The Media does not construct representations of identity merely reflects them

Topic the representation of youth. Media: Film, News and the internet.

David Snow is quoted as saying: “Although there is no consensual definition of collective identity, discussions of the concept invariably suggest that its essence resides in a shared sense of ‘one-ness’ or ‘we-ness’ anchored in real or imagined shared attributes and experiences among those who comprise the collectivity and in relation or contrast to one or more actual or imagined sets of ‘others’.”

And Poletta and Jasper said: ‘it is a perception which may be imagined rather than experienced directly… A collective identity may have been first constructed by outsiders (for example, as in the case of Asians or refugees in this country), who may still enforce it, but it depends on some acceptance by those to whom it is applied.’

Both of these views would make it seem as if identity is more a construction than a real reflection of identity.

In today’s media it often seems as if children but particularly young people or teenagers are represented as the most recent threat to society. Hardly a day goes by without a crime committed by a gang of ‘hoodies’, a teenager knifing another or gangs attacking each other for no better reason than boredom. From the news with blurred CCTV footage of ‘hoodies’ skulking in shopping centres to newspaper headlines like The Times in march 2008 ‘Teenage knife crime is one of the biggest threats to London after terrorism.‘ It would certainly not be unusual to believe that teenagers are out of control and a significant threat to law abiding adults. Indeed we commonly hear of adults crossing the road to avoid groups of young people.

But now they are fighting back as a Facebook page proclaims ‘Not all teenagers are knife-carrying, ASBO collecting yobs.‘ And as an article for Radio Waves at the Rushcliffe School asks: ‘Is it really fair to stereotype them all? [Teenagers] Not all young people deserve the negative press they get.

But is this really such a modern problem? Maybe not. Plato certainly thought the young people of his day were unruly and far too disrespectful of their elders! In Shakespeare we have Henry (V to be) and his comrades in the East Cheap Gang being one of many such gangs of youths who rampaged through London in the 15th century.

So H+J’s 1997study in which they conclude : ‘fear of crime… in an age of uncertainty, discourses that appear to promise a resolution… by producing identifiable victims and blameable villains… figure in the State’s … attempts to impose social order.’ may in fact be not as simple and obvious a conclusion as it seems.

It would probably not be an unfair conclusion that the news be it TV or paper copy seems to be portraying a stereotypical representation of the negative side of young people. After all ‘negative’ news is a news value and bad news makes better (more saleable) news than good news. So it’s in editors’ best interests (in terms of readership sales and profits) to take the undoubted horror stories of a minority of youth behaviour and imply that it is a far bigger problem and more prevalent than it actually is.

Again if we look at the historical representation of young people in the media they hardly feature at all until the 1950s when suddenly it was realised that they had money and were a consumer group just waiting to be sold to and with this sudden power they also became a threat. ‘In 1956 according to Scholastic magazine, the average teenager had a weekly income of $10.55; just prior to the start of World War II that was the average weekly disposable income for an entire family. With more money inevitably came a certain degree of independence—less parental support was needed for socializing and purchasing. Parents might have worried that their children had too much freedom; but teens, like almost everyone else, benefited from the prosperity of postwar America.’

The film ‘Rebel Without a Cause‘ with James Dean proved popular with young people expressing as it did the teenage angst of the time trying to find their place in a troubled time and acceptance among their own. He is seen in the character of Jim as a teenager just trying to fit in but picked on by bullies and misunderstood by parents and authority figures… (fill in details to show how he is actually constructed: clothes, actions, dialogue even, camera angles…) but he was just the forerunner of what became a common representation of young people.

