Stereotypes, injustice and the power of the media

You can now find the audio version of this post on my youtube channel or by clicking here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/willvswatson?feature=mhum#p/u/0/43K4neDHSOg 

When you watch a film there are lots of characters that are unusually pretty incongruous. They’re there so that the lead character can explain things to them (for the benefit of the audience) and help smooth the narrative. Sometimes these characters are a sassy black best friend or maybe a noble man in a wheelchair or a flamboyant gay man.

These characters are in films intended to appeal to a broad audience on subject matter that everyone can relate to. They show that whilst the protagonist of the piece, our hero with whom we have a relationship with, is stoic and brooding, he is also modern and sophisticated. Of course, because our lead is willing to drink coffee with his Japanese friend who will use her superb knowledge of comic books or maths to help solve the crime, he must be 21st century and worldly.

This seemingly random selection of prejudicial stereotypes does not broaden the appeal of the film to a wider audience. It does not make it appear cultured or in touch with modern trends. It doesn’t help watchers of the film who are Japanese or disabled identify with characters in it. It just makes it look stupid and bigoted.

How transparent can you get? Even white, straight males know that all black nurses aren’t feisty and religious. They know that sometimes gay men like to drink beer and play football. They aren’t all stupid or narrow-minded so if the makers of films are trying to appeal to them in this way then they’re really missing something.

So my question is this, when will I get to see a film where the hero of our story, our protagonist, is in a wheelchair? But not just that, when he is in a wheel chair and ‘him being in a wheelchair’ is not part of the storyline and won’t even be mentioned? When will they start to portray a man in a wheelchair as an average guy on whom a film might be centred around?

No, he won’t be overcoming adversity to his disability. He won’t be lobbying the government for a change in disability laws or fighting his reluctant doctors to give him stem cell therapy so he can walk again. He will just be in a wheelchair and that’ll be fine by him.

When will I see a film in which a gay woman is our lead and her relationship with her partner isn’t ‘on the rocks’ or where they aren’t pulling together through the condemnation of society and the rejection of their families? When will they be portrayed as ‘just a typical family’?

Essentially what I’m asking is – when will we have reached the threshold of societal tolerance that the media will start to appeal to the majoritarian audience by portraying the minority?

We’ve been waiting a while now, it’s not like the rights women or ethnic minorities are a new fad and this isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed. Stonewall, the LGB lobbying group in the UK, have criticised television broadcasting as portraying gay people as “promiscuous, predatory, or figures of fun”. They go on to link this to a vicious circle that sustains prejudice in society. When people (particularly children) from backgrounds in which they are not exposed to gay people encounter them they refer to their knowledge of them from the TV screen. Which is often less than congratulatory – their report says “just 46 minutes out of 126 hours’ output showed gay people positively and realistically”. http://bbc.in/gYqfzN

The media may claim it only produces what is sought after. That it is simply a factory for programming that the public demand. That is unbelievable. In an age when we are all aware of the awesome power of the media to place an idea in someone’s head (and not the other way around) it is they that should be leading the offensive against injustice. In a broader sense business has a responsibility to counter act negative effects it may produce as a by-product. Chemical companies clean up toxic waste spills. It’s about time that film and television started clearing up the toxic waste that is their products and start recognising their duty to do something about the prejudice and intolerance that they sustain through their negligence.

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