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Analysis

What We Ask from Stories

Media as a teacher, part 2 (part 1 here)

In the last part of this series I discussed whether media is obligated to teach us something or not. This time, I will focus my attention on the other side of this interactions, the audience.

Whenever we start watching or reading something new, there are a certain list of filters that the content must pass through for us to continue. A checklist, if you will. Everyone has their own checklist, depending on our idiosyncrasies. We tend to be partial to certain genres and formats: Do you like soft Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Series or serials? Procedural, monster-of-the-week, long arcs? Then there come the finer details, like world building, very specific types of comedy, tropes we enjoy (blonde and brunette wlw, anyone?) or don’t enjoy (love at first sight makes me roll me eyes to infinity), and where the line is drawn on our suspension of disbelief.

We all have a little gatekeeper inside our brains. Creators know this, and they will attempt to pander to whichever audience at which they’re aiming their product.

What we expect of content in terms of styles and genres varies immensely. We’d have to discuss a particular segment of the market if we were to talk specifics. Our little gatekeeper however, is usually not only interested in whether we like the world and the characters. There is a deeper level, especially with the content we don’t consume casually, that demands certain standards to be met.

Moral, idealistic standards that have a lot to do with our context, our culture and our education. This, of course, is also very different for everyone, especially those from different cultures and, as I mentioned in the last article, different generations.

Generationally, it could be said there is something all of us want. A standard we all want to see met.

What do we demand?

Equality!

And… that’s it, really.

It sounds repetitive, but this is the biggest push in fandom right now in terms of moral standards. There isn’t really a call for “family friendly” content demanding less violence or sex in a general sense, for instance. But there is for more male frontal nudity, for example. Racial, sexual, ethnic, religious, disability, neurological, and body diversity is the topic around which most discussions on fandom platforms like Tumblr and Twitter revolve. It has been going on for a while now, so it has seeped into the mainstream.

For multiple years in a row, The Hollywood Reporter’s round tables have broached the topic of equality, especially int their “Actress Roundtables.” Most prime-time and prestige awards in Hollywood have incorporated this into host monologues and winner speeches, and TV especially incorporates it into their narratives. As it becomes the mainstream, the discussion becomes more open and bolder. Like this actress conversation published by Porter, in which Ellen Pompeo (a.k.a. Meredith Grey) openly called out the magazine for lack of diversity on set.

The industry has taken some steps. Achieving equality—and more importantly, intersectional equality—in media is no easy feat though, especially given the power structures involved in their machinations. Part of the job is the audience’s in demanding that equality or else, but much of the heavy lifting must be done from inside, where the Ellen Pompeos of Hollywood must take a stand to be allies and defenders of the minorities who have been left behind. And that is just Hollywood. The state of other, smaller industries must be addressed locally as well, but that’s really a story for another day.

Whenever something comes out that is considered a good example of diversity, there will usually be praise on fandom platforms pointing out the impact it has. Like so many wonderful videos of little girls dressed up as Wonder Woman or Shuri, with parents excited their little girls have a positive role model. Or little boys idolizing Black Panther, the first mainstream hero who looks like them. The word positive comes out to play, and those examples are undeniably positive. Sometimes though, the lines do get blurred about what is positive and what isn’t.

Put in fandom terms, we want positive messages in the stories we consume. In today’s world, that constitutes fair representation across the board. Or wait, do we want fair messages and positive representation? Are they the same?

Fair and/or Positive

It gets a wee bit tricky here, as what is fair and what is positive differs from little gatekeeper to little gatekeeper. Which is better? Shouldn’t representation be fair and positive? And what constitutes a positive and fair message?

My head hurts.

Characters, their arcs and their resolutions, as well as the broader social subjects a story deals with are how these messages get across to us. Most content creators try to keep their shows relevant by keeping them topical, some more subtly, some more ham-fisted. For example, the latest Supergirl season’s giant in-your-face migration allegory (so far so good) or The Handmaid’s Tale’s radical take on a world where sexism takes over.

There seems to be a consensus that the representation of both these things is a good thing. Whether it is fair or positive, it’s harder to say. Some would argue the aliens as a metaphor for today’s migrants might constitute unfair whitewashing. Many would say The Handmaid’s Tale takes things way too far to be positive. It might be well and good to paint a brutal picture of how far sexism can go, but there does—there must—come a point where it might turn into torture porn.

