Weekly Weigh In #6: Changing the Face of Entertainment

I have been indulging too much in my white and privileged “I”: from here on out this is not about me as a thinking, feeling person but rather as an actor and agent for change. It’s not my voice that’s needed; it’s my actions. The fact that this makes me uncomfortable, that I feel irritated and inhibited because I cannot write these with all of the freedom with which I approach my other work, is proof of my own privilege and the need for me to rethink and unlearn the importance of my “I”. I am not the central being, I am not the focus here. Time to share the limelight.

With every download, every play, every review, we are showing the moneybags arseholes that this is the content we want, that this is the content we want made. They won’t listen to morality but they will listen to ratings.

SO. Speaking of limelight. Last week was a week of apathy, lethargy and exhaustion. When down or sad, we all have our familiar comforts that we turn to: favourite TV programmes, podcasts, songs, yoga tutorials, books. However, so much of what we consume through these media perpetuate white-centring ideology, encourage racial stereotyping and generally serve to only include marginalised voices as an “othered” afterthought. Think of the token black friend or geeky Asian in most sitcoms; the eccentric neighbour; the overly-camp best friend who is dehumanised and often desexualised by a caricatured portrayal; the non-comforming podcast guest who is expected to spend an interview explaining the aesthetic of their identity or outlining their struggles instead of talking about who THEY are outside of their activism, disability, appearance.

The othering that continues to take place in mainstream media is supposed to appear inclusive and revolutionary yet it appears jarring because, in emphasising the exceptionality of showcasing BIPOC communities through storylines, guest appearances or radical casting, we’re only serving to consolidate the idea that anyone different is still “other” and their presence is an exception instead of an unquestioned given.

Have been thinking of this a lot since listening to Brené Brown’s interview with Austin Channing Brown which I spoke of a few weeks ago. At the end of the interview, Brené asked Austin a quickfire round of personal questions, the purpose of which was to humanise Austin and to serve as a reminder that if we only engage with members of the BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ communities on their suffering but fail to share their joy, then we are not being true allies or true friends. This is such a potent and powerful message as many of us are in danger of dehumanising the people whose Instagram pages, resources or learning we are consuming by failing to recognise them as not thought leaders, spokespeople or mouthpieces for their community but as fallible, joyful, complicated, ambivalent, fragile human beings.

So, in a week of lethargy where I turned to Netflix and podcasts for solace, I eschewed my usual go-tos and instead tried to change the face of entertainment so that, even in escapism, I am challenging, broadening, and probing my biases. Here’s what I did:

*A WARNING: I spoke above of ‘othering’ yet with this list of “look what I listened to” I am in danger of perpetuating exactly what I am advocating against. This list implies that consuming the below content created by, or featuring, diverse voices is “work” which suggests an imbalance between how I view and consume culture depending on the race/gender/sexuality of the person creating it. This is not the case nor is listening to these voices unusual for me, nor is this list exhaustive. I do not believe listening to podcasts featuring people of colour is noteworthy or allyship. It’s just shit we should be doing. But, because of how the entertainment industry works, we sometimes have to root around to get to the voices that count. More than this, with every download, every play, every review, we are showing the moneybags arseholes that this is the content we want, that this is the content we want made. They won’t listen to morality but they will listen to ratings. This is the easiest way to show up: by simply showing that there is a demand for TV shows with a black female protagonist who is more interested in her career than men; that we want to read, hear, see from transgender people; that the trope of heteronormative rom-coms is in demise.

Thus, these are merely examples of ways I am making a conscious effort to guarantee my “go-tos” when feeling low remain diverse, inclusive and representative of the world I want to live in. Sounds insipid but if you stop yourself the next time you go to just “flick something on” and interrogate what it does or does not support, what voices are amplified or what viewpoints are highlighted you might be surprised by how our privilege presents in seemingly the most innocuous of entertainment forms.

