This week, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to 17 year old Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever person to be awarded the prize. Malala, now living in the UK, left Pakistan after a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus, asked for her by name and shot her in the head.
Three years earlier, while living under Taliban rule in Swat, North West Pakistan, Malala had written a blog for BBC Urdu detailing everyday life in the Taliban occupied region and the threat that faced girls just like her who simply wanted to go to school. Girls were told to attend school in plain clothes so as not to draw attention to their destination, had to deal with regular threats of violence and returned to school each morning, unsure of whether their classroom would be the same as it was the day before, or a pile of rubble from a Taliban bombing.
The blog, written under a pseudonym gained worldwide recognition and once the family had fled the region, the writer’s true identity was revealed. A documentary film was made about Malala, her experiences and observations and she was interviewed by the worldwide media, becoming regarded as a passionate child activist, standing up for and promoting the rights for girls in Pakistan to be given the opportunity of an education.
The Yousafzai family returned to Swat once the Pakistani Military had run the Taliban out of the region, Malala now famous the world over and even a recipient of the Pakistan National Peace Award continued to advocate education rights for girls amid a number of death threats against her family and returned to school to continue her education. Shortly after, the militant gunman boarded the bus and fired three shots at her. Thankfully, Malala survived and was transferred to a British hospital to continue her rehabilitation. She now attends school in Edgbaston, but has remained faithful to her work, travelling the world in order to promote education rights for girls.
Few women would argue that Malala is someone to be admired for her work as a child activist during what was and dramatically proved to be an extremely dangerous time. Some might say she is a woman to look up to, something to aspire to, an idol perhaps. But ask any teenage girl who she most idolises and the answer is highly unlikely to be Malala. Many girls her age are oblivious to the existence of the kind of torment that Malala had to endure throughout her teenage years. Many may not even know her name. It seems that for teenagers in the western world, victories such as raising awareness of the danger facing girls in areas of Pakistan under Taliban rule who just want to go to school, or establishing voting rights for women or finding effective treatment for cancer are nothing compared with coming first in X Factor or having a number one single.
Hero worship of musicians, actors and sports stars of course is nothing new. I remember watching a video of a Michael Jackson concert when I was a child, bewildered by the number of girls in apparent agony over being in the same venue as the singer, becoming so overwhelmed that one after another, these poor grief-stricken girls would pass out and have to be man-handled over the railings and carted off by burly security staff to recover from their ordeal. Everyone has seen the footage of the Beatles arriving in New York in 1964, greeted by the ear splintering sound of thousands of screaming fans adorning the roof of JFK Airport. The physical reaction experienced by many at the sight of these celebrities alone is immense. The obsession is equally as shocking.
Celebrity status alone appears to be sufficient to be considered an idol, many well known faces have gained fame and fortune through appearing on reality TV shows or being part of a boy band, though mysteriously, never singing or playing an instrument. Some are famous simply for being famous. Those that do possess talent are quite often known more for their physical appearance than their work. Look at David Beckham. Yes, he has had a pretty great career, I’m not debating that he can play football but surely if it was his ability to score goals that was the main component of his idol status, his ‘Really Bend it Like Beckham’ football skills DVD would be a much better seller than his range of fragrances and the H&M boxers that he models.
It is the same with many celebrities, their perfectly airbrushed cheekbones and ability to writhe about in transparent underwear are more of a draw than the lyrics that they (or more likely someone on the record label) has written or the accurate portrayal of a particular character in a biopic. Why else would we spend money on a ‘Rachel cut’ (ok so it may have been about 15 years ago that Jennifer Aniston was influencing the hairstyles of women the world over but I’m slightly out of touch!) or a dress just like the one Beyonce wore to this year’s Brit Awards or was spotted wearing at Cannes rather than take acting lessons or study songwriting?