A more extremist part of fandom takes the word “positive” at absolute face value. This portion of fandom will demand that the representation of the minority in question be positive in the “always good and right” sense, and the message fair in that “nothing bad must ever happen to this person.” I wish I could believe no one means it seriously, but I have witnessed how high emotions run in regards to this topic.

The idea that everything that happens in fiction needs to be squeaky clean is frankly egregious. There needs to be drama, conflict, and that cannot happen if only good things are represented on screen—good characters, healthy relationships, happy outcomes. That would lead to the antiquated and simplistic Pure Darkness vs. Pure Light conflict. We might be able to consume that from retro content knowing its context, but the reality is that it doesn’t fly with modern audiences, at all.

It’s impossible not to think about the fact that many of the marginalized groups seeking representation have been misrepresented and even exploited in media for so long that it may physically hurt to see negative aspects of their lives and relationships. I understand, to a degree. Stories are not personal, except they are. But if we presume to sincerely analyze or seriously critique a piece of work for its ethics, we should take a long hard look into ourselves and see just how much of the argument is raw emotion and how much is actually rational. I am a believer that we need a balance of those two.

For starters, we need to be able to differentiate reality and fiction, not just in practice, but in our emotions as well. That takes something that not all of us have: media literacy.

We Don’t Get It

Media has grown at exponential rates in the past century, and there is simply no way its study and especially education about it can keep up. And so, media keeps growing, and we are five steps behind it. Media literacy is basically the ability to analyze the different types of media and understand the messages being sent through them, with their undercurrent and context, to a point where we’re able to generate those messages effectively.

Suffice to say, this isn’t something that’s widely taught in basic education just yet. Even less so for those who went to school ten, twenty years ago. It is enough to see how a tweet about a rumor can cause an uproar and forever stain someone’s reputation. This is an obstacle both in our understanding of the messages sent through media and our understanding of the best way to send the messages we want or need from media.

It is how we might confuse the representation of something with its endorsement, or not realize its endorsement under the guise of representation. The idea I touched on in Part 1 was that of “Healthy Ships” for example, wherein fandom demands the relationships depicted on TV especially, be healthy. While I would agree that the portrayal of a toxic relationship as desirable (endorsement) is a big no, I’m not against them appearing in stories (depiction). As someone said in the comments, if the toxic aspects of that relationship are dealt with accordingly, there is nothing negative about representing it. Especially given that toxic relationships are a thing in real life.

Now, if the creators of a show are portraying a toxic relationship as desirable and good (*cough* Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair *cough*) it really does take a strong media education to be able to resist that pull. Narratives are entrancing, and no one is immune to giving into their pull. And since awareness among creators is spreading spectacularly slowly, it should be a priority. This is especially tricky for fictional or fictionalized stories: film, TV series, comic books, video games… Since they are also entertainment, many still refuse to see that what they showcase has an impact in real life.

Those of us who do are still trudging through muddled waters, trying to decipher what it is we need from it, and what really is the right way for media to behave in order to teach us, or society, something good, positive, and fair.

Going back to our little gatekeeper, these ideals get intermingled with our personal microcosms. So what we want, as a gut reaction, may be a little more biased than we initially realize.

What We (Secretly) Want

We want to feel individually represented.

To feel satisfied with the resolution of the stories we care about.

For the moral resolution of plots and character arcs to coincide with our moral code.

To have the characters we personally identified with treated fairly. Scratch that. To have them treated like we’d like to be treated or have things happen to them that we would like to happen to us.

We want to feel personally vindicated.

Are these wants fair? Who knows. In my honest opinion, a lot of what we want out of pure instinct for ourselves tends to be irrational. Like watching someone get something for free and secretly wishing it were you, even if you really are happy for the person who benefited. We’re complicated beasts. Complicated beasts who just so happen to live in a world of instant gratification. A lot of us aren’t used to not getting what we want when we want it, most especially in the case of information and entertainment.

Our individual desires are also mixed with our desire to be part of something. Culture, and in this case fandom culture, is a big part of it. At this point, either you are part of the equality conversation—for or against—or you aren’t part of fandom. Or you may constitute that portion of the Internet that bemoans an inability to enjoy anything ever because other fans won’t let you.

A while ago I wrote about the common conflation between calling something out for considering it problematic in general versus complaining about something we feel displeased about. When it comes to media as a teacher, this conflation can happen when it comes to demanding what media should be teaching us and especially young people.

Think of the Children

This is a bit of a segway, but I didn’t feel like I could leave it out of the conversation:  When we talk about media as a teacher, the subject of children, teenagers, and young adult audiences comes to the forefront. “Children are like a sponge,” my mom always says. What we demand in terms of media teachers is often in regards of the molding of young minds.

