Return to
Media, Gender & Identity book details

Back to main role models page

Essay by
Francesca Skirvin.
Edited by
David Gauntlett.

'Leper cult disciples of a stillborn Christ': Richard Edwards as meaningful in his fans' constructions of their identities

By Francesca Skirvin


In May 1998 the Manchester Metro News carried the following headline: 'Why Did Chris Follow Richey To His Death?' The story concerned a seventeen-year-old from Marple who drowned in the River Severn after making a 'pilgrimage to the scene of the pop stars disappearance'. His mother was quoted as saying 'I feel that it should be publicly known that teenagers are so influenced at this age. Christopher has copied this pop star. He has just done it because he got the idea from him. It is just wrong.' The coroner said 'clearly Christopher was influenced by this media pop idol and undoubtedly he was in a very disturbed state…probably following what he had read about this idol.'

This article affected me in many ways. In addition to my anger at the usual knee-jerk reaction from the press and its seeming inability to consider any other motive for a person to take their life other that the influence of a 'media pop idol' there were more personal reasons. I live in the small village of Marple, I have spent the majority of my teenage life in awe of the same idol and I visited the Severn Bridge a few moths before Christopher 'following what [I] had read about this idol.'

Richard James Edwards (Richey James) was the guitarist, lyricist and 'Minister of Information' (Shutkever,1996:51) for rock band Manic Street Preachers . The band first came to prominence in 1990 and as their lyricist and spokesman, Edwards remained the figurehead of the band until his disappearance in February 1995. Since then the band have continued without him and have achieved huge mainstream popularity.

I chose to examine fans of Manic Street Preachers and Richey in particular for a number of reasons. My own fan - idol relationship with Richey has troubled me for many years in that I have been unable to reconcile my own actions as a fan with the strong influence I believe he has had in the formation of my own identity and my strong theoretical beliefs that mass media cannot have a direct effect upon a person, no matter how high levels of exposure are. Manics fans also seemed the ideal research subjects as they are notoriously enthusiastic about discussing the group and have a reputation as an eloquent and thoughtful group of people. The Manics have the reputation of attracting 'mentalists' as bassist Nicky Wire lovingly described them (Price,1999:58), and are renowned for their hard core followers, who will spend thousands on merchandise, records and following the band on tours. There are also huge numbers of websites, fanzines and literature dedicated to the band which allowed research into the general characteristics and views of the fans. Many of these fans are particularly interested in Richey, seeing him as the core and the focal point of the group.

I analysed the way in which Richey particularly may have contributed to his fans' sense of identity. It is very important to differentiate between influence (which I believe the mass media can have on an audience) and direct formative effects (the suggestion that exposure to mass media messages can lead directly to imitative behaviour by an audience). The behaviour I will examine differs from common fan behaviour, such as collecting memorabilia and imitating the idols style of dress. The fans I examined went beyond these activities to the point that they feels a personal bond with the iconic figure. The icon can then become a very strong interpersonal socialiser in the lives of their fans, becoming an influential source in the formation of their fans' identities and competing with (and often overruling) traditional socialisers such as parents, peers, and school. Through my research I hope to demonstrate that this unusual influence is the result of a combination of a mediated idol who for a number of reasons is seen as particularly special, coupled with characteristics of the individual fans which leads to the need for and the eventual formation of these very strong bonds with the idol.

Before examining my own research, it is important to examine both media effects theory and identity theory, both of which are hotly debated topics which require significant investigation.

Mass Media Effects V's Media Use

Hansen and Hansen (1991:337) identified three theoretical perspectives to explain the correlation between social perception and personality in choosing a musical preference: 1) frequent media exposure alters personality and social perceptions to correspond with what is portrayed, or 2) media preference can be determined by extant personality characteristics, or 3) causation may be reciprocal between media exposure and both personality characteristics and social perception.

