One of the many (many) reasons we focus on music and arts over here at Inspired is their sheer power to make people happy. When we throw on our favorite album on the morning commute or put on a movie at night, we’re choosing more than just entertainment: we’re setting a mood for ourselves. Yes, we already know the media has a powerful emotional effect (just search “Game of Thrones” on Twitter). But beyond making us laugh or pulling heartstrings, TV, music, and movies are the most powerful cultural storytelling tools we have; they tell us everyday who we are, who we aren’t, and what we have the capacity to become. And even if you believe you’re too aware to be influenced by the constant noise of media tropes, psychology begs to differ. The good news? If we use them right, music, TV, and movies can still be a powerful force of social good.
In a University of Michigan study outlined by Huffington Post, TV’s power over our sense of self-worth was found to be not only real, but remarkably strong. In the study, kids were asked to watch TV and respond to questions about self-esteem. The results showed that “TV made subjects feel good about themselves ― if those subjects were white boys. Girls and boys of color, on the other hand, reported lower self-esteem as they watched.” While you might expect this to happen to kids, it turns out that adults are just as susceptible to the subliminal messages about gender, race, and culture. Researcher Nicole Martin calls this phenomenon “symbolic annihilation” – the idea that if “you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”
And yes, many people’s knee-jerk solution to this is “stop being so sensitive.” When all the stories and messaging in your daily life either erases you or makes you into a secondary stereotype, though, it isn’t always just up to you. “The more media you consume, the more likely it is that the media […] builds up,” says UCLA professor Darnell Hunt, and it makes you feel like “what you’re seeing is somewhat normal.” Here’s where the good news comes in: if the last year is any indication, artists and producers have more creative control than ever, and they’re redefining just what “normal” should be.
In theaters, we saw smash-hits “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” On the radio we heard Lizzo sing about bodies, Kehlani about sexuality. What none of them did, though, was preface themselves as game-changers. Instead, they just gave us their excellent storytelling – and began to seamlessly blend into what we understand as normal. And while we have a healthy understanding that, no, super suits and invisible kingdoms still aren’t real, women strong enough to lead armies, and girls smart enough to engineer groundbreaking tech certainly can be.
When people see a wider scope of opportunity for themselves, it doesn’t just stop at good feelings. It translates to confidence, goal-setting, and achievement – whose effects are seriously far-reaching. It’s how a little girl might harness the drive to become a real-life Shuri, giving us the newest break-through in transportation tech. Or it might be how a little boy that gets bullied at school finds the inspiration to start the next big national nonprofit. The point is, we all benefit from positive representation because we all gain a greater sense of opportunity – which is a super powerful thing.
So powerful, in fact, that it can influence the very way we structure our society. According to a Vice report on representation, limited portrayals of minority characters in mainstream media are linked to “less attention from doctors and harsher sentencing by judges” and “lower likelihood of being hired for a job or admitted to school” among other injustices. On the other hand, when representation is varied, complex, and widespread, it’s more likely to push us to treat others like part of our own “group”: with more compassion and understanding. Better representation literally has the power to save lives, change trajectories, and grant endless opportunity – and we’re getting better at it everyday.
According to Danai Gurira – the actress behind “Black Panther’s” fierce General Okoye – more complex characters empower kids to say, “Listen, I don’t have to fall into anyone else’s ideology of what I can be.” With the popularity of media like “Black Panther,” too, the US has shown a genuine love for more realistic, more diverse character development. And where there’s a market, more and more creators will follow. As fans, too, we can make an effort to “vote” with our movie tickets, song downloads, and show streaming, for artists to keep pushing forward with representative media. Perhaps industry diversity reporter Stacy Smith put it best when she said “there is more to be done, but this […] is a giant leap forward.”
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