The sixties were the age of youth, as 70 million children from the post-war baby boom became teenagers and young adults.  The movement away from the conservative fifties continued and eventually resulted in revolutionary ways of thinking and real change in the cultural fabric of American life.  No longer content to be images of the generation ahead of them, young people wanted change. The changes affected education, values, lifestyles, laws, and entertainment.‘ In Britain in the film ‘Quadrophenia‘ the mods and rockers are represented in traditional clothing so as to be instantly recognisable and shown engaged typically getting into fights in 1960s Brighton, often involving innocent bystanders. A mode of behaviour roundly condemned by hegemonic opinion leaders (see the press reports of the violence) but here being an independent British film (produced by The Who films) seen in a less condemnatory way and now seen as a celebration of the vibrancy of British youth. This is youth seen from youth’s point of view ‘perfectly capturing the teenage need to belong and identify with their peers.

The reports from Margate and Hastings, the scenes of many pitched battles between large gangs of mods and rockers, were typical of the incomprehension, unease and moral indignation felt by the establishment. This selection comes from The Times:


There was further trouble here today. Gangs of youths and girls catcalled and threatened each other on the beach after a stabbing incident in the afternoon…Mrs. Stott said: ‘The boy who started it was so good looking and nicely dressed; you wouldn’t have thought he was a nasty type.’

And other headlines:



The question is why did this become such a popular cult film? Blumler and Katz would argue that it perfectly fulfilled the ‘personal relationships’ category of their Uses and Gratifications theory of audience but it didn’t make young people go out and join these groups. However those in authority definitely felt threatened and since this era young people are almost completely seen in a negative way – as threats to ‘reasonable’ authority, as rebellious and ungovernable. In Levi-Strauss’ binary oppositions they are almost always seen as the villain to authority’s hero, as the disruptive influence in the narrative, the problem which needs to be resolved and by setting young people up as an oppositional force to the adult population. In addition the connotations and associations of youth, in particular in big budget Hollywood style films, e.g. ‘Step Up‘ with its binary oppositions of working class, fostered, delinquent boy versus middle-class, hardworking, goal-oriented girl have continued to be the norm. In this film we even have the ‘criminal’ black kids, one of whom gets killed, then as this forces a reassessment of his life his brother succumbs to the dominant ‘white hegemonic’ ideal and decides to change to fit in with what society ideally expects of all of us. Well it’s either that or prison! This picture was produced by Summit Entertainment an independent film making company in America but now ranked 7th in the US and not so small that it couldn’t afford a $12m budget for this. It was distributed in the US by Touchstone Pictures a division of Walt Disney company and in the UK by UIP a joint venture of Paramount and Universal Pictures.

By contrast Shane Meadows’ 2006 filmThis is England‘ had a budget of just £1.5m was co-produced by Film Four and Warp Films and despite its 18 certificate for racist language was felt it was a film which should be shown to British youngsters. The film won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2007 British Academy Film Awards. Centring on a group of young skinheads in the 1980s it explores again the need for acceptance and longing for role models. When everything goes wrong and a young black almost gets killed, the young hero rejects his recent English Nationalist ideals. Ultimately then this film, despite its fairly shocking core material, is towing the hegemonic party line and accepting that being young means doing things wrong or the wrong things for the right reasons. But what it does do, given the chance, is show that our snap judgments that all young people are thugs and louts is misguided and just plain wrong.

One of the aspects of modern life and access to technology is the ease with which we can share information with each other. Something happens and we all know about it in minutes…

In conclusion it might be true that in the past the media were more likely to take a stereotype and run with it causing it to be the norm in terms of how young people were portrayed but in today’s more technologically ‘equal’ society it is more likely that the media is in fact more accurately described as reflecting different ‘representations’ of youth. And if young people don’t like that representation e.g. as seen on countless Facebook pages as partying, drinking, vomiting, promiscuous people then perhaps they are to blame. For whatever is posted on these sites will remain there. A perennial testament to youthful high spirits or just plain stupidity!


Obviously this is not a complete essay: there is not nearly enough in the way of examples / nor theory in any depth but be picky here! Choose your theories wisely and illustrate them so for example if doing women or celebrity concentrate on Feminism and what feminism says about the way they are represented.


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