Heroes for troubled times

19th September 1997 at 01:00
What do young people look for in their role models? Elaine Williams reports.

What unites Liam Gallagher and Diana, Princess of Wales? In the light of the princess's sanctification by the populace this question might seem sacrilegious. But it is neither absurd nor monstrous when you consider the hundreds of thousands of adolescents who lined the streets of London in mourning two weeks ago. Not the usual turn-out for a Royal occasion which rarely excites the imagination of your average teenager; but there they all were, including the outlandish, the bodily-pierced and the socially excluded.

The tragic cut-off of Diana's glorious soap operatic existence, the nature of her death, the unprecedented intensity of media coverage which crystallised the ups and downs of her extraordinary life into heroism - all this invaded the national psyche and gave to her multi-faceted image an iconic significance across age groups and lifestyles.

She was the carer, the cuddler, she reached out and touched the rejected. She was not afraid to cry in public or to pit her vulnerability, her eating disorders, her depression and her own rejection against the cold, seeming invincibility of The Firm.

Women who have been through divorce and raised families, young people from broken homes identified with her and commended her bravery. Her charity work shone out in stark contrast to the sleaze that beset political life. At the same time she was glamorous, setting up an alternative court of fashion makers and pop stars.

On one level you could not find an image in starker contrast to the dark, brooding two-fingers-to-you characteristic of the Oasis singer - the kind of image that fills the pages of For Him magazine. But like him, she had become a take-me-as-I-am sort of person and her own brand of defiance seems somehow enhanced by the tragedy of her death. It is this upfront integrity, no matter how perverse a form it might take, that young people tend to look for in role models.

Professor Leo Hendry, a psychologist who directs the Centre for Educational Research in the department of Sociology at Aberdeen University has spent most of his professional life studying adolescent culture and behaviour. He says: "Young people look to those who have lived on the edge of life, who have lived life, who have frailties, but who overcome them and yet are non-judgmental.

"They are more prepared to listen to those who have not stayed within conventional boundaries. The way you learn acceptable boundaries is by stepping across them and this quality is attractive to young people" While Mother Teresa of Calcutta might be sold as a role model to younger children, she was too old, too distant and too perfect to appeal to adolescents who seek out their own role models as a way of distancing themselves from the childadult relationship. Moreover the powerful promotion of youth culture by the media means that young people rarely plump for older role models.

Frank Vigon, headteacher of Turton High School, a 1,500-strong 11 to 18 comprehensive in Bolton, believes that teachers ignore this at their peril - that they have to tease appropriate role models out of youth culture.

He said: " I would have thought that bright girls in my sixth form would look to Cherie Blair, for example, but nearly all of them look to people with cachet in the pop industry, though they must be seen to have integrity in some way."

Boys, he said, might admire the instinctiveness of a Cantona, who is a romantic figure with a good brain yet plays brilliant football. They respected attitude with a degree of bravery.

The Right Rev James Jones, the Bishop of Hull, a former schoolteacher and lecturer in media studies who fielded the international press corps for the Church of England during Diana's funeral, believes that the media's soap opera of life has the power to entwine the lives of superstars into the lives of young people to an unprecedented extent.

A devotee of Coronation Street, he believes soaps themselves could be manipulated to create more positive role models, especially for boys. "The women are the strong characters, they rule the Street whereas the men are either physically strong and insensitive or ineffectual," he said.

"I suppose the nearest to an ideal is Martin, a nurse who plays football, has an eye for women, who yet is a good family man in touch with his own feelings. "

He believes that teachers could usefully work with young people's role models as a way of questioning and reinforcing values.

However, the bishop felt most adolescents could differentiate between the fantasy role models they dreamed of becoming and role models in friends and relations with whom they have day-to-day contact.

Dr John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, confirms that the careers adolescents eventually choose or the extent of their altruism is much more likely to be influenced by a parent than a superstar. However if there are gaps in parental support, they are more likely to be influenced by idolised figures: "The pop star can take the place of the parent who isn't there."

