One of my least favorite things to hear in regards to fiction is “It’s just a show/movie/book”. It’s usually being said for one of two reasons. First, it’s in response to someone writing a social critique of the work. It occurs every time diversity in Hollywood is brought up. It occurs when critics and viewers get tired of the depictions of sexual violence on TV. It occurs every time someone is brave enough to share why a work hurts and belittles them and their struggles. Second, it’s in directed toward fans who get emotionally attached to their media. While I also have plenty to say about the second usage in particular, the motivations behind the two aren’t so dissimilar and honestly, are just plain wrong. Nothing fictional is “just” anything. It reflects a particular viewpoint. It provides a narrative. It teaches us what to expect.
One of the things in life that I am most passionate about is the idea of media literacy. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Center for Media Literacy defines it as “a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.” It’s a form of critical thinking that specifically asks us to look at the messages that are being produced by our media – both fictional and non-fictional.
When we write or speak, we create a narrative. We’re filtering our opinions through the specific lens of our past experiences, beliefs, and values. We filter them in a way that reflects our intended audience. It’s easy to see this in non-fictional examples. This is how two different news sources can tell two drastically different stories about the same event. Each cater to specific viewpoints and will resonate with particular types of people. We can tell this story both with the words we choose and the amount of attention we pay to a given topic.
Presidential elections will be held next year in the US and throughout the primary process, I urge you to look for the narrative the candidates and the media are presenting to you. What are their views? Not just the ones they will come out and say directly on camera but the underlying beliefs that underlie those views. Look deeper at the words they use to sell you on themselves. Look at the way their statements are used and interpreted in the media then decide for yourself if that is really what they are saying or if it’s all spin.
The same is no less important in fictional media. When something is created, it tells a story that goes beyond the plot. It’s a story that says what is acceptable, what is normal, what is worth focusing on. It teaches us about beauty, about acceptable behavior, about how big we should dream. It says a lot about sexuality and gender expression. It provides example about what is possible.
Most fiction isn’t doing that directly. For as much backlash as there is against the concept, fiction that specifically sets out to be “message fiction” is not anywhere near as prevalent as fiction that sets out to be entertaining. But something is perfectly capable of being entertaining with a diverse set of characters. The diversity in no way limits the enjoyment a person is capable of experiencing.
It’s one of the reasons that representation is so important. Not just having actors of color or women somewhere in the cast, but in leading roles. In the writer’s room. Behind the camera. We need stories that provide diverse viewpoints because they promote the idea that those viewpoints are valuable. That those people who share those viewpoints are valuable.
We can and should ask for more from the media we consume. We need to hold news stations and printed news accountable for the facts they provide and the way they present their information. We need to continue to demand better representation from our fiction. We need to ask that portrayals of a group show members of that group in all situations, not limit them to a range that we’ve previously deemed acceptable. We need to point out negative portrayals and situations that perpetrate or reflect damaging attitudes in real life. Most of all, we need to understand that it’s not just a movie, book, or TV show. It is an insight into the our culture. It’s one of the ways we learn about the world around us. And it’s inescapable. So we owe it to ourselves and future generations to be aware of what is being said.
This season, while you’re watching TV or reading online reviews (which you almost certainly are if you found your way here), take note of what is being said. See what resonated with people and what fell flat. Look at the discussions that are brought up in the comments, which can be awful but can also show us things within the episode that didn’t make it through our own personal filter. These perspectives enrich our own viewing and ask us to step outside our own narrative and appreciate someone else’s. Embrace our differences and ask for them to be represented. Let’s see how good TV can get when we start to tell different stories. I’m excited for the change. Come be excited with me.