A New Kind of Bechdel Test:

Most of us are familiar with the Bechdel test – a quick litmus test to gauge the representation of women in film. However, in everything I am consuming now, I am performing a new kind of assessment: a test that also asks questions about representation of race, gender expression and identity, sexuality, and people with disabilities. It’s quite a depressing exercise but an important one – particularly for a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied person who could easily fall prey to the “I don’t see race/privilege etc etc” complacency simply because they’ve never once had to deal with issues of misrepresentation at best or complete omission at worst. Interrogating our cultural cornerstones through this lens is a simplistic but stark way of trying to see how the programmes and movies that both mirror and define our society perpetuate prejudice and exclusion. Examples of tests being created to help you challenge the film and TV industries’ representation of BIPOC include the DuVernay and Waithe tests. This article is a good walk-through of all of these foundational measurements: The New Bechdel Tests to Measure Diversity in Movies

PODCASTS:

  • Munroe Bergdorf on Table Manners. Just a lovely, wholesome chat about food and family. So important and soul-filling to hear Munroe speak not as an activist but as someone who has struggled with and overcome so much and who equally lives for beans on toast.
  • Zadie Smith on Literary Friction. This has nothing to do with allyship or activism but you can’t listen to Zadie Smith and not instantly want to rewrite the world. She challenges what we call inevitable and upends what we deem acceptable. If you haven’t yet read a Zadie Smith novel, I couldn’t urge you more strongly to pick one up. Full and boisterous characterisation, the most voluptuous and tumultuous of plots, a beautiful marriage between compelling fiction and a challenge to our sense of realism.

TV (Netflix)

  • Swapped out the itch to watch Parks and Recreation for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. A series about a black queer artist living in New York who juggles lovers and career. I’m going to be completely honest. So far, I’m not loving it. I normally drop TV shows veeeery quickly if they don’t grab me immediately but I’m going to stick this out a little longer. I’m trying to pinpoint why I’m not enjoying it and am wondering if it’s because the storytelling, direction and characterisation are all coming from a perspective slightly adjacent to what I’m used to. Sitting in these questions and recognising that my “enjoyment” often pivots on how I can relate to something. This only makes it more important to watch things I don’t like, can’t relate to, don’t fully “get.”
  • I watched this ages ago but can I also recommend Mae Martin’s series Feel Good. With Charlotte Ritchie from Fresh Meat, it’s the tale of love and addiction as two women attempt to erect a grown-up relationship out of their own personal battles. Endearing, sweet, and completely true to the complexities of relationships. Also just blooming lovely to see female same-sex couples on screen – WE NEED MORE OF THIS!!

READ

  • Last week, I had an action to go back and read up on Aja Barber’s work as I had been failing to engage with it as it zoomed into my inbox. I have done this.
  • The Irish Times Magazine special edition, edited by Emma Dabiri. I’m shocking for having the intention to read weekend papers but usually am far too consumed with brunch to get around to it. I set aside particular time to savour this magazine cover to cover. One of the best editions I’ve read – Emma’s op-ed is here.
  • I’m still ploughing through my ‘Nudge’ book on how to manipulate I MEAN HELP people make better, fairer choices. Smiley face.

ACTION

  • Last week I gave myself outstanding actions to complete. These were to demand justice for Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor by emailing and calling relevant authorities. I have done this. A great resource for easily taking action for Breonna is http://www.forbreonna.com
  • Refused pizza after swearing I would cut down on unnecessary takeaway waste. I see this as an environmental win.
  • Corralled siblings into ensuring our mother’s birthday present of activewear t-shirts were eco-friendly and sustainably made (we got super soft and affordable tees from Bamboo clothing)
  • A really simple one but I asked my employer how they were responding to the BLM movement and also went onto our website to count white representation. This is something we should all be doing. It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable, it’s confronting but a simple question might be enough to begin cogs for better change. This exercise that turned up an overwhelmingly white-centred staff has got me thinking: is my voice really the one that needs to be heard in the journalist and media space?
  • Deleted three paragraphs of this that were all about ME.

Looking forward to checking back in with you next week. Until then, mind yourself, mind others.

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