliberal self to be hard-working, authentic and entrepreneurial to be successful. Young individuals may turn to successful celebrities who capture ideas linked with austere meritocracy. Thus, celebrities may be central to young people’s aspirations during an era of social and economic turmoil; they help youths make sense of the world by presenting successful ways of behaving and thinking (Dyer, 1986).
Youths may turn to young achieved celebrities (Rojek, 2001) such as the actress, model and activist Emma Watson. Research conducted by National Citizen Service and ICM found Watson was the most influential celebrity for young people in 2017 (Hunt, 2017). Watson may influence young individuals’ aspirations as she represents the authentic, hard-working and entrepreneurial form of achievement which is privileged within austere meritocracy. Watson is shown to be a high-achiever through her educational and career success; she has a degree in English literature from the prestigious Brown University and stars in many films including the Harry Potter franchise. Her achievements are presented as being accomplished through discourses of self-responsibility and resilience, which are regarded as important for success in austere meritocracy. On Watson’s Facebook page there are numerous quotes which present her as being diligent in striving for her ideal self. For example, ‘I am my own worst critic. I always want to do better. I’m always striving towards the next thing’ (Watson, 2013). Thus, Watson represents the ‘can-do girl’ (Harris, 2004) which is characterised by being self-inventive, resilient in achieving goals and enthusiastic in having a career. The can-do girl is frequently perpetuated in the media and constructs young women as a ‘vanguard of new subjectivity’ (Harris, 2004, p.1) who offer exemplary ways to manage societal changes. The high visibility of the high-achieving girl may influence young women to believe they need to embody the can-do girl’s characteristics. Thus, Watson may be inspirational particularly for young women; she epitomises the can-do girl and embodies the neoliberal ideas of being self-responsible for your achievements.
In addition, authenticity is regarded as a moral duty which individuals achieve through techniques of self-knowledge in order to understand the ‘true’ self (Rose, 1996). Within austere meritocracy, authenticity is imperative for success. Watson’s celebrity representation is presented as authentic as she is shown to have a desire for anonymity and normality. This is highlighted in her statement ‘ignoring fame was my rebellion, in a funny way. I was insistent on being normal and doing normal things’ (Schwartz, 2013). Mendick et al (2018) found most young people do not have unbridled desires for fame and view it as a by-product of high achievements. Watson may influence youths’ aspirations as she displays no desire for celebrity status and remains authentic, whilst simultaneously earning fame through hard work. Neoliberal notions of self-responsibility and individualism has made work a space for self-expression and suggests the authentic self should be fulfilled through one’s career (Gershon, 2016). Watson’s work can be viewed as an extension of herself as her high achievements and articulate persona is heavily aligned with the character, Hermione Granger, whom she played from 9-20 years-old. Her work may have been a space for self-realisation whilst she went through identity formation during adolescence. Consequently, Watson’s disinterest in fame and the trajectory of herself in her career makes her celebrity representation authentic. She may influence young people’s aspirations as she is the ideal subject of austere meritocracy and offers ways to embrace the harsh economic, social and political changes in contemporary societies.
However, a recent study found 60% of young people feel unable to cope with the stress caused by pressures to succeed (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). Aspirational figures such as Watson may have exacerbated these pressures by modelling prodigious ways to respond to the economic and social precarity. Due to Watson’s authenticity, youths may believe achieving similar achievements is not out of the realms of possibility and thus create high expectations of their imagined futures. Therefore, she may set high standards of aspiration which may intensify the pressures to succeed. Watson’s authentic and hard-working celebrity representation overrides her privileged background and that her parents were middle-class Oxford-educated lawyers. Whilst her achievements may seem tangible it may be another site of cruel optimism (Berlant, 2011); her success is not the reality for the majority of young people due to her privileged upbringing and the grandeur of achievements. Whilst Watson may influence young people’s aspirations, she may simultaneously create unrealistic standards of achievement.
Furthermore, the growth of participatory media has resulted in a demotic turn (Turner, 2010), whereby ordinary people have been permitted the ability to ‘grab hold of the megaphone’ (Bourdieu, 1999 cited in McQuarrie et al., 2013, p.136) and inhabit the subject position of a celebrity through creating content on social media. This has allowed the creation of the ‘microcelebrity’ (Senft, 2008), which refers to individuals who deploy and maintain their identity as a branded good through online self-presentation techniques. Zoe Sugg is an eminent microcelebrity who has attained her celebrity status through elevating the everyday into a spectacle by documenting her life through online video blogs (vlogs). Sugg has shown resilience in vlogging for 10 years to build a mass audience of nearly 12 million subscribers on YouTube for her own entrepreneurial success. Sugg may influence youths’ aspirations as she is the quintessential subject of austere meritocracy; she embodies discourses of aspiration by achieving entrepreneurial success through hard work and authenticity (Mendick et al., 2018). Sugg presents a palpable sense of authentic self-expression through visual networked performances such as displaying ordinary expertise (Bonner, 2003). Although Sugg is identified as a beauty vlogger, she regularly rejects her position as an expert. This can be seen in ‘My Every Day Autumn Makeup’ (Zoella, 2017), where she exhibits ignorance to the names of makeup brands. Her absence of expert knowledge creates a seemingly authentic facade. She is able to sustain her authentic persona when endorsing commodity goods for her economic benefit. For example, the brand Desenio is overtly advertised in a video she titles ‘GUEST BEDROOM MAKEOVER | BEFORE & AFTER | AD’ (Zoella, 2018). She informs the audience the video is monetised by labelling the video with ‘AD’, and consequently maintains her authentic persona by being honest. Thus, Sugg may be an aspirational figure for youths as she embodies austere meritocracy’s dominant discourses of aspiration.
