The GSA conference in Bristol last week proved to be a very stimulating few days, and – as is common on these occasions – the whole event kicked off with a 30 minute speech from the President, so I had prepared my 4000 words and I delivered them on Monday to everyone. Most of the girls at school would recognise most of the themes I touched on – the importance of girls’ education (not just in the UK but throughout the world – I talked about Bangladesh, for instance), as well as how the exam system in this country is ripe for change. I talked about how politicians get too involved in education, and that educational policy should no longer focus on short-term thinking, a quick-fix solution aimed at impressing the electorate before the next election. I spoke positively about partnerships between state and independent schools, although I was rather more reticent about the importance that the government is attaching to independent schools taking over state schools, or academies. And I spoke out about parenting, values and how reality shows like the X Factor glamorised bullying and arrogance, and how young people were growing up in a moral abyss (or words to that effect). Unsurprisingly, as I was making a strong point – these were the aspects of the speech which were picked up and went viral and global.
What I said in that part of my speech was this:
‘It is not just the banal and mind-numbing nature of many of these copycat shows which I feel is so undesirable, or the easy celebrity reality TV stars seem to have achieved which can be very attractive to teenagers and children seeking a direction – but the amorality of such shows. In the X Factor, contestants are encouraged to be at each other’s throats, seemingly more so this year than ever – perhaps signalling this particular brand is well and truly in decline. Qualities such as bullying and arrogance are glamorised and become synonyms for ambition and drive. Young people look up to these so-called stars who have themselves been catapulted into a spotlight which can be far too much for them. This is a show which exploits not only its contestants but its audience too. The lines are blurred between the qualities we should be encouraging our young people to value and the qualities they feel are valuable.’
The process of watching news media at work is a very, very interesting one. Google ‘Dr Helen Wright X Factor’ and you will be able to track what happened. Once the stories had appeared in the Daily Mail, they were then picked up and repackaged into a press release by the Press Association, and it started then appearing in local newspapers and on websites across the UK. It then popped up in the Huffington Post, and then started to spread further as organisations and people starting reposting – it was picked up by Sky News, Fox News in the US, the Gulf Times in Doha and the Australian Daily Telegraph, who made the connection with Ascham School in Sydney; it was in the India Times, Ghana Nation and translated into a number of languages. Then radio programme producers started ringing, and I did live radio interviews, including BBC Radio London, BBC Radio Five Live, BBC Radio Belfast and BBC Radio 4 – the Call You and Yours programme – amongst others. We also went to the ITV studios in Bristol to do a pre-record for that evening’s ITV West tonight.
The school office started to get busy with phone calls, letters and emails, the vast majority of which were incredibly supportive. Online forums started discussing the comments, as did other columnists. You know you have made an impact when the X Factor have to issue a statement saying that they do not in fact tolerate bullying, but work in a team ethos.
And all this interest that should tell us something. When there is interest in – and a lot of agreement on – a moral position that is being taken, it usually indicates that there is something in it that is really worrying people, and we should be very aware of this. There is nothing essentially wrong with the X Factor if it really is only a trivial light entertainment show about which people don’t think twice, and which has no impact on their lives. But it is set up to be much more than that – it is positioned as a life-changing show for the individuals taking part, and it is made incredibly attractive to watch – lights, music, drama. The producers want us to be attracted to it and stick with it, watch it avidly – and, of course, feed their advertising revenues (the more people who watch, the more advertisers in the breaks will pay for their adverts).
And shouldn’t we think carefully about what we are actually being shown on the screen? Especially to impressionable young minds, these ‘stars’, be they judges or contestants, are inevitably set up as role models, and yet we see adults on our screens shouting at one another, being cruel to one another and to contestants, ritual humiliation (from judges and audience), a sense that you only get on in the world by trampling on others, and an underlying understanding that fame, fortune and celebrity are desirable above all else. I’m not sure that I feel at all comfortable with that, even though I like the concept of people being encouraged to follow their dreams. If the ‘hard work’ aspect of ‘fame’ is underplayed, this is a sign of a fundamentally flawed understanding of how the world works, and the complete opposite of the messages we should be communicating to our young people.
The girls in my school are lucky – they have strong value frameworks around them in their families and their school which help them to understand the world and put it into perspective. They probably don’t even think very much about these frameworks of values, but so many people – young people their age – don’t have those commonsense frameworks. The girls I help educate can see the X Factor for what it is, but for vast numbers of people, this and similar shows are forming a moral – or rather, amoral or even immoral – backdrop to their lives. We need to think about our responsibility as a society to all members of our society. How can we help them put it into context? By changing their perspectives or by changing the shows? Or, ideally, both?
Remembering to look behind the allure of the glamour of the X Factor or other similar ‘reality’ shows is important – we must never, ever take them too seriously. And yet we must also not excuse them either simply on the grounds that they are light entertainment – we must never ever accept that poor or harmful behaviour to others is ok – it isn’t.
We have to recognise that we live in a society and not in isolation – it isn’t acceptable just to say that people are ‘expressing themselves’ if they are also being harmful to others. If they lived by themselves on a desert island and genuinely had no interaction with anyone, then they could potentially be as horrible as they wanted (although I can’t imagine that they would be happy); the moment we are with other people, however, we have a responsibility to treat themselves, as well as ourselves, with respect.
We all have a responsibility to make a positive difference in society. Let us begin by challenging what we watch on a Saturday night.