hoodieThe man behind shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent is no shrinking violet but one of his greatest and most surprising achievements has yet to receive any recognition.

By giving a platform to the likes of street dance troupes Diversity and Flawless in these shows, Simon Cowell has (no doubt unwittingly) done more than anyone to challenge public and media stereotypes of young urban men as thugs and hoodies.

Research published by Women in Journalism in 2009, showed just how badly boys are demonised in the media. We found that coverage of young men was unrelentingly negative and there were more stories about teen boys and crime than all other subjects put together.

Boys were referred to variously in the press (in descending order of frequency) as yobs, thugs, sick, feral, hoodies, louts, heartless, evil, frightening, scum, monsters, inhuman and threatening. There were few positive stories to balance the bad ones: over three-quarters of articles about teen boys and sport were negative; 84% of stories about boys and entertainment were negative.

These TV talent shows are watched by millions and will genuinely be the first time that many viewers have seen groups of young black males in anything other than a negative context. Successful contestants on BGT – with names like Breaker, Shock and Swoosh – look, sound and swagger in exactly the same way as the kind of boys who are generally demonised.

Yet these young men have proved highly popular with the viewers, whose votes help decide which acts go through to the next round. Diversity – made up of 11 mainly black youths, aged 13-25, from east London – famously beat the tabloid favourite Susan Boyle to win BGT in 2009. Flawless – made up of 10 young black men, aged 21-26, from north London – were finalists in the same year.

Research by the Department for Education shows that the less contact people have with young people, the more negative their perceptions. Teachers and lower class parents (C2DEs) who typically have dealings with a variety of teenagers were less intimidated by teens than were older or wealthier people. (ABC1 parents tended to exempt their own children and those of friends as ‘good kids’, while all other teens were generally suspect.)

It’s probably fanciful to think that the middleclass mum who voted for Diversity rather than Susan Boyle, will be any less likely to cross the road to avoid a group of hoodies next time. However, TV talent shows have proved a powerful challenge to media stereotyping and given young men a unique chance to be their own ambassadors.

These contestants have shown you can be talented, ambitious and hardworking, but still achingly cool and oozing street cred. For once, we have a positive image of teenage boys which is real and recognisable, rather than some middle aged TV executive’s patronising idea of what a ‘good teen’ is like, or Disneyfied version, a la High School Musical.

I never thought I would have cause to say this but (as the mother of two boys, who bristles when I see the bad press teens get), thank you, Simon Cowell.

At this rate, I may even forgive him for Jedward.


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