Miley Cyrus’ VMA activities recently hit the news again – but this time it wasn’t for twerking. Instead, Miley took the spotlight off herself and put it on the issue of homeless youth. Passing her award acceptance on to 22-year-old Jesse Helt, a formerly homeless youth, Miley brought attention to severe social inequality across the U.S. The move raised over $200,000 for Los Angeles homeless youth. However, sociologists show that increasing media awareness of a stigmatized group can have both positive and negative consequences.
Regardless of Miley’s intentions, her effort to give voice to the homeless population is a step in the right direction. Sociologists show that increased awareness of and contact with stigmatized populations can help decrease that stigma.
- Barrett Lee, Chad Farrell, and Bruce Link. 2004. “Revisiting the Contact Hypothesis: The Case of Public Exposure to Homelessness.” American Sociological Review. 69(1).
The media also plays a large role in which issues get deemed “social problems”—problems we feel responsible for helping to fix. Positive media attention given to homelessness at the VMAs, while fleeting, may have some positive impact on social perceptions of homelessness.
- Joseph Gusfield. 1989. “Constructing the Ownership of Social Problems: Fun and Profit in the Welfare State.” Social Problems. 36(5).
- James Forte. 2002. “Not in My Social World: A Cultural Analysis of Media Representations, Contested Spaces, and Sympathy for the Homeless.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. 29(4).
However, raising awareness of what many see as a deserving segment of the homeless population—white, healthy, homeless youth—may also detract from what many sociologists call the “undeserving poor.” This equally important group of minority populations and welfare recipients will have a much harder time finding its way into an awards show.
- Michael Katz. 2013. The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.