The Villain as Reference Idol: Selection Frequencies and Salient Attributes among New Zealand Teenagers

By Melnick, Merrill J.; Jackson, Steven J. | Adolescence, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Villain as Reference Idol: Selection Frequencies and Salient Attributes among New Zealand Teenagers


Melnick, Merrill J., Jackson, Steven J., Adolescence


Merton (1957) once observed that "research and theory have tended to focus on reference groups to the relative neglect of reference individuals" (p. 302). Expanding on this point, Sherif (cited in Hyman, 1975) noted that there was considerable value in studying reference individuals who serve as models for the many. He referred to this glorified variety of reference individual as the "reference idol."

While the public hero/heroine as a special type of reference idol is well documented in the research literature (Harris, 1994; Russell, 1993), the influence of negative reference idols, or villains, has been largely unexamined. According to McEvoy and Erickson (1981), villains evoke general feelings of disdain, allow individuals to project negative sentiments onto them, and serve as an explicit personification of rejected values and behaviors. They argue that any theory "... concerning the influence of those with whom we interact can be enhanced by examining the functions of public heroes and villains as special types of reference objects, along with an analysis of the types and levels of their influence" (p. 112).

The frequency and salience of public heroes and villains as reference idols have obvious implications for the formation of attitudes, identities, and role-taking. McEvoy and Erickson underscore this point when they observe that "public figures can help to create and sustain value and action systems, functioning as symbolic representations of that which is perceived to be 'good' and 'bad' aspects of the socio-cultural system" (p. 114).

Because the stresses, strains, and crises that frequently attend adolescence make attraction and attachment to public figures especially strong (Balswick & Ingoldsby, 1982), the study of teenagers' heroes and villains becomes especially relevant. If heroes constitute an underappreciated category of "reference other" in the lives of teenagers (Melnick & Jackson, 1996), then the public others whom they use as avoidance role models (i.e., their villains) are also deserving of scholarly attention.

Characterized as the "struggle for independence," adolescence, beginning about the age of 11 in girls and somewhat later for boys (Schave & Schave, 1989), involves "... the process of building up an individual personality structure with its complex cognitive, motivational, linguistic, moral, and social features and abilities, as well as the subjective experience of being a unique personality" (Hurrelmann, 1994, p. 6). According to Schave and Schave, "during times of stress, due to changes in their cognitive capacities, they [adolescents] put a greater reliance on external sources [emphasis added] of support" (p. 72). The increased need by adolescents for external support systems in order to maintain their psychic equilibrium has intriguing implications for identity formation. The extent to which identification with villains, or avoidance role models, helps adolescents arrive at a set of values and beliefs to guide their actions, what Kimmel and Weiner (1985) refer to as an "ideological stance," is worthy of investigation.

The present study addressed the degree to which adolescents have villains and, more importantly, the level of influence villains have on adolescents' attitudes, values, behaviors, and identities. Villains were defined as public figures, real or fictional, living or deceased, whom an individual strongly dislikes. Since this investigation was essentially exploratory in nature, no formal a priori hypotheses were tested. Rather, the researchers endeavored to answer, and draw conclusions from, the following three questions: (1) Do New Zealand youth have public villains and, if so, who are they? (2) Which specific traits or characteristics do New Zealand youth most dislike in their villains? (3) To what degree do villains influence the lives of New Zealand youth?

The fact that the study of popular culture in New Zealand has been, at best, underdeveloped (Lealand, 1985; Wilcox, 1985) explains the paucity of research bearing directly on the selection and influence of mass media-created public others.

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