Misrepresenting Youth: UK Media and Anti-Iraq War Protesters
Issue #65, January 2004
Politics, Apathy and Youth Citizenship
Conventional media wisdom insists young people are simply not interested in politics. This might explain the kind of representations they receive. Popular images of youth — causing mayhem, lacking discipline, escaping responsibilities, while relentlessly in the pursuit of all kinds of consumption — suggest young people are far too busy to engage with politics. Whether it's purchasing the latest playstation or terrorizing old women as they cross the road, the pursuit of simultaneous fun and danger is replayed in common, everyday practices and images. Sex, alcohol, fighting, celebrities, fashion, and so on, are what we are told excites the youth of Britain. Such one-dimensional representations of "youth" reflect an age group acting out instant whims, rewarding every impulse and exotic need. Meanwhile, speaking a language no politician or policy-maker learnt at Oxbridge or any Ivy League institution, young people converse in pop jargon, translating their own fears and desires into meaningful sentences of pleasure and resistance.
Politics and its policies, by contrast, remain outside, or at odds with, this sphere of youth consumerism, anchored in a particular model of citizenship that mainstream media continuously recycle. In the last decade or so, youth discourses of apathy and indifference have become part of the popular lexicon. As Steven Best and Douglas Kellner put it, "In standard media and socio-political representations, youth is pejoratively represented as cynical, confused, apolitical (or conservative), ignorant, bibliophilic, scopophilic, and narcissistic." In recent years, political representations of British youth have become emblematic of discourses of isolation and disaffection. The "apathetic youth of today" headlines are a dominant media frame used to explain widespread political disengagement and declining levels of voting. Although sexy and shocking to read, they contradict the growing, and diverse, level of research that insists young people remain interested in issue-based politics, but feel angry and frustrated at the process itself. In an increasingly commercialized public sphere, then, apathy has become the "dumbed down" buzzword to report associations of youth and politics.
UK Media Coverage of Anti-War Youth
No better example of mass youth engagement was the February 15, 2003 protest against the war in Iraq, and the subsequent protests featuring, amongst others, school children. The media images of young protestors, especially school children, can be classified into three prominent themes. This provides a useful framework in understanding the wider themes of mediated portraits of young people and how this translates into generating images of youth citizenship.
Common portraits of youth, and children in particular, are based on adult anxieties and panics about potential risks in society that young people may encounter. Preventive actions taken to counter this invariably lead to young people being constructed as social victims. Much of the coverage during the protests broadly shared this signification. Most critics of the schoolchildren's involvement in the various protests were based on them using anti-war marches as a means of passive truancy rather than active political engagement. Several reoccurring images in the print press symbolically inform this kind of coverage. For instance, one picture of a protestor wearing black tights and a short skirt, having written anti-war sentiments on her school shirt, as well as wrapping her tie around her forehead so it dangles down her face and body, encapsulates much of this furor over the involvement of schoolchildren. The image also features two police officers, each holding the schoolgirl's arms, and while a caption tells us she "struggles with police," her grinning facial expression suggests she is enjoying the attention.
The implicit theme of an unruly truant, opportunistically missing school in the name of politics, and seeming to enjoy causing trouble for the police and education authorities, was a recurrent one during the protests. Instead of promoting the intervention of young people in the political sphere, these images imply an immaturity of political expression. In comparison to the safe confines of the schoolyard, they seem like frivolous citizens, eager to transfer classroom menace into more public displays of disobedience. Rather than receiving detention after school, they face serious, adult-like consequences of law and order. At odds with the mature, conformist, adult-world of politics, the protestors need protecting and educating before their actions and opinions can be meaningfully recognized. Transgressing norms of "child-like behaviour," the protestors are portrayed as victims of their age and youth-identity. The images can be seen as a hegemonic device: a site for restoring state-regulating messages of security and control that reflect broad adult fears and concerns.
Media representations of women as male objects of desire rather than meaningful social actors in the public sphere are well-versed in media and gender literatures. Recently, John Hartley coined the term "juvenation" to describe "the younging of culture" and increasing use of mediated sexual imagery of youth and children. It's an observation well-instanced in coverage of the protests. The predominant image of protestors featured young, attractive females, scantily dressed and prominently positioned against a backdrop of fellow (but less significant?) protestors. Focusing on females wearing tight, low-cut T-shirts, invariably revealing thin, well-tanned stomachs - often sporting belly-button rings — became an almost visual requisite in representing the many hundreds and thousands of protestors. In many ways, it perhaps — quite literally — reflects the "sexiness" of the protestors' news value. Youth — and its sexual (contradictory) connotions of desire, lust and innocence — was always likely to attract the attention of news editors and liven up what is conventionally viewed as a dull, male occupation.