Additionally, YouTubers like Sugg may influence young people’s aspirations as they are perceived as ordinary individuals and thus their success may be perceived as attainable. Sugg portrays a sense of ordinariness and relatability in her online presentation which may socially attract viewers. For example, in ‘Huge Holiday ASOS Haul & Try On’ (Zoella, 2016) Sugg urges her viewers to ‘let me know what you think of this one’ after she tries on a dress in her bedroom. Sugg uses synthetic personalisation (Fairclough, 2001); she addresses her mass audience as individuals through using the second person pronoun ‘you’. This adds a personal dimension to her impersonal interactions with her audience. Her direct and personal language and references to her private life hails her viewers into the subject position as her friend (Althusser, 1971). Thus, viewers may perceive Sugg as homogenous to their ordinary selves. The social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954) postulates that individuals are inclined to make self-evaluations by comparing themselves with relevant others. Therefore, young people may compare themselves to Sugg and as she is considered as a similar other (Westenberg, 2016). Consequently, young individuals’ aspirations may be influenced by microcelebrities as they set a standard of success which seems ostensibly attainable. Thus, Sugg may be more influential for youths’ aspirations than achieved celebrities like Watson; she shows how an allegedly ordinary individual can be successful without an extraordinary talent.
Moreover, a recent study revealed that becoming a YouTuber is the top career choice for young people (The Sun, 2017). This career may be aspirational for youths as it embodies practices which are infiltrated in numerous elements of social life such as job seeking (Gershon, 2016). In order to be successful in the competitive labour market, the curation of a branded self is encouraged by employers and university career services (Ingam and Allen, 2018). Young individuals are encouraged to utilise their social media platforms to build a personal brand by projecting their skills, interests and accomplishments to impress prospective employers. The process of improving an individual’s employability by projecting an online self, aligns with the practices of a YouTuber. For example, Sugg has collated and projected her qualities in attractive ways through using self-commodification techniques to build a brand as an expression of her authentic self. For example, Sugg’s product range, ‘Zoella Lifestyle’, functions as an extension of her persona. The visual aesthetic of Sugg’s vlogs is projected into the products including the use of foliage and metallics. Thus, Sugg has commodified her life which can be described as capitalism with a human face (Žižek, 2009); she has used her relationship with her viewers for her economic benefit. Consequently, Sugg promotes self-commodification as an exemplary response to the current precarious employment and social insecurity. Thus, microcelebrities like Sugg may influence youth’s aspirations as she displays the worker subjectivities which youths are encouraged to enact within contemporary capitalism.
However, whilst Sugg may shape young people’s aspirations by exhibiting a desirable and seemingly attainable way of responding to economic and social precarity, this may be another form of cruel optimism (Berlant, 2011). Youths may be optimistic that Sugg’s success is achievable as she is perceived as synonymous to an ordinary individual. However, Sugg’s huge success is unattainable by the vast majority and difficult to sustain. Errors made in maintaining a coherent mediated persona may be detrimental to a microcelebrity status. For example, Sugg lost over 400,000 followers after offensive tweets were resurfaced (BBC, 2017) and her authentic online persona was challenged. Thus obtaining and maintaining a Youtube career is more challenging than it may be perceived by young people. Also, Sugg’s mediated identity may be heavily manipulated through subjectivation (Foucault et al., 2016). Carefully crafting one’s self into a palatable and consistent product for an audience may result in performativity being more important than projecting a true self (Marwick, 2015). Consequently, Sugg may be constructed in an attractive way for monetary value and thus unauthentic. Therefore, young people may be aspiring to be something which doesn’t exist in reality; her amateurism and relatability may be deliberately performed and her success may have been achieved through artificial authenticity. Consequently, Sugg’s curated online persona may be distant from her true sense of self. Therefore, her persona may be what Baudrillard (1994) calls a ‘simulacra’; her mediated persona has overtaken her true self. Whilst Sugg may influence young individual’s aspirations, her success may be unreproducible as her persona is counterfeit.
Ultimately, the pervasive and superlative nature of celebrities in contemporary societies will inevitably influence young people’s aspirations. In the UK, youths are concerned about their futures as a consequence of the social and economic uncertainties. Therefore, they may turn to those who have been successful to form their aspirations. Individuals such as Watson who is emblematic of the dominant discourses of austere meritocracy may be particularly influential. She gained celebrity status as a by-product of her resilience and hard work through discourses of authenticity. However, her high achievements and success may increase pressures for young individuals as they may aspire to attain a similar standard. Also, the advent of the microcelebrity such as Sugg may be more influential on youths’ aspirations as they are perceived as ordinary and thus their success is ostensibly achievable. Sugg may inspire youths as she successfully embodies techniques promoted by recruitment experts to create a branded self. She may also influence young people’s aspirations as she embodies discourses of austere meritocracy. However, her persona may be superficial and not align with her authentic self, thus her success may not be as seemingly attainable. Overall, celebrities like Watson and Sugg will inevitably influence young people’s aspirations due to their prevailing nature and successful responses to an era of austerity.
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