Popular Culture and Social Justice: Desegregating Popular Culture for Equal Representation

By Yuya Kiuchi

Popular culture reflects who we are. Today, so-called “mainstream” popular culture excludes the minority population and their voices. In order to truly move toward a society that values diversity and inclusivity, we must make purposeful decisions to achieve equal representation of minority groups in popular culture.

Jackie Chan ‘Finally’ Gets His First Oscar at the 8th Annual Governors Awards. © Getty Images

Popular culture, by definition, is diverse. It affirms the significance and value of what so-called high or established culture looks down on. With popular culture, children can make up their own rules beyond adults’ influences. Racial minorities have created their own entertainment so they can enjoy what they want to, and not what someone else has made for them. Immigrants practice their traditions to maintain ties to their homeland. Sexual minorities have established cues, signs, and symbols to communicate with each other within the group, avoiding the risk of name-calling or violence. Popular culture, therefore, challenges status quo and is diverse.

Popular culture, therefore, challenges status quo and is diverse.

The popular culture industry, however, rarely reflects such diversity. So-called “mainstream” popular culture is that of English-speaking middle-class non-Latino white heterosexual able-bodied men. Hollywood movies continue to feature white heroes and Black villains. Prime time TV shows rarely cast Asian actors and actresses as protagonists. Rather than seeking an actor who actually used a wheelchair, American TV series, Glee, cast Kevin McHale to play the role of Artie who uses a wheelchair. Homophobia is still strong in sports, especially among male athletes. It was recently suggested that misogyny was also permissible in a locker room. Rarely do we encounter a story of a marginalised but resilient individual who sheds light on serious issues of inequality. If we do, it is either in the context of a generous white family helping out the unfortunate secondary character (e.g. The Blind Side (2009)) or to advance the long-lasting Horacio Alger myth that discounts, if not ignores, the plight of the minority population.

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Examining the history of popular culture suggests that progress has been made. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, minorities were excluded from appearing on theatres and movies. “Blackface in minstrelsy” is an apt example. Portrayals of Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities were severely stereotyped as coons, mammies, and so on. In the second half of the 20th century, African Americans slowly became more visible in movies and TV shows. But they rarely had major roles. Even if they did, like the Huxtable family in The Cosby Show, their images were sanitised and made “safe” for its “mainstream” audience.

In the meantime, away from broadcasting media such as TV and major film projects, minority groups in the 1970s and 1980s started producing and consuming their own content via narrowcasting cable technology. They controlled and owned their production rights and power. For African Americans, as an example, just as they have done with Ebony and Jet decades prior, they began to produce televisual content they wanted to consume on their cable television. Thanks to these efforts, minorities were beginning to be represented both in front of and behind the screen. It is also during this time period that Spike Lee started directing movies and BET (Black Entertainment Television) was launched.

Changes continue to happen today. Recently, Jackie Chan was finally awarded an Oscar. Robbie Rogers, Abby Wambach, Jason Collins, Kwame Harris, and others have come out as gay athletes. In February 2016, Samantha Bee became the first female to host a late-night satirical news program in the US. Twitter allowed African American youth in Ferguson, MO, to show the harsh reality of their life and struggles after the death of Michael Brown to the world, eventually encouraging national and international news outlets to feature their stories. Minorities refuse to be silenced and their voices are heard increasingly.

Despite these changes, minority popular culture icons face backlashes. Chan’s fame in the West continues to be in slapstick martial arts comedies. Minority popular culture icons face harsh criticisms. Beyoncé, who had produced the “Formation” music video that paralleled the imagery of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, performed during the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, only to be called “outrageous” and “ridiculous” by Rudy Giuliani, because she had shown support for African American solidarity and the movement against police brutality through her performance. Meanwhile, Chris Martin who also performed at the show with an armband for his own cause was not criticised. Twitter was filled with racial slurs when Rue and Thresh, two characters from The Hunger Game trilogy turned out to be Black. While heterosexual couples hugged and kissed each other in Independence Day: Resurgence, a movie directed by openly gay Roland Emmerich, the only homosexual couple to appear in the film – Dr. Brackish Okun and Dr. Issac – just held hands in solidarity against an alien attack.

For minority representations, there are only two choices: sanitise to be accepted or stay away.