Yet this sexualization of protestors has significant wider implications in trying to represent young people as active citizens. Not only does the objectification of female actors undermine their role in the political drama, it further marginalizes the level of involvement from engaged male protestors. Despite being actively involved in politics, then, young protestors are implicitly associated with — and not separated from — an increasingly sexualized public sphere. In this way, the personal is very definitely political, as youth citizenship is clearly anchored in sexualized (male) discourses of pleasure. Even in a progressive site of youth resistance in protests against elites, media coverage can be seen to reassert the status quo; that is, in a context where the wider non-protesting youth might be more readily engaged with politics, they are provided with images that reflect traditional constructions of gender roles.
The unrelenting pace of capitalism and its widely accepted status as the only viable ideological recourse has meant state intervention in citizen life has significantly declined. Debates about citizenship have in recent years centered on asking if citizens of the state are today treated more like consumers. This is especially the case with young people, who as the age group with most disposable cash are primary targets of corporate marketing strategies. As a recent Nike slogan advocated: "just do it," and young people certainly have. They are now recognized as powerful consumers of fashion, food, magazines, cosmetics, drugs, cigarettes, sex, toys and so on.
Mediated images of young consumers have become a pervasive form of youth representation. Particular fashion accessories and consumer practices were prominently on display in images of young protestors. While this holds negative implications for encouraging a picture of active citizenship it does reflect some media savvy on the part of the protestors. The focus on particular fashion images and sounds — temporary anti-war tattoos, colourful whistles, inflatable Bush and Blair look-alikes and so on — reflects young protestors being visually creative, recognizing the media's fascination with spectacle, in order to gain individual and collective prominence. Yet visual primacy is often at the cost of more effective aural forms of communication. In other words, journalists too often are quick to associate youth with identity and consumption, and sometimes youth are even quicker in accepting this role. However colourful, sexy and successful this is in gaining valuable news space and increased media prominence, it does risk taking youth at their visual, rather than spoken word. It delivers an impression of a passive, consumer-led youth citizenry in spite of the active, informed and well-articulated voices widely available.
Drawing on some of the points already mentioned, a number of themes emerge and reflect dominant media frames — general patterns of reporting — used during coverage of the protests. Below is a brief flavour of several such frames.
The impression of an immature and na?e bunch of school kids playing in an adult playground is sustained in a good deal of coverage. Cast in the role of surrogate parent, journalists were quick to first highlight, and then condemn, the image of truants and the wider social implications of truancy. Little attempt was made to transfer active political engagement into meaningful messages of encouragement for the next generation's fast-declining votership. Instead the story of young people's sudden shift from "generation apathy," as one commentator put it, to prime time news status, meant political causes became secondary considerations to the "novelty" of youth contributions. For older youth protestors, the presence of school children not only overshadowed their own contributions, it meant having to share similar images as frivolous and opportunistic citizens.
Pop culture celebrities
A great deal of coverage associated the anti-war movement with celebrities and popular cultural activity generally. The day after the February 15 protest, much of the Sunday press devoted entire pages with pictures and comments from "celebrities on the march." A week later, "Political tinge takes over the Brits," read a headline referring to Miss Dynamite's and Coldplay's political statements at a British music awards ceremony. The most explicit link to popular culture was undoubtedly Tony Blair's decision to appear on MTV Europe to debate the war. Over sixty-four articles local and national newspapers met his appearance, as well as coverage from major TV evening news channels. The MTV debate provided a valuable site for over 40 young people from 24 different countries to directly quiz the PM. Yet the representation of youth — engaged in the debate — drew press images of a passive, pop-cultural obsessed audience more interested in notions of peace and CND-identity than meaningful political dialogue. In the Guardian, a left-leaning broadsheet newspaper, a political cartoon encapsulated this with Blair saying:
'HEY, LOOK KIDS! THIS WILL BE A VIC'ORY FOR, Y'KNOW, THE IRAQI PEOPLE, PEACE, DEMO'RACY, TRUTH, ROCK 'N' ROLL, JUSTICE, TRIPHOP, NEW TRAINERS IN EVERY BAGHDAD CRA'ER. UM?
