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The meaning of Greta: a psychosocial exploration of Greta Thunberg

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Abstract

This article explores the social meaning of Greta Thunberg. Time magazine made her Person of the Year 2019, claiming she has become a social phenomenon, a "global sensation". This article utilises psychosocial theory and new social movement theory to explore the social meaning of "Greta". It asks what "Greta" evokes in our "social imaginary" (Taylor, 2009, p. 146). What conscious and unconscious identifications are projected onto "Greta" that have made her the unlikely famous person she is? These questions are not about exploring her individual psychological, leadership, or character traits, but focus on Greta (now eighteen years old) as a social object (Latour, 2005) with a vast social network following her, including over 4.2 million Twitter followers, a new documentary film about her, and mainstream media coverage across the globe. Part one of this article outlines the context and libidinal economies that Greta operates within, and the theoretical influences the article draws upon. Part two outlines five core messages that Greta transmits, and the meanings that emerge from observing social reactions to her. The article ends with a conclusion summarising the social meanings of Greta.

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In December 2019, a Swedish climate activist was appointed Person of the Year by Time Magazine. Greta Thunberg was only 15 when she inspired a wave of school strikes and protest marches. She stole the media attention at a series of global summits, until public gatherings and international travels were interrupted by the pandemic. The aim of this article is to highlight a short but intense celebritisation process with culture-bound responses. First, I will establish Thunberg’s deep roots in a Nordic children’s culture, which defends bio-diversity with ‘superhoney’ and science. Then, I will compare the strong impact of an ecological Wunderkind in the EU with the polarised reactions in the US. In the conclusion, I will relate Thunberg’s activist strategy and persona to other types of eco-celebrities and discuss the significance of diverging time horizons.
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