The theory that media shapes consumers, now seems archaic in its simplicity and disregard for any intelligence on the consumer's behalf. Hansen and Hansen put forward the notion that the higher the level of exposure to a type of social information, the more ingrained that information becomes in the memory of the consumer and the likelihood of them using this information to form their own interpretations of social reality increases. They cite research by Bargh (1984) and Fazio (1989) to suggest that the availability of certain kinds of information in the media is able to guide the individual's judgements and attitudes. It is important to stress that the notion that the media has a direct formative effect is outdated and rejected by many theorists. The idea that the fan's personality and social perceptions alter to fit the kind of music that are listening to seems simplistic, although my research shows that there is certainly some level of influence.

The second perspective suggests that certain adolescents may be drawn to an idol because some aspects of him reflect their own perceptions of social reality. This is a reflection of the critical theory that states the media reflect the desires of the consumer, providing them with what they seek. There is also extensive research which shows that people seek stimuli which is consistent with their own attitudes and opinions (Hansen, 1980, 1986; Ross, 1981).

The third theory, of a kind of socialisation, close to Gerbner et al.'s (1986) cultivation theory, emphasises the idea of interaction between the consumer and the media. The media is seen not as simply a mirror, reflecting the whims of the buying public, attempting only to satisfy their needs. In the same way, the consumer is not a helpless victim of the all-powerful media, forcibly injected with and shaped by its messages. Instead, The media displays a certain level of sensitivity and aims to satisfy the wishes of its audience, but the consumer is somewhat persuaded by the type of social reality the media depicts. Hasen and Hasen (1991:338) suggest that this is marked by a gradual shift in social values towards those supported in the media. This would suggest that adolescents are attracted to an idol because they posses some attributes that attract them to some aspect of him or her. These attributes are then strengthened through prolonged interaction with (on a superficial level) and frequent exposure to the idol and the aspects that were first attractive to them.

Significance of Adolescence

In my research into identity formation, it became obvious that though identity may shift and develop throughout life, there are certain points at which humans are more open to influence and moulding of their ideas and values. Adolescence is both the time at which identity is most likely to be formed and the time at which music is most prominent as a source of passionate intensity . Raviv et al. (1995) noted that the phenomenon of idolisation is especially characteristic of early adolescence. They note that in westernised youth culture, idols are drawn from sport, entertainment and music, all of which receive extensive mass media exposure (Raviv et al. 1995:632). They note that the adolescent is particularly likely to idolise mass media figures because of the characteristics of the age period, observing that adolescence is the period where individual identity is being strongly shaped and that adolescents are keen to differentiate themselves from adults and fit into their peer groups (Raviv et al.,1995:633). Arnett (1995) theorised that the diminishment in the presence and influence of parents at this time as relative to childhood allows the adolescent more freedom to explore alternative viewpoints and to make use of media which may fit their personalities and opinions more closely that traditional modes of socialisation .

Identity Theory

Debate about the nature and function of identity is constantly being unfolded and enriched in both psychological and social fields. The origins of the word are from the Latin root 'idem', implying sameness and continuity. There are loosely three different concepts about the nature of identity, Hall (1992) sets these out clearly. He identifies the Enlightenment (sometimes known as the Essentialist) argument as the notion that there is an essential core to identity which was created with the individual. This argument assumes that there is a unique core which identifies the true essence of each person and which remains constant throughout their life.

The sociological concept is, unsurprisingly, that favoured by the majority of sociologists. This theory states that a coherent identity is formed in relation with other people and thus develops and changes over time. By constructing identity through networks of social relationships, it is learnt and taught through the process of socialisation and every-day interaction.

More recently the postmodern subject has come to be seen as a third category. Believing that in postmodern society, identity has become dislocated (discussed later) theorists have argued that a postmodern subject has evolved with no fixed or essential identity, but one which is self-constructed by the individual playing with images. The postmodern subject is seen to have many identities for use in different situations, all of which are constantly evolving to fit their social needs.

I have chosen to pursue the sociological and postmodern concepts in my research, believing socialisation to be the most important factor in identity formation and allowing for the possibility that identity is increasingly becoming a construct, with each person slipping on a variety of masks to suit different occasions.

