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«Drawing on several ethnographies with youth participants, I identified and critiqued three frames that help to comprise the mainstream media’s ...»

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Frame 3: Girls as Fashion Obsessed and Impressionable Mass media pundits would have us believe that girls today are fashion obsessed and acting sexy at too young an age (crop tops, thongs, low rider jeans). By contrast, the 20 girls who comprised the skater sample in the “Girl Power” study (Kelly, Pomerantz, & Currie, 2005) said that, by and large, they liked the casual, comfortable (baggy) look of skater clothes. Many were quick to contrast skater style with what they disliked: “revealing,” brand name attire that they associated with a certain type of popular “boy hunting” girl. As Zoey (age 15) explained, “A lot of the skater clothes aren’t slutty, so that’s really cool.... That really tight stuff—those can get really annoying after awhile, and you can’t do anything on a board in it.” According to Grover (age 15), “bun girls” (her group’s name for girls who displayed an emphasized femininity) wear “tank tops four seasons a year.... They base a lot upon their looks and what they think the guys will like.” “They’re not really their own person,” added Onyx (age 14, almost 15).

When the Vancouver Sun (Richmond, 2004) recently published an article about girls at Van Tech subtitled “Tight, Belly Baring Clothes Make the Grade,” a student there was quick to write the editor to protest that “not everybody dresses like that” (Jung, 2004, p. A13). This student went on to note: “A good number of students express themselves through the way they dress. If everybody dresses the same, they lose their individuality.” This was a theme expressed by many girls in the “Girl Power” study, skaters and non skaters alike. Vanessa (age 13, going on 14) said she liked “some of the ways that people look and how they dress in [popular] magazines. But... I don’t really copy any of that exactly, ‘cause that just wouldn’t be me.”2 34 DEIRDRE M. KELLY Of course, youth are as vulnerable as adults to the marketing strategies of the publishing and broadcast industries, which appeal to media savvy consumers’ sense of individuality. Douglas Rushkoff (2001), for example, has documented how corporations hire those familiar with youth culture to hunt for the styles of “cool” youth and turn these styles into products to be sold to “mainstream” young people (cf. McRobbie & Thornton, 2000, p. 187).


SCHOOLING Mass media’s representations of youth—particularly those marginalized by virtue of their poverty or immigrant status, race, gender, ability, or sexuality—are frequently distorted and negative.3 Drawing from survey and focus group interview research conducted in the United States, Gilliam and Bales (2001) have shown that the dominant content on television news presents a negative picture of youth, altering adult perceptions. In fact, this negative view becomes so ingrained in the minds of adult audiences that they overlook or discount data highlighting positive trends among teenagers and explain away their own positive experiences with young people as aberrations.

The stigmatized media images serve diverse ideological interests, although rarely the interests of youth themselves.4 Stereotypes of youth as violent or members of criminal gangs justify policies that treat schools as prisons and staff as prison guards, where students now encounter surveillance cameras, electronic access devices, bar coded ID tags, and (in the United States) metal detectors and scanner wands (Schmidt, 2004b). Students, particularly those categorized as racial minorities (e.g., Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978; Males, 1999), are treated as potential criminals and automatically suspected of concealing weapons or drugs. In the United States, African American and Latino students are more likely to be disciplined at school than White students (e.g., Noguera, 1995, p. 201), and in a Canadian study, Ruck and Wortley (2002) found that “racial/ethnic minority” students were much more likely than White students to perceive school disciplinary practices as discriminatory.


Stereotypes of teen mothers as “children having children” (when nearly two thirds of births to teenagers are to women aged 18 or 19 years old, that is legal adults, entitled to vote as citizens) cast them as needing lots of help from adults (Kelly, 2000, p. 32). Defining teen mothers “immature” inevitably shapes the programs and policies established to address their needs; thus, supervision, monitoring, and surveillance become the resulting watchwords of such programs. One can see how this frame, working in tandem with the “welfare bum” frame, helped to pave the way for a 1999 policy in Ontario mandating that teen mothers enroll in school or lose their welfare benefits (Southam Newspapers, 1999).

Stereotypes of girls as impressionable and fashion obsessed (and, by extension, boys as collections of uncontrollable hormones) justify everything from single sex classes and schools within the public school system (e.g., Vancouver Sun, 2003) to dress codes (e.g., Alphonso, 2004).

Constituted as both vulnerable to the lustful attentions of boys and men and not fully aware of their sexual power, girls are then said to require protection through various institutional means. I interviewed a principal in British Columbia, for example, shortly after he garnered media attention for banning girls from wearing sports bras to school. He explained that, through music videos Girls learn that what they are is sexual, and they know that if they wear the sports bra, they’ll get more attention. So I don’t know if the school system can allow young women to simply sell themselves as provocateurs and not have them understand that. If you talk to the boys, they love these girls who are coming to class without bras and really short shorts, so that when they sit down, the guys can check them out. (personal communication, September 23, 1993) Ironically, adults seek to protect youth from being negatively influenced by the media (e.g., through the content blocking V chip device for TVs) yet fail to notice how media imagery and rhetoric influence how they view youth and the policies they then enact to control them.

Young people do not participate equally in the making of culture in the everyday world or in public spheres, which contributes to their subordination. With few youth generated self representations to counter dominant images of children as violent and irresponsible—as brainless 36 DEIRDRE M. KELLY consumers of fashion but not as thinking, contributing citizens—coercive measures aimed at youth are easier to enact. Thus, high school seniors in one California school district are required to sign up for postsecondary education before they can participate in their high school graduation ceremony (Brown, 2002). Students deemed to be making inadequate academic progress or to have left school without graduating are not allowed to obtain or hold a driver’s permit or license in North Carolina—the so called “Lose Control/Lose Your License” legislation.

