Why is media criticism important? Why do we talk about how different groups of people are portrayed in media? What is the point of having conversations about how Beauty and the Beast depicts an abusive relationship, or whether women ever have conversations about things other than men in movies, or whether cultures composed largely of black and brown skinned people in fictional worlds are so often portrayed as more primitive and violent than their white cultural counterparts?
What does it matter?
It matters because what we see around us in media and the world influences our attitudes and behavior. Sexism in media influences sexism in the consumers of that media, not just in terms of reinforcing sexist attitudes, but in raising the tolerance and likelihood of behaviors like harassment, and in reducing empathy for the subjects of sexism. Racism in the media works similarly. Media has even been shown to affect attitudes on things like organ donation and jury expectations with respect to scientific evidence in trials.
It matters because media fundamentally shapes how we see the world, not just in terms of explicit messages about what the world is like and what people are like, but in terms of the thousand little details that we don’t consciously notice that shape what we perceive as normal or abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable, realistic or fantastic.
Whenever I think about how media influences us, I think back to a story my mom once told me about a conversation she had with a sibling of mine when we were very young. At that age, this sibling used to call all women “mommies” and all men “daddies”, our dad would generally go on runs every day, and our mom would practice piano every day.
She is with my mom and, looking out the window, sees a woman jogging. She looks at my mom and asks, “Mom, why is that mommy running?”
Mom answers, “Well, some mommies like to go running.”
My sister responds, “No; mommies don’t run, and daddies don’t play piano.”
I’m sure no one had ever explicitly told her anything of the sort. I can’t imagine she didn’t have friends with parents who had other hobbies, etc. yet there she was, so sure that things couldn’t be any other way for anyone even when she was directly witnessing contrary evidence. For no other reason than that she hadn’t seen it before. It didn’t happen in the world she knew, therefore it couldn’t happen in the world she knew.
What if she hadn’t ended up having this conversation with my mom, and had wanted to be a runner?
In my mind, there is little difference between my sister growing up (to a certain point) believing in running/playing piano gender roles because she had rarely been exposed to anything else and so many people in my generation growing up believing that gender is binary, or that men want sex and women want love, or that being gay is a disorder, or that trans people don’t really exist, or that black people are more inherently violent than white people, or that sexual harassment is “a compliment” or “just a harmless joke”. We normalize what we see.
I don’t want anyone to have to grow up thinking that abuse can be part of a romance (like in Beauty and the Beast), or that a man routinely making sexual comments to his female boss is acceptable (like in House), or that people with dark skin are naturally violent (like in Star Trek TNG — Klingons of course being the best example, but certainly not the only example in this particular show), or that it’s impossible for a fat person to be attractive to anyone but weirdos (like in Archer), or that kissing someone with a penis is one of the most disgusting things that can happen to a heterosexual man (like in Ace Ventura), or that it’s romantic to refuse to stop pursuing someone romantically after they have explicitly asked you to stop (Charlie/Zoe in The West Wing), or that stalking someone is an effective or appropriate way to kindle romance (10 Things I Hate About You).
These messages manifest as beliefs and actions in the real world. There are people who believe that people of color are inherently more violent than white people, in spite of the fact that there is no biological basis for race. There are men who think that being hit on by another man is justification for murder. There are stalkers who think that stalking is an effective, appropriate way to pursue romance with someone.
Most of the media I mentioned is media that I enjoy watching. I still enjoy watching most of them even while recognizing that there are problematic elements in each and every one of them. It’s just that I also recognize that there are problems with each and every one of them, and that those problems matter. Those problems affect us, they teach us things, and if we’re not careful they can teach us things that are both false and incredibly harmful. I recognize that we can do better, and that the world will be a better place if we manage to do better, and that the only way we will do better is by first recognizing the problems that need to be improved upon.
This is why media criticism matters. Because my sister was wrong; men can play piano and women can be runners. Because so much of our representation in media is teaching us things that are wrong, is shoving us in boxes, is teaching us ways we can and cannot be, is teaching us to think things that are not true and to tolerate things we should not tolerate. Media criticism matters because we can do better, and because in doing better we make the world better by making it a place where anyone, no matter who they are, can run or play piano or do whatever fucking thing makes them feel like a person.
Credit for a number of the links I use in this post goes to the citations section of the most recent Feminist Frequency video.