My Research

In addition to finding evidence to back up my theory in my personal archive of fanzines and fan letters to the music press, I undertook empirical research in the form of questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. The interviews allowed me the flexibility to collect qualitative information which could be compared but also enabled me to ask the subject to elaborate on or clarify certain comments, interviews were used whenever possible. Questionnaires were used to collect the opinions of those who I was unable to interview but thought would probably hold important views on the subject. I was able to interview ten people and a further ten filled out my questionnaires, Many of the face to face interviewees were found at my local rock club and were approached because they were immediately recognisable as Manics fans by their style of dress. Some were people from my own social circle who I know had dedicated large portions of their life to following the group. Those who filled in the questionnaire were contacted via the official Manics chat forum and this gave me the advantage of gathering the opinions of people in America, Sweden and Spain.

The basis of my research centres around Richey as a mediated product, in that the relationship between him and the vast majority of his fans is conducted purely through the media, with occasional live appearances which are also heavily mediated. I have considered the small number who actually met Richey but have found that this was usually for a very brief time (around 15 minutes at most) and tended to involve lots of senseless babbling on their behalf with almost no exchange of information above basic questions such as 'how do you get your eyeliner so perfect?' (Anne). For the purpose of my theory I am examining the influence Richey may have had through interviews, music videos and pictures because these are the only source of contact for the majority of his fans.


The response was fantastic with people willingly talking for hours with great zeal and insight into their relationship with Richey. Overall the fans had a deep level of understanding about their fandom and were able to articulate the reasons they perceived to be behind this. The vast majority were also extremely culturally and politically aware and were very interested in my ideas about the Manics subversion of things like gender roles. They were also very aware of the nature of their relationship with Richey. When questioned as to whether they would like to meet him, the majority of fans I questioned said that they would not because they have a high level of awareness of the chasm between their own personal fantasy image of him and the mediated image of him and him as an actual person:

'it'd ruin my perception of him, which I'm aware is completely constructed, what he is like as a real person isn't important to me, cause that's not what I know of him'. (Gavin)

Identity and Attire

'If you're hopelessly depressed like I was, then dressing up is just the ultimate escape. When I was young I just wanted to be noticed. Nothing could excite me except attention so I'd dress up as much as I could. Outrage and boredom just go hand in hand' Richey (quoted in Smith,1995:165)

The most immediately obvious way in which Manics fans can be seen to have been influenced by the band is in their style of dress, and many fans are easily identifiable by their use of certain signifiers. Each album released by the group before the most recent one (This Is My Truth, Tell My Yours) was accompanied by a dramatic new image, reminiscent of Madonna's complete re-inventions of her appearance. These fashion statements tended to be lead by Richey and Nicky. The Generation Terrorists period was marked out with feather boas, leopardskin, tiaras, spray painted slogans, glitter and thick black eyeliner. This was followed by the Gold Against The Soul period, which saw the Manics decked out in blouses and floral dresses (in Nicky Wire's case). Favourite with the fans is the Holy Bible look, which comprised sailor suits and army fatigues. The Everything Must Go C&A style is generally avoided, especially by fans of Richey in particular. This period is seen as very different in terms of politics and philosophy to the years when Richey was in the band and many fans simply did not like their change of direction, both musically and in their appearance:

'Something had just gone, that spark, the fun and the bile and the dressing up, us against them. I guess they realised they had lost and for me that essence that made them my life had gone. I don't think I changed, I still wear the old stuff' (Alastair).

Some fans take symbolisers from specific periods while the majority seem to take their favourite bits of each and cut and paste them into a bizarre mix of militant glamour. I had thought that for most this was a kind of 'uniform' to symbolise their association with the band. However, when questioning people about this there were many claims that while these signifiers were employed they were seen more as an expression of personal identity than group identity :

'spray painted T-shirts just look nice, but I don't think it's necessarily a direct Manics reference.' (Alastair),

'I use make up to symbolise the same things they did, but not to reference them directly, but then, they introduced me to the idea of it in the first place.' (Gavin),

'I wear eyeliner, glitter, home made T-shirts and slogans, but it isn't necessarily to symbolise my identity, more a reflection, manifestation of it.' (Stephen).

