Media representations of youth: pathologies, panaceas, and moral panics

Symbolic dimensions to representations of youth

Between 2016 and 2018 local media and politicians depicted the Australian city of Melbourne as overrun by gangs of young Africans. Concerns were roused in 2016 by events at Melbourne’s Moomba festival. Australia’s largest community festival, Moomba was usually a time of family fun, but that year brawling youths spilled onto the streets. For The Age, Melbourne’s daily newspaper, young immigrants were to blame. As the paper recounted:

Hundreds of hooligans, of African, Pacific Islander and other backgrounds, swarmed into the city on Sunday evening intent on wreaking havoc ... people have been hurt and traumatised, after businesses have been wantonly damaged.

(77ie Age, 15 March 2016)

And ensuing months saw media reports depict Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria, as a city gripped by a crime wave wrought by African gangs. Youngsters from Melbourne’s Sudanese migrant community were singled out as a particular menace, and tabloid newspapers dubbed Victoria the ‘State of Fear’ as Peter Dutton, the Federal Home Affairs Minister, insisted:

We need to call it for what it is. Of course, this is African gang violence ... people are scared to go out to restaurants of a night-time because they’re followed home by these gangs.

(cited in Karp, 2018)

Others, however, were more reassuring. Victoria’s deputy police commissioner argued that stories of ‘gang violence’ were misleading. And Tim Pallas, the state’s acting premier, responded to claims residents were too scared to visit restaurants by sardonically suggesting they try his favourite brasserie (Karp, 2018). In fact, official crime data indicated Melbourne was not a city laid waste by young Africans. Overall, crime rates in Victoria actually fell by 4.8 per cent in 2017, and across the preceding decade the proportion of crimes committed by young people had fallen from 52 per cent of recorded offences in 2007—8 to 40 per cent in 2015—16 (CSA, 2016; Whalquist, 2018). Statistics showed, moreover, that young offenders were much more likely to have been bom in Australia than overseas (MacDonald, 2017: 1185; Majavu, 2018: 8). Rather than being a rational response to a quantum leap in youth crime, therefore, some commentators saw Melbourne’s ‘African gangs’ crisis as disproportionate and distorted. For sociologists such as Fiona MacDonald, the episode was better understood as a facet of a wider backlash against immigration in which ‘reporting of ethnic youth gangs as the perpetrators of public violence [had] merged with the “fear” of refugees and asylum seekers, creating a complex landscape of social exclusion’ (MacDonald, 2017: 1183).

Anxieties about Melbourne’s ‘African gangs’, then, pointed to many other dimensions of social and political conflict in contemporary Australia. But it also exemplified the symbolic dimensions to media images of youth. The notion of lawless, ‘alien’ youths running amok were illustrative of the way representations of young people often condense wider themes, functioning as a ‘metaphorical vehicle’ that encapsulates society’s more general hopes and fears. This chapter explores these ‘mythic’ dimensions to youth, and the way they serve as a symbolic focus for wider social debates. Specific consideration is given to negative representations of young people and their role in ‘moral panics’ that escalate popular anxieties through the exaggeration of real or imagined threats. The place of gender and ethnicity in moral panics is discussed, and reasons for their increasing prominence are reviewed. Attention is also given to the way recent changes in society and the media have impacted on contemporary moral panics, with particular attention given to what some theorists see as the rise of a ‘risk society’ and a broadly-based ‘culture of fear’.

But media representations of youth have never been entirely negative. The chapter concludes by considering the way youth has sometimes been configured as a totem of economic growth and social progress. Here, consideration is given to the way configurations of the ‘teenager’ during the 1960s served to promote visions of liberating consumerism and national renewal on both sides of the Atlantic. Attention is also given to the revival of such constructions during the early twenty-first century in a discourse that casts young people — especially young women - as the embodiment of neoliberal values of individualism and enterprise.

‘Idealizations and monstrosities’: the mythic qualities of youth

Media representations of young people often possess a significant symbolic dimension. An enduring, evocative emblem, ‘youth’ is an example of what the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes termed ‘mythologies’. For Barthes, ‘mythologies’ — or ‘myths’ — were an overarching ‘metalanguage’ that organises our perceptions by conveying cultural meanings beyond the surface level of representation. As the pioneering semiotician put it, a myth is not a particular object, but is ‘the way in which [an object] utters a message’ (Barthes, 1972: 117).

From this perspective, myths are vehicles for expressing ideas and feelings. They are resonant motifs that work to connote emotions, meanings, and concepts. And ‘youth’ abounds in ‘mythic’ qualities.

Many theorists have observed how representations of youth often condense broader themes of change. Given their close association with ideas of growth and the passage of time, it is perhaps inevitable that conceptions of‘youth’ and ‘generation’ possess such allegorical qualities. And, as numerous authors observe,1 youth’s symbolic function is powerfully extended at moments of profound social transformation - for instance, during the twilight years of the nineteenth century or the period of social and economic realignment that followed the Second World War. This symbolic capacity is highlighted by US historians Joe Austin and Michael Willard, who explain how ‘public debates surrounding “youth” are an important forum where new understandings about the past, present, and future of public life are encoded, articulated and contested’, so that ‘youth’ functions as ‘a metaphor for perceived social change and its projected consequences’ (Austin and Willard, 1998: 1).

Representations of youth, moreover, are characterised by a recurring duality. Young people have been cast as both totems of social prosperity and as deplorable benchmarks of national decline. These contrasting images - termed ‘youth-as-fun’ and ‘youth-as-trouble’ by Dick Hebdige (1988i: 19) — are often contrived stereotypes that bear tenuous relation to the experiences of young people themselves. But, historically, these tropes have wielded significant con-notative power and have often served as motifs around which dominant interpretations of social change are elaborated. As Austin and Willard explain, young people have been widely constructed as both ‘angels of history’ and ‘demons of culture’; viewed alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) as both ‘a vicious, threatening sign of social decay’ and “‘our best hope for the future’” (Austin and Willard, 1998: 2).

The point is also eloquently expressed by anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff. ‘Youth’, they argue, ‘are complex signifiers, the stuff of mythic extremes, similarly idealizations and monstrosities, pathologies and panaceas’:

In short, ‘youth’ stands for many things all at once: for the terrors of the present, the errors of the past, the prospect of a future. For old hopes and new frontiers.

(Comaroff and Comaroff, 2005: 20)

The Comaroffs stress the ‘mythic bipolarity’ that has characterised representations of young people, but they also highlight the way ‘youth’ has often been configured as the stuff of nightmares. “‘Youth’”, the Comaroffs argue, ‘is a collective noun that ‘has all too often indexed a faceless mass of persons who were underclass, unruly, male, challengingly out of place — and, at once physically powerful and morally immature, always liable to seize the initiative from their elders and betters’ (2005: 24). This depiction of youth as the repository of respectable fears has a long, angst-ridden history.

 
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