 

The message of “mainstream” popular culture is clear. Popular cultures of the minority groups are welcome as long as they are sanitised. Diversity in popular culture is also welcome so long as it does not change the current “mainstream” popular culture landscape. You can soundbite Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk about his dream, but an X formation as a tribute to Malcolm X is overboard. We can have a few gay and lesbian relationships on TV to celebrate the appearance of inclusion but the depictions of such relationships must be toned down, in reminiscence of the Hays Code. Magazines may feature diverse body shapes on their cover but inside they advise how to achieve a beach body before this summer. Darker-skinned athletes are welcome, but as was the case with “Les Bleus” or the French national football team, they face criticism if they account for the majority of the starting lineup. Various food options are convenient, but taco trucks should not be on every corner. For minority representations, there are only two choices: sanitise to be accepted or stay away.

Popular culture reflects us. It showcases who we are as a society. The reality of “mainstream” popular culture is also reflective of the “mainstream” society, which remains utterly unaware of the richness of popular culture of various minority groups. Today, African Americans are well represented in their own popular culture. So are Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans, and others. LGBTQ communities have their own booming popular culture ecology. But the “mainstream” remains unaware and uninterested. During the 2016 US presidential election, social media critics frequently argued that we surrounded ourselves with like-minded people and we were only fed the kind of news and viewpoints that we had already agreed with. The same can be said about popular culture. The “mainstream” stays in its comfort zone and only consumes images of familiar faces.

One might argue that popular culture is purely for entertainment. But this is far from true. Popular culture is very political. Even aside from the Cold War era cultural diplomacy led by the US government, popular culture has helped certain ideas and lifestyles become mainstream. Disney and other cartoons for children underscored the idea of white male heroes. The “mainstream” popular culture industry has denied opportunities for minorities to be represented positively and in a self-affirming manner. Not only did it exclude minorities but also portrayed them negatively, underscoring the myth that they lacked work ethic, that it was their own fault that they are poor, that they took advantage of social welfare services. Popular culture has been used as a means for the “mainstream” to maintain their unjustifiably inherited position and structure of power. Popular culture has never been just for pure entertainment. It has always been political.

Because popular culture is a reflection of us, we cannot just change popular culture for the sake of equal representation. In order for popular culture to equally represent diverse minority groups, the society and its constituents that create and consume popular culture must make purposeful decisions to bring social justice. Just as we see racial and income segregation persisting in the US and other parts of the world, our popular culture is also segregated. Because popular culture is not just about representation, but also about ownership and control, minorities must be represented at various levels of popular culture. Popular culture history teaches us that putting diversity on a TV screen or a magazine cover is a start but is also far from enough. Diversity must be represented in the board rooms, in the executive teams, and production teams.

Digital media including social media are powerful tools to achieve more equal representation of diverse groups. They have more potential than traditional media to be the tool for the marginalised and have-nots. Even though not everyone can afford access to technology and devices, and the digital divide continues to exist, the barrier has become lower. This is why youth effectively used social media to create their own content and exercised their own agency. In the same way, people of color have used social media for fair representation and social justice. They can represent themselves without common stereotype and prejudices. They can tell their own stories without relying on others. With positive representations, they can nurture the “I can be like that, too” attitudes among youth.

Consumers must have critical eyes, as well. They must recognise their causal popular culture choice is a political choice.

 

Consumers must have critical eyes, as well. They must recognise their causal popular culture choice is a political choice. They must understand that their popular culture consumption is an endorsement of certain ideas and causes. Consumers today have more power than they ever have in the past. Popular culture does not exist in a vacuum. Neither do consumers.

If we look at the popular culture we consume, we can self-identify what our values are and where our priorities exist. As we strive to achieve more just and equal society, the status quo of “mainstream” popular culture reveals there still is so much work to be done. But as we move toward heterogeneity, there is a drive to bring diversity and equal representation of minority groups. Popular culture is not just for entertainment. It is not trifling. It is where we can make the value of diversity visible through equal representation of minorities. It is also the source of power for change that minorities have.

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Yuya Kiuchi is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and the editor of Race Still Matters: The Reality of African American Lives and the Myth of Postracial Society and the author of Struggles for Equal Voice: The History of African American Media Democracy.

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