“He’d be naughty…he’s maybe stupid….Or just bored of education”: Mario Balotelli, celebrity culture, aspirations and young masculinities

By Laura Harvey

When I went to my work experience, one of them said to me, they go ‘who’s your, who’s your role model?’ I said ‘Tu Pac’, she goes ‘Right’. And I explain everything to her, she just couldn’t, she said ‘I think he shouldn’t be your role model, you should have another role model’.
Snoop (pseudonym), male, Somalian, 16-17

Celebrity culture occupies a strangely contradictory space in contemporary political rhetoric. One the one hand, celebrities such as sports stars are lauded as good ‘role models’. On the other, celebrity culture appears as a kind of ‘folk devil’ – eroding young people’s aspirations and encouraging the ‘wrong’ kinds of dreams, behaviours and desires.

The ESRC-funded CelebYouth project decided to take a closer look at the relationship between young people’s aspirations and celebrity culture. In this blog post I will look at some of our findings about how young people talk about masculinities in relation to celebrity culture. The blog post draws from collaborative analysis and writing the celebyouth team is doing for a journal article, based on a paper we gave at the Journal of Youth Studies conference earlier this year. You can see the slides for the paper here.

During the project, we identified 12 celebrity case studies, selected on the basis of discussion during the focus groups. This blog post draws on analysis from an imagination exercise, in which we asked participants to imagine that they were at school with the celebrities, and talk about what they would be like as friends and in class. While there was some variation in the way that young people positioned the celebrities, there were some definite patterns in terms of how celebrities were categorized in relation to recognisable narratives about learners, as ‘ideal pupils’, ‘class clowns’, ‘troublemakers’ and so on.


Role models and masculinities in crisis

In the quote at the start of this blog post, Snoop explains that he was told by a careers adviser not to name Tupac as his role model on a work experience application. We argue that this boundary-drawing around ‘role models’ can be connected to what Steve Roberts has called ‘crisis talk’ – public discourse that positions masculinity as in crisis. The masculinity crisis is often invoked in relation to boys’ education, with ‘role models’ presented in policy discourse as panacea to boys underachievement and economic and social marginalization. This discourse circulates in the context of neoliberal education policy, which positions underachievement of certain ‘problem’ boys as ‘individual failings’ rather than related to social structures. It is working class and black boys who are often positioned as ‘problems’ within policy rhetoric (see Urban Youth and Schooling for a good discussion of this).

In our presentation, we looked at three of our case study celebrities – Will Smith, Mario Balotelli and Prince Harry, exploring the relationship between the way that young people talked about them and the social class and ethnicity of the celebrities. We found it interesting that Will Smith was almost exclusively positioned as what Sara Ahmed would term a ‘happy object’, something to which happiness is predominantly attached, while Mario Balotelli occupied a much more ambivalent position as a ‘problem’ student. As two celebrities often represented as ‘behaving badly’, we also contrasted how Prince Harry and Mario Balotelli are read in very different ways, with Prince Harry positioned much more as an ‘ordinary lad’.


Mario Balotelli: Maverick masculinity and ‘problem boys’

In order to keep the blog post brief, here I will just look at Mario Balotelli.

Balotelli occupied a complex position in the young people’s imagination exercises. Some participants wanted to be friends with Balotelli because he is a good footballer, or enjoyed telling stories about his behaviour and imagining what it would be like to hang out with him. In the focus group, interview and media analysis data Balotelli was positioned in relation to a series of stories about pranks or ‘maverick’ behaviour, such as giving £1,000 to a homeless person, setting fireworks off in his bathroom, and confronting a schoolchild’s bullies. Balotelli has denied many of these stories, but they continue to circulate in a mythical fashion, including in the participants’ evaluations of him as a learner.

However, Balotelli was also described as ‘arrogant’ and ‘stupid’; someone to avoid, particularly in relation to his behaviour. Balotelli, when imagined in school was often seen as rebellious, naughty, a joker and ‘class clown’:

“I think he’d be naughty…he’s maybe stupid….
Or just bored of education’ – Boo (pseudonym), boy, 16-17, Manchester

Boo’s comments highlight how such a position associates naughtiness with stupidity and a failure to engage with education. Many named him when asked who would achieve the worst grades and he was often named as someone who’d bunk off school or be in detention.

Such narratives of rebellious boys have become commonplace in the figure of the ‘problem boy’ in policy rhetoric. Becky Francis has argued that the demonisation of the ‘problem boy’ as the ‘other’ of neoliberal educational success is often presented in opposition to the ‘ideal learner’. Such ‘failed masculinities’ are positioned as risky not only for themselves, but for other boys in school, and society as a whole.

“I’d be very careful around him. You know. Because if he misses a penalty he starts beating up the ground on the floor and stuff, you know.  If I tell him he had got a question wrong in class, you know, I don’t know what he’d do. [both laugh]” – Lewis J (pseudonym), boy, 16-17, White British, London

The comments by Lewis J here hint at this  – Balotelli’s perceived anger is positioned as excessive, involving inappropriate bodily behaviours for a classroom (or even a football pitch?) such as beating the floor and disrupting the class, and presenting him as perhaps physically incapable of containing his anger. This echoes the discourses circulating in the media representation of Balotelli, in which he is often presented as needing to learn how to control his anger in relation to racism that he faces from football fans, with his anger presented as evidence of his ‘need to grow up’. In this sense, Balotelli perhaps represents what Sara Ahmed terms the ‘unhappy object’ – the migrant who refuses to deny the racism he faces, or to sugar-coat his painful experiences or feelings about it.

Balotelli’s disruption was talked about by young people as both a potential source of risk, but also of humour and comedy. We tentatively want to suggest that the ambivalence and discursive contradictions in the young people’s talk about Balotelli point to the tensions between competing forms of masculinity in school in a UK context, particularly in relation to wider discourses about ‘failing boys’ and a ‘crisis of masculinity’. In many ways, Balotelli embodies a form of ‘cool’ masculinity – one that is rebellious, funny and can stand up for himself – something which many of the participants say they admire. However, as researchers such as Louise Archer, Sumi Hollingworth, Deborah Youdell, Stephen Frosh and Ann Phoenix have shown, while such performances of masculinity carry value within the young people’s peer group, they simultaneously position ‘rebellious’ masculinity as outside of the ‘authorized’ forms of masculinity in school in ways that are both classed and racialised. This is articulated both through the positioning of anger as ‘inappropriate’ but also humour.

Thus while Balotelli appears almost heroically in some accounts, such as the story about him looking after a child who was bullied, he cannot be reconciled by most of the young people as an authorized ‘role model’. This was in contrast to our findings on Will Smith, who was generally aligned with positive attributes of the successful pupil and potential role model. We contend that this difference relates to Smith’s proximity to things and people, such as heterosexual family, hard work and avoidance of particular forms of black popular culture.

We are continuing to analyse these data, with the full discussion to be submitted as a journal article later this year.

For more information on the project visit celebyouth.org and follow @CelebYouthUK.


Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.