Richey's (and the rest of the band's) dramatic shifts in clothing and appearance seem to demonstrate to his fans that identity is a construct which can be discarded and altered at will. In addition to showing the ways in which identity can be constructed through clothing, Richey also demonstrated to his fans that the body can be a site for the construction of identity through control and construction. He gave many interviews in late 1994 exhorting the virtues of mental strength, relating this to his ability to refuse food, withstand pain and (to a lesser extent) alter the body through tattoos and piercings.

Kellner (1995) has examined the postmodern aspect of playing with images to create identity. His case study of Madonna illustrated the ways in which 'fashion is an important constituent of one's identity, helping to determine how one is perceived and accepted…Fashion offers choices of clothes, style and image through which one could produce an individual identity' (Kellner,1995:264). Appearance is certainly one of the most crucial methods of immediately asserting an identity to society. The fans themselves are very aware of this. Alastair described the empowerment of wearing eyeliner and tight spray painted T-shirts:

'people think I'm odd anyway, at school you get those boys who always shout "queer" and stuff and at the time it upset me but now I've almost gone the other way…I love dressing up and its kind of a big "fuck you" to all those people, because it makes me happy and I feel good, and I don't care anymore. This is what I want to look like, this is me.'

In addition to simply seeking to look like their idols, some of the fans held surprisingly strong views about the power of such clothing. Gavin compared the uniforms of the Holy Bible period to a marching band he witnessed at the Seattle protests:

'there was this marching band all in black, with a black and red Anarchist banner, and it was great, facing those police officers in riot gear with your own uniform. In terms of what's now being called the information war, the Manics did the same thing. A parody of uniforms for non-conformists…but still something to rally round.'

The Fans

'The fact that we've got like 25 fanzines and 50 unofficial websites and all the rest of it, does give you a gratifying smile because those people aren't just dedicated to the band, they're dedicated to the whole lifestyle, the literary aspects, the film aspects, the whole package really. Its not just liking the music.' Nicky Wire (Quoted in Price,1999:59)

In attempting to understand the fan - idol relationship, in addition to seeking information about the figure of adoration, it is equally important to examine the characteristics of people who become ardent fans. There is little research on idolatrous behaviour, but Cheng's 1997 study is useful. His research into fan club members in Hong Kong concludes that fandom is associated with poor self-esteem and strong fear of negative evaluation. Cheng suggests that fan club members are drawn to superstars as a means of gaining pride from association and achieving status and peer respect through collection of items associated with the star and in some cases imitation of their appearance. The idea that fans are lacking is self-esteem seems an accurate description of Manics fans in particular. Fan art, prose and poetry seem to point to a group of people who in general have little self-esteem, often verging on self-hatred and identify with Richey especially because he is seen to share those feelings. There is a general understanding and acceptance within the Manics community of self-harm and anorexia, things which are frequently greeted with disgust and incomprehension in mainstream society. This may be partly because Richey was affected by these things but there is also a strong sense that the feelings which lead to such destructive behaviours are comprehensible.

The fans own opinions about what characteristics they posses as a group was surprisingly insightful. Many fans described themselves as alienated (from their surroundings, from contemporary culture, from society in general). When discussing Richey, fans described those with the strongest connection to him as 'people who feel alone, then they can know that there are others like this' (Rob). Depression and mental illness seemed to be the greatest characteristic that Manics fans believe Richey shares with them. Rhiannon claims 'I can relate to his problems through his songs…I went through a dark period and his lyrics helped me overcome my grief.' She felt she had a strong link with him because they 'shared some mental health problems'. Gill also identified with this aspect of Richey:

'the more I got to know about him…the more I began to realise that perhaps I've got some things in common with him, also the more messed up he got the more I felt I understood him, because I've suffered from depression most of my life.'

Richey's skilful use of iconography did not go unnoticed:

'people who love Richey are obsessive, insular, pragmatic people (in the nicest sense), who love the obvious socialist icons. People resentful of a capitalist, hedonistic, me, me, me climate' (Stephen).

