Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Spark of Wisdom: Why media matters

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This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

One of my pet rambles is media depictions - especially of marginalised bodies. In fact, I have rambled about it for such length that a (no doubt exasperated) straight friend asked me why it mattered.

Of course, the first instinct is to roll my eyes, take out my Privilege-Hammer and start smiting. Predicting that his imminent future may include concussions he qualified - why is it IMPORTANT compared to the other crap that abounds?

Which makes me think. In a world where basic rights are denied and bodies beaten and killed due to prejudice - surely whether or not gay TV presenters are all over the top caricatures is not worth the thinking time - and certainly not the anger.

But I think it does matter. Partly because the small things are the foundation (ooooh, mental note: Small Things as Foundation Post) but also because of 3 facts.

1) I exist and am not a freak or oddity.

2) I am a person

3) I am important.

And the media - in all its myriad forms and in all its myriad purposes - often gets these wrong. And that is very damaging both to ourselves and how the dominant society treats us.

 I exist and am not a freak or oddity

One of the perennial problems is the complete invisibility of marginalised people. How many TV programmes are there without a single marginalised body? How many disabled or trans people do you see on TV? How many lesbians are there in TV programmes that aren't expressly about lesbians?

And related to that, when marginalised people are shown - how often are they the only one? The oh-so-obvious token insert.  The one black colleague, the one woman co-worker, the gay best friend. The oddity, the one who is so clearly out of place, the one who has been so obviously shoe horned into the show so they writers can claims diversity cookies. Hmmm diversity cookies, taste that patronising flavour!

I exist. I am not invisible. I am not negligible. I am not a fake insert. I am not an obligatory token. I am not the weird one to pander to. I am not the one who doesn't belong or doesn't fit. I am not the awkward other to try and jam into "normal" people's lives. I deserve to be seen. I deserve to be acknowledged. I deserve to be represented. I deserve to turn on the TV, pick up a book, play a game and see me there and see me as part of the story, as part of life.

I am a person

How many times do we see a marginalised person on TV and they could have been cut from the same mould? How many times do we see the SAME character played in a 100 different shows by a 100 different actors - but it's the same character. The angry Black cop, the loud Black woman, the academic Asian, the religious middle easterner, the whiney disabled person or the disabled person who bravely endures, the camp gay hairdresser, the supportive gay best friend. The sexy lesbian (there for heterosexual men to drool over), the sex mad bisexual.

I could probably go on for hours - in fact, since I don't watch a whole lot of TV, I'm sure you can supply more of the same tired clichés. These characters are not people. They're a lazy (and often offensive) collection of assumptions and stereotypes

And, relating to that - how many times do you see a marginalised person on TV and EVERY plot line about them has to be related to their marginalisation? I once joked that in the history of TV no gay man has ever worried about credit card debt. It has to be relationship worries or AIDS or homophobia. Yes, these are all important issues and should be represented on screen - but there is MORE to a gay man's life than being gay. And the same applies across the board - people aren't walking representation of their marginalisation. They are people - they are more than just a collection of (often poorly understood) issues and stereotypes.

I am a person. I have a rich full life. I am not a stereotype. I am not a collection of tired clichés. I do not think the same, speak the same, act the same or live the same as everyone else who shares my marginalisation. I am a person, not an Avatar of the gayness. There is more to my life than gay issues and gay worried and gay concerns. You do not know me just because you know I am gay. You cannot label or describe me just because you know what my marginalisation is. We're not a homogenous body. We're not a collection of issues.

We are characters, not caricatures.

I am Important

We see some marginalised people onscreen, in books etc, more and more. But how many of them are the leading character? How many are the major protagonists?

How many are sidekicks? Advisors? The bad guys? How many are friends, the victims, the romantic interest?

How often are marginalised people the stars of their own stories? Compared to straight, white, able bodied cis-gendered men, how often do marginalised people get to be the hero?

How many times do we see women as the victims or love interests? How many times are gay people the best friend? How many times are black people the sidekick? How many times are Asian people the sage advisor or guru? How many times are Middle-easterners the bad guys?

How many times do marginalised people play supporting cast to a straight, white, TAB, cis man?

My story is worth telling. My life has value. My experiences are important. That means, yes, we can be the hero. Yes the story can be about us. Yes we can be the leading role, the star character, centre stage.  It shouldn't be unique, it shouldn't be an oddity. We do not exist for the greater reflected glory of the non-marginalised. We are not bit players in someone else's story.

We have are own stories to tell and our own lives to lead. And they are important and worth telling.

And this matters

Ye gods it does. Think about how much time the people around you spend reading, watching TV, playing computer games. You can't tell me that something that makes up, what, almost half (or more!) of some people's lives is not going to affect their perceptions, their beliefs and their prejudices.

People absorb these messages. I've said it a thousand times before, prejudice and hate doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens because in a thousand ways, society says it's ok. In a thousand ways, society says that marginalised people are worth less than privileged people. That is a poisonous and dangerous message.

It's naive to believe that the media isn't a major part of that message - reinforcing it, spreading it and cheerleading it. 

Further - the media is pervasive. It's everywhere - and that means marginalised people are absorbing these messages as well. How damaging is it to people - especially young people - when there are so few realistic, positive portrayals out there? How damaging is it to them and their sense of self-worth, their sense of being a part of society, their sense of what they can achieve? We are fed a constant message that we are the supporting cast, the ones backstage, the other, the awkward and the invisible.

There is no way that cannot be harmful, there's no way that doesn't erode us, hurt us and reduce us - especially our young people. We cannot move through a world that blares this message and not be touched by it or shaped by it.

So, yes, it matters. If we want society to be better, safer and more equal - and if we want our young to grow up knowing they are good, important and worthy - then it matters.