Professor Hendry believes it is impossible to discern what effect a role model will have. For example, a child with a parent who smokes might also take up smoking or they might decide that because their parent smokes they will never smoke.

He also believes that young people are selective about what they choose to follow. He said: "Just because they adopt the fashion of someone, doesn't mean they will adopt their lifestyle or behaviour. They take what they wish to take. We have to give them credit for being at least as sensible as adults."

Geoff Barton, deputy head of Thurston Upper School in Bury St Edmunds, and a writer of English textbooks, believes schools have to keep presenting role models of people "who do good things but who aren't passive", as a way of counteracting some of the more cynical images of youth culture.

"Maybe the sight of 500 unknown charity workers walking behind Diana's coffin will make it more chic to be an unsung hero," he said.

However, he perceived that teachers could also be role models. "As teachers we are all frozen into the style of those favourite teachers from our own childhood. Mr Sampson was my inspirational English teacher and I have spent the last 11 years trying to be Mr Sampson."

Frank Vigon concurred. He said: "I was devious and wildly misbehaved as a child, but there were three teachers who turned me round and I remembered the words they spoke to me, how they did it and when they did it.

"Teachers cannot deliberately seek to be role models, but students, and particularly sixth-formers, are often deeply affected by a quality in a teacher they admire. I have had letters from students 10 or 15 years later who said I had an effect on their lives; that they have never forgotten the time I said this or did that."

Teachers' top 12

Role models for young people suggested by the staff of Thurston Upper School, Bury St Edmunds:

Bob Geldof, above right - showed that you can achieve huge charitable success and be famous

Gary Lineker - consistently admirable behaviour on and off the field.

Tim Henman - similarly - takes seriously the responsibilities of his status.

Tony Blair - not embarrassed to speak openly of morality.

Richard Branson - a huge philanthropic success (for example, donating winnings of his BA battle to his employees).

Anita Roddick, above right - pioneered a humane approach to selling.

Martin Bell - took on the Goliath of Cheshire and slew him!

Esther Rantzen - increasingly doing huge good work behind the scenes (therefore unostentatious).

Cherie Blair - able to show importance of balancing career with family pressure.

Damon Hill - tenacity - and continuing the family tradition.

Trevor MacDonald, above left- clear communicator, sympathetic style, reassuring figure in times of crisis.

Princess Anne, top left - unostentatious, hardworking and very involved in so many causes.

Young people's top 10

Top 10 role models, as reported by Smash Hits magazine:

The Spice Girls - they are outrageous, independent, charitable, powerful, outspoken and caring. An inspiration that goes beyond sloganeering.

Louise Nurding, pictured - pop star and pin-up - the most fancied woman in the world, but neither plastic nor stick thin, plus she's modest and shy.

Ronan (Boyzone) - pop star - a nice fella, famous for being a virgin, famous for not having a bad word for anyone, the kind of clean-cut image any mum would love to have brought home.

Alan Shearer - England footballer - totally professional, clean-living and dedicated. Like Tim Henman, Linford Christie, and Damon Hill, he is inspirational and successful.

Will Smith, pictured - actor and chart-topping rapper - beyond his world-saving activities in his last two films, a hugely successful black actor and musician. Funny, lively and cool.

Prince William - his youth, modesty and good looks.

Sandra Bullock - actress - together with Alicia Silverstone she gets the best female roles in film. Loud, feisty, opinionated, challenging the leading men.

Lisa Potts - the heroic Wolverhampton nursery nurse who, especially in the wake of Dunblane, touched the hearts of readers.

Richard Branson - businessman - the only boring businessman the kids identify with. They admire his work for charity and love of excitement.

Eternal R 'n' B pop band - threesome who tour the world, have number one records yet still come across as the down-to-earth, religious, mum-loving London girls they are.

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