Some views were more cynical, with people who love Richey being seen by Gavin as:

'susceptible to the kind of iconographic manipulation that Richey went in for… and which the media just runs on. Give someone alienated from one set of beliefs, (which most real Manics fans are I think) a new system of idols that taps into the sources of their alienation (Manics as anti-capitalist, anti-masculine, pro-depression, and the issues around it…) and they'll buy right into it.'

Stephen identified Richey as 'the last icon', describing his important characteristics as intelligence, sensitivity and articulation and describing these as 'the best things about humanity, ideals to aspire to'. He goes on to state that he did not consciously choose Richey but 'just became attached to him because he is a manifestation of my ideals of humanity'. Most of the fans stated admiration for primarily his intelligence but also his beauty. Anne's favourite characteristic being 'his brain! His sexy, sexy brain…never stops reading, thinking and questioning'.

While I found only one fan who seemed to simply copy him indiscriminately:

'When I first found him, everything he said I said…everything I did was because Richey did and everything I thought was because Richey thought it. I'm not sure if that was a good thing' (Becky).

The majority of the other fans had taken specific steps which they considered would bring them closer to their ideal, these tended towards activities such as 'reading lots of books' (Kasper) 'expressing my opinion, striving to be individual' (Wayne) 'I gave up T.V. recently, which he would of liked'. (Anne)

Fans identified the reasons that unhealthy attachments were formed as a lack of anything else to admire or aspire to. There was a strong sense that Richey represented and ideal in a world they see as a moral and spiritual void. Many claimed that the attachment is 'all they have' (Kasper) while others ware more scornful, Gavin claimed that idolatry was the result of an intense dislike of the self, noting that:

'if you put them in a position above you then you're putting yourself down, in trying to become your idol you are subjugating your own identity… I guess its because they don't admire themselves enough to want to stay who they are…its the same principle advertising works on - be like this and you'll be cool and popular.'

With only one exception, everyone I questioned said that to them being a Manics fan was the single most important element of their identity. Most of them attacked the other traditional categories I offered such as gender, race and sexuality, claiming they were irrelevant in the current cultural climate. Gavin recognised:

'part of what I liked about the Manics was their ability to 'cut up' different elements of popular culture and stick them back together for their own ends, like they were very aware of themselves as pop singers, as an image commodity. They made themselves into whatever they wanted to be at that moment with little regard for traditional ideas of fixed or given identity. And encouraged their fans to do the same - which is pretty revolutionary really.'

Anne said that to her, being a fan is more important than other categories because

'its something you choose to be a part of and it reflects your personality while other divisions (categories of identity) are outside your control.'

The fans generally seem to subscribe to the Butler school of thought, in that they see themselves as very much playing with their identities and using a variety of different identities as performances. None of them considered themselves as having a 'core' identity, pre determined by static elements such as gender or sexuality but all defined their own identities according to the situation and often their mood. From my own experiences with Manics fans and their responses to my questions, it is obvious that many of them use gender in particular as fluid and variable. There is a very strong androgynous element in the band and as a result, in the fans, the clothing and make up used is unisex and with both girls and boys trying to look like Richey there is often no indicator of gender. Importantly, things like men wearing dresses and make-up is almost unanimously accepted among the fans as perfectly normal.

Most claimed that they identified themselves as Manics fans as a lifestyle choice and that this was a permanent part of them which was only sometimes on display (usually through clothing/make-up etc.) When asked in what situations they do and do not feel/act/dress like a Manics fan, all answered that they always feel like a Manics fan 'its not a part time position' (Alastair), but that it was not always outwardly obvious:

'I always feel like a Manics fan…but I don't always dress like one' (Charlotte).

Gavin said he enjoyed not being a Manics fan 'amongst lots of adoring and uncritical Manics fans' but 'acted' most like a fan 'amongst people who aren't all Manics fans.'

Anne was offended by the question, claiming that asking 'when do you not feel like a Manics fan?' was 'akin to asking "When do you choose not to breathe?'