I’m not saying that I’m not guilty of unsubstantiated attention towards the work and movements of certain people in the media. I spent a large part of my twenties ensuring that I had copies of every single and album that Matchbox Twenty had ever released as well as sneakily putting their CDs at the front of the stands in my local HMV whenever I visited. I even went to three of their concerts in the space of two months, one of which was in the US and forced my friend to spend two hours waiting in the freezing cold for a chance meeting of Rob Thomas, only to come away with a photo of his right arm, the rest of him obscured by a lamp post. My obsessive viewing of anything that Benedict Cumberbatch has ever appeared in, no matter how terrible the production (Cumberbatch’s acting could of course never falter) annoys not only my friends but also me. But, I like to think that there are valid reasons behind these celebrity obsessions, be they lyrics that I have felt at times over the past fifteen years have been written specifically for me or some incredibly well written scenes that have been executed perfectly thanks to the acting skills of the magnificent Mr Cumberbatch.
I find it difficult to identify this in many of today’s idols. Of course, hero worship was evident with the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Munroe, James Dean to name a few. But all of these people had talent, were unique and changed the world of music or film in one way or another. I have trouble being able to identify that when watching a clip of Justin Bieber lip synching at a concert or Miley Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball in her pants. One could argue that Marilyn Monroe was the first actress to become a brand which in many ways she was, her on screen characters and public character being just that, a character. But she appeared in many memorable films now considered classics. The Beatles were of course admired and obsessed over by millions due to their personalities but they changed the course of music history forever and have been the influence for countless bands and singer songwriters the world over.
It seems that all it takes now to become a brand is a successful often formulaic single, written by someone else and severely over produced or to be the last person to remain in the Big Brother house either through being extremely radical and offensive thus making more interesting viewing or for being the dullest most inoffensive person among a group of equally dull participants. Talent often seems redundant in the world of the idol. Celebrity magazines focus more on what celebrities are wearing, where they have been seen, who they have been seen with. I am often baffled by the things that the media think are worthy of our attention and even more so by people giving them that attention.
While researching this article, I googled ‘Lindsay Lohan’ in order to see what recent ‘news’ there had been about the actress who is well known for gaining publicity for reasons other than her acting career. The first result was a link to an article on the Daily Mail’s website which perfectly articulates the focus of the media in terms of idols. The headline ‘Smoking hot! Lindsay Lohan pops out for a crafty cigarette as she slips into an elegant LBD at the Women Of The Year awards’.
Besides a line about the event at the opening of the article and a paragraph at the end, the article was predominantly concerned with Lohan’s appearance. Lohan attended the event in order to present an award to Fahma Mohamed for Outstanding Young Campaigner of the Year. One of these women raised awareness of female genital mutilation at government level resulting in all schools in the UK being notified of the practice and training teachers in how to inform students in the hope of reducing the already underestimated figure of 66,000 of FGM’s taking place in the UK. The other (while a successful actress in certain terms is unlikely to win an Oscar) has had two driving under the influence convictions, violated the terms of her probation and been in rehab six times due to drug addiction. I’m not condemning anyone with a drug problem here as there are often deeper problems contributing to drug addiction and going into rehab takes guts but given the differences between these two women do we really want the next generation idolising the later?
To me, it is potentially quite dangerous that teenagers are bombarded with images, magazine stories and TV coverage of people who could actually do a lot of damage as role models and it already seems as if people’s priorities and perception of what success is have changed and will continue to do so. So many celebrities are cited as idols by teens and the media coverage that they receive puts them in a position of responsibility to be good role models. But not a week goes by when one of them isn’t arrested, is photographed snorting cocaine or is quoted as saying something remarkably offensive. Coupled with the suggestion that appearance, being a size zero and having a recognisable face are the most important things to aspire to, is this really the message we want to put across?
So how much of people like Fahma and Malala do we see in the media? How often do these women’s achievements get covered in our classrooms or get screen time on TV? Very rarely. So it isn’t a great surprise that many young women don’t know that Emmeline Pankhurst is the person to thank when crossing the box on election day or that Marie Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity would eventually lead to their Mother’s successful cancer treatment. So long as we know who Katy Perry’s latest love interest is and the latest faux pas made by Justin Beiber, that’s the important thing, right?