It’s Snow Joke: History and the Media

Senior lecturer Mark Rothery writes about his recent interactions with the media, and what that means for historical research. Mark also discussed some of these themes on TALKRadio –select the 4:30-5:00 clip and go to three minutes in. 

On 4th February this year the new Times Online history correspondent published an article called ‘Snowflakes are not only a Modern Phenomenon’ (I won’t give this copy by including a link). This article, and the several others that followed, were based on my research with Professor Henry French, at the University of Exeter, into the male anxieties of younger sons of the landed gentry in eighteenth and nineteenth century England published in The Historical Journal last year.

It is flattering when people outside the academy are interested in your research. This particular topic of anxiety is, of course, the focus of public attention at the moment. Lots more people are talking about it and, perhaps, suffering from it than previously. I’ve commented elsewhere on this blogspace about the subject.

The trouble with this kind of dissemination, though, is the politicisation of interpretation. If you read our article (which I hope you will) you’ll see that we never used the term ‘Snowflakes’ and we certainly do not support the use of this term in reference to our research.

‘Snowflakes’ refers to the idea that ‘this generation’ of young people (millennials) are privileged in a way that ‘previous generations’ were not. Their anxieties are merely expressions of a struggle to ‘cope with life’ or ‘cut it’, reflections of their ‘mollycoddled upbringing’ and ‘over-sensitivity’. Such perceptions of millennials belong to the right of the political spectrum, particularly in foregrounding ‘sensitivity’ to ‘identities’ such as gender and sexuality.


Wikipedia defines it better than me: ‘Snowflake is a 2010s derogatory slang term for a person, implying that they have an inflated sense of uniqueness, an unwarranted sense of entitlement, or are overly-emotional, easily offended, and unable to deal with opposing opinions. Common usages include the terms special snowflakeGeneration Snowflake, and snowflake as a politicized insult.

Read on the most basic level and from a particular political perspective (the Right-Wing) our article could be interpreted as being about ‘snowflakes’. The younger sons we studied were privileged, they did have a sense of entitlement, they expected to do well out of life and some of them whinnied at the thought of working for it.

Our explanation for their mentalities and behaviour, however, was not that they were ‘snowflakes.’ We argued that they were suffering from anxiety – specifically ‘male anxieties’ generated by the risk that they might not attain the attributes necessary to be considered ‘elite men.’ In other words they were not anxious because they were ‘snowflakes’ but because of the particular ways in which ideals of hegemonic masculinity places pressure on men to be men – a gender anxiety. Their elite and privileged position was, in fact, the problem for them. Being privileged does not absent you from anxiety.

The ‘Patriarchal Dividend’ (inR. W. Connell’s words) that accrued to aristocratic men through gender and gender hierarchies produced anxieties amongst those that could not, or were at risk of not achieving, dominance. Since younger sons did not inherit the family estates and wealth they were one of those ‘at risk’ groups among the landed elite.

The media (and indeed anyone else) is free to interpret the work of historians in any way they choose to. The interpretation of the Times Online of our article was not about the historical focus of our work at all. It was based on a political and politicised view that ‘the younger generation’ are weak, their claims of anxiety are bogus and constructed, the whole issue of mental health in recent years has been exaggerated and ‘snowflaked.’ ‘Just get on with it – stiff upper lip’ you hear the article cry. History is being used for wider political purposes here.

snowflake aaron burden
Snowflake by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The idea of ‘snowflakes’ really is nonsense. There is no such thing as a particular type of attitude and behaviour among generations. All the research ever conducted on anxiety (whether by scientists or social scientists or historians) confirms that it is real and always generally widespread. It would be tough to prove a ‘rise’ or ‘decline’ in it historically and I’m not sure what the point of that would be.

But we can certainly identify periods when public discourse was more anxious and when people talked more about anxiety. Discussions around state security and public safety in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks are one example – invasion fears in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War are others.

Anxiety is not something made up and fabricated. It has a physiological (amygdala) as well as a psychological root, it focuses often on just the kinds of things that young people are anxious about today – status, attainment and achievement, relationships, finding a place in the world, happiness.

I and my co-author take anxiety very seriously. We see lots of it around us at University, both amongst students and academic staff. Students suffer with the extra and different pressures of the fees system in our present HE environment. They are away from home often for the first time and they are trying to find their place in the world at the same time as studying a challenging subject. They are not ‘snowflakes’, they are human beings with emotions.

What we found in our research was evidence of anxiety, not of snowflakes. The Times online correspondent found ‘snowflakes’ because he was looking for them. And herein lies the problem with ‘Historians and the Media.’ We search for and report on what we consider to be the facts – we look for truth and meaning in the past in order to understand humans and human society.

Most often the inherent value of our research is not what journalists want – they want research that supports their world view and (they assume) that of their readers/viewers/listeners and their interpretations are often, as a result, way off-target. By using terms such as ‘snowflake’ journalists exacerbate the problems they vilify and seek to eradicate. We historians hopefully make more positive contributions.

Look out for a forthcoming blog on a radio broadcast with NLive radio station on which I discuss the wider implications of History and the Media with Dr Drew Gray and Dr Paul Jackson (the show is due to be broadcast on the evening of 4th March)


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