I understand the desire to just ignore politics and social issues. For most of my life, I was completely ignorant of just how deep issues like racism and sexism ran in our society—part of the privilege of belonging to the “majority” groups. I suppose I was aware of some sexist factors in our world, but I was young and naïve enough not to really care.
Then I started learning more, reading more articles, understanding more about politics, and suddenly it was everywhere. Racism and sexism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism and ignorance—they exist all around us, ingrained in us so deep we don’t even see all of it (of course, those suffering from its violence feel it every day).
There is so much complexity in these issues, particularly when it comes to political action, and I’m only just beginning on my journey to challenge my own privilege and ignorance, and I still fail all the time. I will always continue to try, though.
And the way I want to help change the world is through pop culture—because the issues above are ubiquitous in media… in a thousand tiny slights.
Some media is particularly glaring in its privilege and ignorance, such as whitewashing in Hollywood films, but some of it is more subtle—or at least more unacknowledged. The simplest form of perpetuating power structures is through exclusion—this chart of the dearth of diverse protagonists in films, the Bechdel test which laments the lack of female characters who talk to each other, the tragic lack of protagonists of color in children’s books, queerbaiting to tease audiences while refusing to fully invest in gay representation, and on, and on, and on.
Lots of people think this doesn’t matter—but representation is essential for forming senses of self as well as finding a place in society. Think of how you look up to characters, how you want to be them, how any similarities to yourself make you feel proud and powerful. Now ask a man which female character he wants to be (and not just to have her boobs, or whatever). Ask a white person which character of color they want to be. And then ask yourself how many white male characters you would like to be—and think about the psychology of that. Think about a society in which everyone, consciously or not, wants to be white and male (and cisgender and heterosexual and able-bodied and probably Christian and American, etc.)—and think about growing up in a world where no one wants to be you.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have or admire white male characters like James Bond, the Doctor, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, Sherlock Holmes, and so on. These are great characters that I love. But we need to start seeing more characters with diverse identities who we embrace and admire and who we encourage young people of every identity to want to be.
And we also need to address the pervasive tiny oppressions that exist throughout media. Because once you start seeing them, they are everywhere.
I noticed this most recently with the show Frasier. I like this show a lot; it’s pretty smart for a silly sitcom, and I think it has some original characters (as opposed to traditional sitcom family tropes). But as I watch, I see so many tiny cuts against others, without the characters (or the show, or perhaps most of the audience) even aware of it.
– Frasier refuses to go on blind dates, until he hears that the woman is attractive (usually through hearing she’s a swimsuit/underwear model).
– At least two episodes derive humor from the idea that a man is attracted to one of the Crane brothers, and they are completely oblivious—this could be okay, in that just these two characters are ignorant, but I think it’s rather that how could they ever expect to encounter a gay man? It doesn’t even occur to them.
– One episode insists that you must find out any secrets about someone you’re marrying, because a cousin of theirs found out two years into the marriage that their wife “used to be a man,” said as though this were the worst thing (and teasing about her ability to “lift a watermelon with one hand”)—and implying that the marriage was then immediately over.
– There’s constant slut-shaming of Roz, who dates a lot and casually, though she seems to be somewhat proud of her own lifestyle, so it’s possible that slut-shaming is not the ultimate result—however, there are plenty of jokes at her expense, without her response and without being condemned by any characters or the show.
– Frasier can sometimes be really creepy about women, and I don’t think we’re supposed to think that—for example, in a recent episode, he again agrees to go out with a woman when he hears she was in a swimsuit calendar (as opposed to when he thought she was just a “rugby captain” who would “probably cause an avalanche”); he spends the entire drive swerving to get her to fall against him; he doesn’t care that she is “stupid”; when he learns that the only French word she knows is “Oui,” he says that’s all she’ll need; etc.
Again, I like this show—and I don’t think any of the above is meant to stand out as offensive. It’s meant to be funny, and perhaps even normal for Frasier to think this way. The audience derives humor not at Frasier’s expense but either at the expense of the women (like Roz) or in thinking that they would be the same way.
Or how about the fact that every time someone is called a “pussy” you’re suggesting female = weak. Or how using “gay” as an insult implies it is inherently a bad thing to be. What about “girly” (as opposed to “manly”)? Or how calling someone “retarded” or “crazy” adds another layer of negativity and injury to people already struggling to live with mental challenges?
Now, again, imagine a world in which everywhere you turn you are hit with a thousand tiny insults, constantly, everywhere. Go to a movie, and the guy that looks like you is a stereotype who dies first. Turn on TV and characters insist they are definitely, never, how-dare-you, ha-ha, not gay. Read a comic book, and the only girl dies in the hero’s arms to motivate him to avenge her (and every woman is slender with giant boobs hanging out of her skintight costume). Look for a kid’s book for your nephew, and there are more talking animals than there are heroes who look like him.
Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by a world that subtly—and not so subtly—tells you that you’re not needed, you’re not important, what you want and hope for and think and how you live your life is not as worthy of everyone’s attention as the ubiquitous “ideal.” If a story is told about you, it’s only for other people like you, because “everyone” could never be interested in you the way you’re supposed to be constantly interested in them—let alone want to see more of you.
And that’s just in media, never mind the way that the real world (news, crime, politics, education) continues this pattern. But, you see, it’s all related. Whether we notice it or not, our media and pop culture informs us of how our society works, how we want it to work, how we don’t want it to work. It is an expression of our culture, of ourselves. Or rather, a particular section of our culture and ourselves—but, as far as media and the world is concerned, the only section that matters.
No wonder people think their right to say hurtful things trumps someone else’s right to go through their day without being wounded. Or that their right to thrust their religious beliefs on others trumps someone’s right to live the life they want. Because society tells them again, and again, and again, that they and their way of life are more important, more worthy of attention and admiration, more normal than everyone else’s.
I have a lot of privileges to dismantle in my own life, and some privileges and indoctrinated thought patterns that will never leave me. I will continue to fail, and struggle, and I can never fully detangle myself from the systems of power that I benefit from. And, in ways that I may not even be aware of, or (more shamefully) may choose to follow through with anyway, I may end up perpetuating oppression through misrepresentation or exclusion or the simple advantages of my existence.
But I’m going to try, the only way I know how—by creating. And I encourage every creator to think about these things, too. 🙂