It is true that our brains are more bendy and malleable when we’re younger, and what children are seeing and reading is undeniably important for their formation of ideas about the world. I don’t have children of my own, but from what I’ve observed in the children I interact with, I’d say what they “absorb like a sponge” from media is much less what’s good and what’s not, and much more who’s cool and who’s not. You might argue that these two things can intermingle, and you’d be right, but media literacy has a lot to do with what they absorb into their behavior. A youngster with a solid basis may think Slytherin is much cooler than Gryffindor, but they won’t start bullying people or legitimately planning world domination (this is how Slytherin was portrayed), they’ll just wear T-Shirts.

More importantly, “what’s cool and what’s not” is a much, much more crucial lesson than we’d initially think. It has to do with that is desirable. If a show makes skating look cool, a kid might well pick up a skateboard and give it a go. This isn’t myth. Guitar sales in Mexico spiked after Coco was released last year. Children begged for them for Christmas. Even a friend of mine, what you might call a grown-a** man, bought a guitar as a direct result of watching the film (and he hasn’t picked it up since).

So yes, it is very important to take special care of the “messages” included in young people’s media. More than moralistic messages, asking for the normalization (and “cool-ification”?) of more diverse people should be a priority. Even so, each parent wants the screens and the pages of books and comics to relay the same messages they are trying to teach their child. Like an extension of them.

What about us?

If we put the children discussion aside, the question it leaves me with is this: Do we want media to teach us something? My instinct would be to say yes, I do. Because I have become aware of issues and experiences far from my own through stories in media (real or fictional), I would say yes.

Fandom seems to agree that media should teach. The what, generally, I’ve covered. Whether media has a responsibility to do it has been discussed in the excellent Ethics of Storytelling series. But who does fandom want media to teach, besides children?

Even if I personally think I want media to teach me, I do find I am still closed off to accepting opinions and perspectives different than my own. As an example, when I was younger I used to have a really hard time finding drunkenness funny. Part of it is due to my own real-life experiences, but I also do hold a very old-fashioned belief that intoxication, especially in minors, should not be taken lightly. As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself more open to other people’s opinions on the matter, that come from their own experience. Having my own experiences as an adult has helped, too. But it took me a long time to accept that my perspective was not the only valid one.

The thing is, I didn’t learn that from TV, I learned it from people. It takes me back to my response to cheesy Hallmark movies. I find it pedantic when media tries to teach me something. So, despite my initial answer, I find that no, I don’t really want media to teach me things. Not in the straightforward sense of the word. I don’t want it to preach to me because I, as do many of us, already have my own standards of good and bad. So here is my conclusion:

We don’t really want media to teach us anything, we want it to teach others what we (think we) already know.

We need it to show us perspectives we hadn’t considered, so that then we might want to learn something. But learning is not an inevitability; you must be open and willing to learn.

Media Doesn’t Teach, We Learn

Ultimately, media simply isn’t a teacher.

Educating people is not and should not be media’s aim. That’s up to parenting and the education system. Narratives can’t be masterclasses on anything because they usually have a limited point of view. One single film or even a long-running TV show cannot teach you everything there is to know about LGBT+ experiences and/or rights, or the ethnic diversity within Native American peoples, or Philosophy, or anything. It can give you glimpses into these things, pique your interest, leave you hooked. But if it tries to do much more it wouldn’t be entertainment anymore.

Coco is a great example of this. The film shows you a glimpse of Mexican culture, respectfully and accurately portrayed on screen. It does include tidbits of information about the tradition of Día de Muertos, like the use of the cempazúchitl (that yellow flower), the alebrijes (colorful spirit guides), and a brief explanation of some elements of the altar. But it never goes into detail. There are many elements and details about just the altar that the film left out. Every element in an altar has a meaning, or many. The writers and producers journeyed in Mexico, learning and absorbing information to make the film as respectful as accurate as possible, knew about every element of the altar, proven by the fact that it is there in the film.

They did not need to include every explanation. Having it would make it a bit overbearing and even boring. And a boring movie with accurate information that no one sees would be about as useful to representing Mexican culture as getting drunk on bad Tequila on May 5th.

What media can do however, is prompt you to want to learn. About science, screenwriting, aerodynamics, history, and, above all, people.


Images courtesy of Disney Channel, Disney Pixar, and NBC

Alejandra
Written By

Alejandra is a Mexican screenwriter who spends too much time thinking about television.

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