No doubt the cartoonist was parodying Blair's efforts to appeal to youth in popular cultural language. But more broadly it reflects the wider associations of youth once they are placed in the mainstream. Their roles as citizens are based on individualism, consumption and social identity rather than as a group, a collective citizenry, intent on demonstrating their political objections to an immoral war.
Young protestors, when vox popped on TV or directly quoted in a newspaper, provided contributions that reflected a sense of powerlessness. Yet paradoxically they were engaged in political action. The comment "it doesn't seem to matter what we think", was a common sound-bite used to demonstrate young people's perhaps cynical but also realistic political expectations. This may, in part, be determined by what journalists select and choose to run as a "representative comment". Yet focusing on young people's lack of power and expectations does represent a young citizenry clearly socialized and politicized into thinking of Government as omnipotent and ultimately deterministic. The news media did little to counteract this by emphasizing human or political agency.
The visual status of youth identity clearly informed the coverage of the protests. Indeed, it was most explicitly linked in the Western Mail, a regional newspaper, in an editorial that's worth highlighting:
Taking a position against war is almost becoming a kind of fashion statement. It is the in thing to do. Hundreds of school children took to the streets against conflict in Iraq. But where were the young people in favour of war? Were there none at all who wanted to make a statement against a vile dictator who would by no means countenance the dissent of yesterday? Perhaps they were too afraid to speak against the fashion. . .
Here, young protestors are clearly involved in a fashion brigade rather than political protest. They are exercised not by political expediency but by the desire to find an identity and be accepted by peers. Central to this portrayal is the lack of value and intelligence granted to young people. Fashionable implies superficialness, a preoccupation with identity and consumption rather than an interest in politics and foreign policy. Certainly news reporting the day after the February 15 protest implied this too. A Sunday Times picture featuring females dancing at the protests certainly possessed a deeper more patronizing and sinister tone. Like a day out at the races, it suggests they dressed in glam and colour to enjoy more the style and formality of the protests than the underlying causes for it. The caption reinforces this perception. It read: "Come one, come all: the march drew middle England protest virgins and diehard demonstration veterans alike. For some it was like a carnival." This carnival space, a medieval site of temporary enjoyment and political transgression, is reflective of the broadsheet-sneer frequently directed towards the protests and the lack of political muscle behind it.
This theme represents the overwhelming focus on protestors' age and class status. There was a definite sense that journalists first asked for a protestor's age and then, acting almost surprised, replied "you're how old? . . . wow, that's young!" Thus, stories were framed by age rather than political motivations. The attention on young middle class protestors was far less direct but often implicit. At times young protestors were seen as far too privileged and inexperienced to understand the plight of the Iraqi people. Informed by their Guardian-reading parents (a well-known British liberal paper), young protestors were often represented as simply following past political and social movements, recapturing an outdated pastiche of past anti-American marches. Rather than seeing young people as culturally appropriating and political by modernizing past social movements, the impression was that young people didn't really understand the current movement they were in. In this sense, their value as citizens was based on a top-down, parental vision of citizenship engagement.
Despite young protestors being active citizens — collectively demonstrating political will in public spaces — news images of youth participating in protests suggested quite the opposite. Here, young people were represented as passive, consumer-led individuals, not concerned with forming a united front but establishing a personal identity and creating a private space. Clearly, UK media coverage of protestors offers a set of binary oppositions that are inimical to seeing young people as part of an informed, rational and democratic citizenry. Public/private, citizen/consumer and active/passive are all systematically invoked by news media to ensure the dominant frame of (youth apathy) remains. In many ways, this top-down adult interpretation of youth reflects the kind of representations young people receive more broadly when reported as participating in politics.
Young people lie at the heart of the democratic project yet are the least likely to participate in politics. The mediated portrayal of youth, politics and citizenship is critical to the future of any democratic state. Frequently charged with being dangerously apathetic, news media could look towards changing common media representations of young citizens, and promote more active contributions.
Stephen Cushion is a doctoral student researching media reportage of how youth participate in politics. He is in the Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Cardiff University, UK.