It is interesting to note that while Richey has not been a member of the band since his disappearance in February 1995, the fans speak about him as if he is still very much present. The explanation for this I believe lies in their sense of him as more than simply a person, he is an absent presence. Many fans spoke of him in religious terms, using phrases such as 'when I first found him' (Jessica) and 'he was like Jesus' (unnamed in Price: 197). At concerts fans can be seen gazing in awe at the stage, singing every word as if in prayer. Eventually Richey's cutting and bleeding came to be seen in Christ-like terms, as deeply symbolic, among some fans he became seen as a martyr figure 'he bleeds for our sins ' (Price). The majority of Richey's fans do not pretend that the group no longer exist, they often buy the new records and attend recent concerts but there is a strong sense of the before and the after and many of the fans seem to cling to his influence.

Identity and Difference

There is a widely held idea that identity is defined by difference, in that its boundaries are defined by what it is not, that which is considered 'the other'. I asked the Manics fans if they felt in some way different to other people and if there were differences within the Manics fan community. While there are a vast array of mass media icons to choose from, some seem for one reason or another to be particularly meaningful to a group of people. It is difficult to name particular idols as it is very much a case of personal attachment. In my social circles and the media I use, Kurt Cobain, Morrissey and Richey are the icons with the greatest idolatrous behaviour attached to them. This is not to say that there are not other idols who are equally important yet more obscure or more populist. It would be wrong to 'grade' idolatrous behaviour according to the worth of the idol, though many Manics fans believe that Richey is superiour to the population in general. Wayne claimed that Manics fans are:

'more open to a world view, not puppets…they see the world as it is.'

and Alastair thought that:

'my reasons for loving the Manics are more valid and well thought out than people who like other bands'.

Many fans felt those who were not aware of the Manics were missing out and that those who dismissed them simply 'don't get it' (Kasper). A large number also identified that their involvement with the group had led to their whole outlook on life being different:

'all the books I read, all the music I listened to and the politics I investigated were because Richey and Nicky talked about them…so my life was dominated by them and that makes me different to people who weren't exposed to that or chose not to follow it' (Rhiannon).

Gavin spoke of giving a copy of the Holy Bible (the album) to his friend and being amazed that it didn't change his life in the way it had for him. He also recognised the influence in his life:

'I guess I have a different way of looking at things in terms of them opening up some ideas to me whilst I was still pretty young that I wouldn't have come into contact with otherwise'.

Kasper described it as:

'something you wear proudly, like a tattoo, a piece of your identity, something you define yourself by "I'm Kasper, 26, student, Manics fan".

One of the reasons I have considered for Richey's ability to become an interpersonal role model and for the formation of so many unusually intense fan relationships, is the unusual relationship he had with the music press. After he responded to a journalist's taunts that the group was not 'for real' by slashing the words into his forearm (a gesture which required between 16-23 stitches, depending on who you believe) music press coverage has been guarded if not outright reverential in tone.

Richey's portrayal in the press has neatly covered over the less pleasant aspects associated with alcoholism, anorexia and mental collapse, frequently relying on the tortured artist myth and using pinups of his emaciated (although admittedly beautiful) torso to sell papers by the ton. In addition to the reverential attitude of the press, it seems that for the many fans who were not able to meet Richey personally or even see the band play live, his unusual frankness and willingness to go into depth about his personal feelings has served the purpose of giving them a strong figure to identify with and the sense that they were privy to an intimate and private (though one way) conversation.

Many fans describe the idea that Richey was talking about things in the press which simply had not been addressed before:

'I think there are so many people who like the Manics who cut themselves and have eating disorders and because it was a thing that a lot of people were ashamed of , they think its abnormal and disgusting, but he came along, he's in the media, he's very beautiful and intelligent and he does it as well so it made it seem less embarrassing' (Jessica).

'basically he epitomised everything that people were feeling and gave it a place in the media' (Becky).

Richey himself seemed to draw the adoration of the fans through a combination of being their ideal (in that he was very beautiful and intelligent) and also reflecting parts of themselves (in that he felt like a failure, was very insecure, unable to have a close relationship and suffered from depression). Richey epitomised many of the problems that adolescents in particular experience, by willingly discussing these in the media he seemed to attract a lot of people who saw him half as a comfort (in the sense that they were not alone) and half as an aspirational figure (in that despite his problems he was a very glamorous and articulate figure).