Similar legislation, which connects to images of violent or criminal youth, exists in the states of Florida and Kentucky and has been proposed in Ontario (Greenberg, 2005).


Youth self representations are integral to their effective participation in democracy, including self representations that would critically question the meaning and value of that participation in conventional terms (Harris, 2001). In the next section, I explore how educational researchers, policymakers, and teachers might support youth in their efforts at self definition and resistance to misrepresentation by powerful others. But before I discuss strategies for producing and circulating youth self representations, a few cautions are in order. Speaking directly to mainstream news reporters, particularly as individuals, is likely to result in painful distortions of young people’s intended messages. Molly, a 17 year old mother, spoke for a number of her peers when she complained to me of the selective editing done by a local columnist.

That [newspaper] lady totally twisted what we said because she wanted it to sound worse. I wrote her a letter and said, “If you weren t going to write what we said, why did you waste your time and our time? You might as well just have sat home, made up the story yourself—not even bother us if you weren t going to use the facts.” (Kelly, 2000, p. 67) Even educational researchers equipped with well rehearsed and well documented arguments may find that the corporate dominated, mainstream media filter out or distort their attempts to publicize alternative discourses. I spent considerable time with an education reporter for the Vancouver Sun, for example, when she was preparing a


front page, back to school feature story entitled “High School Dropouts” (see Steffenhagen, 2001). During our interview, she cited the 1999 2000 statistics for British Columbia that only 39 per cent of Aboriginal students completed high school within six years compared to 75 per cent of all students. I put forward various explanations for this, including the devastating legacy of residential schooling, persistent poverty, Eurocentric curricula, and lack of access to a critical history of First Nations peoples to provide a form of protection against the destructive stereotypes that many First Nations youth must endure in school. I described a local program that I had studied, Tumanos, which introduced urban Aboriginal youth to First Nations art, literature, history, sport, and spiritual ceremonies and had met with some success (see Kelly, 1995, pp. 64 68). Thus, when I read the resulting article, which described the low Aboriginal completion rates as a “real shocker,” I myself was shocked to see that nothing I had said about this topic had made its way into the article. I was quoted on other aspects of the “dropout” issue.

Although another university professor, a researcher with the right wing Fraser Institute, the president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, the head of a nonprofit “rescue program,” and numerous early school leavers were interviewed, no Aboriginal scholars, experts, spokespeople, teachers, or students were quoted. The reporter mentioned that the B.C. Human Rights Commission had “announced its intention to conduct an inquiry into why aboriginal students aren’t generally successful in the public school system” (Steffenhagen, 2001 p.

A9), but ignored the release just a few months earlier of the Commission’s review of the literature on “barriers to equal education for Aboriginal learners” (see British Columbia Human Rights Commission, 2001, p. 1).

Even when reporters are open to marginalized discourses, the alternative messages may get lost because they have little control over the spin that editors put on an article. A beat reporter for the Province (the tabloid newspaper in Vancouver) explained to me that an article gets sensationalized based on 38 DEIRDRE M. KELLY where it is in the paper, how big the headline is, what the headline says, what the picture is, how big the picture is, how it’s laid out on the page, how long the story is—and those are things the reporters don t have any control over. Not an ounce. (L. Grindlay, personal communication, August 30, 1993) Another consideration is the nature of the mainstream media’s audience vis à vis youth, particularly from oppressed groups.

bell hooks (1989) explains:

If the identified audience, those spoken to, is determined solely by ruling groups who control production and distribution, then it is easy for the marginal voice striving for a hearing to allow what is said to be overdetermined by the needs of that majority group who appears to be listening, to be tuned in. It becomes easy to speak about what that group wants to hear, to describe and define experience in a language compatible with existing images and ways of knowing, constructed within social frameworks that reinforce domination. (pp. 14 15) One can hear Fran (age 18), for instance, struggling with how to speak

publicly about why having a baby as a teenager was for her so positive:

“What I tell people, I m not saying it s a good idea to have a baby young.

I m not saying that. But it s right for me now.” Almost as soon as she expressed her view to me in an informal interview, Fran silenced herself.

Rather than develop her counter story that becoming a young mother might, under certain circumstances, make sense, she instead elected to underscore the applicability of conventional wisdom to others. Clearly, she did not perceive her story as “compatible with the socially organized ideology” (Anderson, 1989, p. 261, referencing Bakhtin; for more on the idea of counter story, see Harris, Carney, & Fine, 2001).

Certainly, when youth, particularly marginalized youth, write letters to the editor (or, more rarely, full opinion editorials or op eds) and publish them in mainstream newspapers, they have more control over their message. Because they speak from the margin, however, a defensive tone is almost inevitable. Because they speak as individuals without institutional affiliation or backing, they presumably speak with less power and authority. One participant in the Pregnant with Meaning study quoted above, Anna, wrote a letter to the Midland Daily News contrasting “middle class families” with two incomes to “single parents”


who are “the sole support of their families” and whose “children lack any extras” (Anna, 1997, pp. 8 9). Defending herself and other single mothers on social assistance against the “welfare bum” stereotype, Anna articulated a “twist on the dominant discourse by repositioning social assistance as a short term, quasi bursary for low income, single mothers” (Kelly, 2003, p. 137). (As a relevant aside, according to the Young Parents Program administrator, Anna eventually graduated from high school, was receiving straight A’s in her second year of sciences at university, and was still pursuing her goal of medical school [field notes, April 6, 1998].)



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