Whose reality is it? Look for ways to challenge media messages about celebrity, fame and “reality”

Becoming critical consumers of media within a celebrity obsessed culture can benefit both young people and adults.

Some research has shown that teens have different perspectives than adults about negative peer conflict situations involving things like spreading rumors, telling lies about someone, or sharing hurtful images or private information. While adults might label these kinds of behaviors as bullying or harassment, teens frequently frame them as drama or punking and describe them as a “normal” part of everyday life.

People learn what’s considered acceptable and normal from sources like our families, peer groups, schools and faith communities. The media is also an incredibly powerful teacher – for good and for ill – in terms of how we view ourselves, other people and relationships. We live in a media-saturated world featuring a celebrity culture that values attention-seeking, gossip and drama. Through reality television, entertainment news and social media, celebrities and their behaviors are both revered and defiled. Youth media and technology expert danah boyd stresses that “celebrity culture has normalized drama as a de facto aspect of everyday public life.”

Much of this media landscape is bursting with stereotypes about class, race, ethnicity, disabilities, sexuality, sexual orientation, age and gender. Messages about masculinity range from boys and men being aggressive, unemotional, tough and in control to being slackers without a clue. Messages about girls and women show them as appearance-obsessed, objectified and sexualized, and prone to cat-fighting situations centered on getting the attention of boys and men. A study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute looked at girls’ beliefs about reality television shows, which are a large part of this media celebrity landscape. While 50 percent of all girls in the study believed that these kinds of shows are “mainly real and unscripted,” there were specific differences between the beliefs of girls who watched reality television on a regular basis and those who didn’t. Regular reality TV viewers were more likely to agree that “gossiping is a normal part” of girls’ relationships and that “it’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive.” Regular viewers were also more focused on the value of physical appearance and placed more emphasis on “being mean and/or lying to get ahead.”

It’s important for all of us – young people and adults – to develop critical media literacy skills that help us read and challenge these kinds of messages and what’s behind them. Keep the following in mind when helping young people critically examine media messages about celebrity, fame and “reality:”

  • Even though the messages might not be real, there are real people involved. Stress that people in the media limelight may experience coverage that objectifies, ridicules and degrades them, and that severely limits their privacy – often with little consideration for who they are as whole, complex and vulnerable humans. Look for opportunities to ask kids about the celebrities they admire and what they think are some of the positive and negative effects of fame that these people experience.
  • But I wanna be famous, too! Keep in mind that many young people are very drawn to the notion of being famous and that they’ve learned from many celebrities how to use social media as a very effective attention-getting tool. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd stresses that positive feedback and negative feedback go hand-in-hand when people achieve attention and visibility online. Unlike celebrities who have managers and financial resources to cope with intense attention, young people may really struggle with the kinds of cruelty they might encounter related to their “microcelebrity.”
  • People consume media – including reality shows – for a variety of reasons. Look for opportunities to watch different genres of reality TV shows with young people – including competition-based shows (such as The Voice, American Ninja Warrior and The Bachelor), makeover shows (such as The Biggest Loser and Botched) and real-life shows (such as Teen Mom, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and Duck Dynasty). Try to enter into dialogue with young people without judgment and ask them how they relate to and learn from the people on the shows and what they might find inspiring, funny, bogus, challenging or problematic. Be prepared with key questions (such as “Who benefits from what’s being shown?”) that can help young people deconstruct media portrayals that feel exploitive or that make negative behaviors seem normal and acceptable.
  • We all learn from media messages. Young people aren’t the only ones who are affected by media messages. We’d be hard-pressed to find adults who haven’t learned from a wide variety of media sources, and many of us aren’t aware of ways we’ve internalized some of these messages. As you enter into conversations with young people, make sure that you’re “doing your own work” in terms of examining your own thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, biases and behaviors. Notice the language you use about gender (messages about boys and men and girls and women) and other human differences. Be willing to ask yourself key questions that can better inform your conversations with kids – for example, are you trying to tell young people what the messages are, or are you focused on helping them develop skills to determine what they think the messages might be?

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that cultural and media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and prevent issues like bullying, cyberbullying and bias-based behaviors.

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