Media Pressure

While we have established that the mediated relationship between Richey and his fans was unusual, it is also interesting in the implication that the situation may have become a reversal of the traditional mass media influence argument. Many music critics and indeed fans themselves commented on the possibility that it was the heavy media coverage of fan's reactions to Richey's illness that was an influencing factor in his disappearance from the public eye:

'he became one of those people that just fascinated the fans because they saw a lot of themselves in Richey Manic, so they wanted to know more and more about him and I think that's where he started having one or two problems' (Lamaq, quoted in 'The Vanishing of Richey Manic', 1997).

'during those last few months when Richey was hospitalised, there did seem to be an almost cult of mainly young females who were starving themselves, cutting themselves and writing into the music press…and to think what effect that must have had on Richey himself' (Price, quoted in 'The Vanishing of Richey Manic', 1997).


While it has been established that mass media role models are very much a part of contemporary culture, It seems that they are not simply a postmodern phenomenon. From the advent of mass media, superstars have been the subject of frenzied adoration and on occasion seem to have wielded a direct influence over their fans. From the suicides that greeted the death of Valentino to the pre-teen who devotes their life to following N Sync, mass media icons have been the subject of widespread adoration for many years. I do believe however that in contemporary society, mass media role models are becoming increasingly chosen as contributors to their fans identity.

Is There a Crisis of Identity?

Postmodern theory states that coherent identity has diversified and fragmented into a group of precarious and conflicting identities. Globalisation has led to the disappearance of traditional frames of reference by which personal identity has traditionally been formed. This crisis of identity has been described by Laclau as 'dislocation'. He argues that modern society has lost its core or centre which produced fixed identities and has a number of smaller centres. (quoted in Woodward,1997:21) Frames of reference such as social class, family, local community, religion and the nation have been destabilised and sometimes completely eradicated by the tendency of modern capitalism to globalise. Strinati (1995) has noted the theorists tendency to see 'dislocation' as a problem, increased by the lack of any 'viable form' to take the place of traditional sources of identity. There is the belief that people are left without a stable or coherent sense of self-identity (Strinati,1995:238), turning only to popular culture and the mass media to construct and personal identity.

Laclau sees dislocation as positive, he argues that it offers a plurality of places from which new identities can emanate. This notion certainly seems more sensible. The notion of 'identity crisis' is implicitly bad, many arguments seem to imply that formation of identity is more difficult now than in pre modern society which awarded fixed identities according to criteria such as class, gender and race.

For people who wished to display an identity that conflicted with these assumptions, such as men who wish to wear make -up or dresses, a society where a diverse range of identity choices is available seems more attractive and less painful to be a part of. I believe that the phenomenon of turning to mass media icons for socialisation is not a product of fragmentation but of alienation and dissatisfaction with other forms of socialisation.

'I'm not the way I am because I like them, I like them because they're like me.' (Jo, letter to the NME,1995:46)

Adolescents seem to be increasingly using media for the purpose of self-socialisation. For some this involves a wide range of media, but for many it involves one particular figure who comes to play an interpersonal role in their life. The ever increasing range of media available for consumption is allowing young people an increased array of viewpoints and ideals to select from, allowing for more freedom to select role models which may conflict with traditional methods of socialisation but are close to the adolescent's developing tastes and personality. While socialisers such as family and school are bound to teach their own values and ideals, for the teenager who finds they do not believe in these teachings, media icons can provide an alternative source of socialisation and replace some of their feelings of alienation with affinity.

The messages being received by an icon like Richey may seem problematic because they tend to be different than those put forward by established authority figures: the mother of Chris seemed to believe that her son had died simply because he wanted to copy his hero. Richey is clearly very influential as a mass media icon, the fans themselves readily admit they have sought out books he read, they dress like him and do things they believe he would like. But they were also drawn to him in the first place because they share certain characteristics which have made them seek a role model who suits them and who appeals to their values and aspiration.

This increase in the variety of mass media messages and the 'dislocation' of postmodern society provides space for the emergence of an increasing range of identities, which can be used and discarded at will. Through the disintegration of restrictions and expectations which once governed the self, a myriad of new forms of identity are able to emerge. Fans of Richey who use him in their construction of their identities are only one example of the ways in which mass media (and society as a whole) is increasingly presenting opportunities for diversification in the formation and presentation of identity.


Books & Articles

Arnett, Jeffrey (1995) 'Adolescent's Use of Media for Self-Socialisation' in Journal of Youth and Adolescence 24, 5: 519 - 533.

Burkitt and Tester (1996) 'Identity' in Developments in Sociology 12, Lancashire: Causeway Press.

Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge.

Cheng, Sheung-Tak (1997) 'Psychological Determinants of Idolatry in Adolescents' in Adolescence 32, 127: 687 - 692.

Clarke, Martin (1997) Manic Street Preachers: Sweet Venom, London: Plexus.

Edwards, Richard 'Starlover' B-Side to 'You Love Us' Heavenly 1991.

Gerbner, G et al. (1986) 'Living With Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process' in J. Bryant and D. Zillman (eds.) Perspectives on Media Effects, Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Hall, S (1992) 'The Questions of Cultural Identity' in S. Hall, D. Held and T. McGraw (eds.) Modernity and its Futures, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hall Hansen and Hansen (1991) 'Constructing Personality and Social Reality Through Music' in Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 35, 3: 335 - 50.

Jo (1995) Letter to NME 15th April 1995.

Kellner, D (1995) 'Madonna, Fashion and Image' in Kellner Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern, London: Routledge.

Lewis, Lisa (1994) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge.

May, Tim (1996) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Metro News (1998) 'A Tragic Pilgrimage' May 1st 1998.

Middles, Mick (1999) Manic Street Preachers: A Biography, London: Omnibus Press.

Price, Simon (1999) Everything: A book About Manic Street Preachers, London: Virgin.

Raviv et al (1995) 'Adolescent Idolisation of Pop Singers: Causes, Expressions and Reliance' in Journal of Youth and Adolescence 25, 5: 631 - 50.

Segal, Lynne (1997) 'Sexualities' in Kathryn Woodward (ed.) Identity and Difference, London: Sage.

Shutkever, Paula (1996) Manic Street Preachers: Design For Living, London: Virgin.

Smith, Richard (1995) Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music, London: Cassell.

Strinati, Dominic (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, London: Routledge.

Whiteley, Sheila (1997) Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, London: Routledge.

Wise, Nick (1997) Manic Street Preachers, London: Omnibus Press.

Woodward, Katherine (1997) 'Concepts of Identity and Difference' in Kathryn Woodward (ed.) Identity and Difference, London: Sage.

Video Material

'The Vanishing Of Richey Manic' Broadcast on Channel 4, 1997.

'Close Up: Manic Street Preachers' Broadcast on BBC 2, 1999.

Interview Subjects

Alastair, 21, Student, Leeds

Anne, 21, Student, Manchester

Becky, 17, Bristol

Blanche, 32, Travel Agent, Los Angeles

Charlotte, 23, Unemployed, Leeds

Claire, 25, Student, Leeds

Emily, 31, Unemployed, Whitby

Evan, Manics Webmaster

Gavin, 22, Student, London

Gill, 34, Manics Fanzine Editor

Jessica, 17, Bristol

Kasper, 26, Student, Sweden

Luc, 29, Credit Controller, Sweden

Nikk, 17, Manics Fanzine Editor

Nina, 24, Student, Manchester, Manics Fanzine Editor

Rhiannon, 16, Student, Cardiff

Rob, 21, Student, Sheffield

Stephen, 19, Student, Leeds

Wayne, 20, Part Time Shop Assistant, Barnsley

Zara, 14, Manchester

Illustrations: Unfortunately, not all of the images from the original essay could not be reproduced here. But for numerous pictures see these Manics sites.  

This essay was written as a 'Communications Long Essay' in spring 2000, when Francesca Skirvin was a Level Three student at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.

Back to top