Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. These are only a few of the hundreds of people – people of colour – who have been killed in recent years at the hands of police officers, sparking the global social movement ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Originally stemming from incidents occurring in the United States in 2013, the movement received global attention the following year after the death toll of men and women of colour continued to grow. The problem has become a significant issue and talking point in many political and social debates in the U.S. and has become somewhat of a source of inspiration for storytelling for many films, television shows and even music videos.
For instance, global music icon Beyoncé, released a music video promoting equality and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in 2016, which featured the mothers of two black men who were fatally wounded by law enforcement. Their appearance in the music video was discussed by many and highlighted how prominent an issue it has become, garnering the attention of some of the world’s biggest stars who have now decided to lend their hand in raising awareness regarding the issue.
This is not the only time however the movement has been featured in pop culture, with popular Netflix television show ‘Orange is the new black’ using their status as one of the most well-known shows to bring awareness to the issue, by killing of one of their most beloved characters – Poussey Washington. This character was a woman of colour who was accidentally killed by a police officer who used too much force, and as a result choked her to death, in a similar fashion to that of Eric Gardner, whose death played a key role in igniting the Black Lives Matter movement.
This isn’t the only example of how recent pop culture products are tackling the issue of racism head-on. An upcoming horror/thriller film has decided to further examine the issue of the treatment of people of colour, with its premise focusing on an African-American male who travels to a strange town to meet his girlfriend’s parents (who are white by the way). He soon finds that this town is devoid of any men of colour, except for one who appears to be incredibly distressed, and urges the protagonist to leave while he still can. What happens from there is still a mystery, but the trailer offers a brief insight into the film, which is set to tackle one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) social issues today: racism.
The film’s director Jordan Peele discussed the films refreshing premise, highlighting that even the choice in have a black protagonist in a horror movie is somewhat unheard of in pop culture, stating, “It is one of the very, very few horror movies that does jump off of racial fears. That to me is a world that hasn’t been explored. Specifically, the fears of being a black man today. The fears of being any person who feels like they’re a stranger in any environment that is foreign to them. It deals with a protagonist that I don’t see in horror movies.”
The release of the film’s trailer, which can be seen below, received a fair bit of attention, with many commending it for willing to explore an issue that is rarely examined in the horror movie genre. That right there, is a problem in itself. The fact this issue is rarely explore in the horror movie genre, and that the appearance of black characters in this genre are often relegated to secondary characters who rarely make it to the end alive highlights the subtle racism still alive in pop culture, in that people find it shocking that a horror movie is willing to not only make its protagonist a black male, but its villains a town full of white men and women.
These examples of how pop culture mediums such as TV and film, as well as social media platforms such as Twitter have the ability to resonate with audiences and viewers, and create a lasting impact instead of dissipating once an episode is over. They highlight how pop culture, something that many tend to trivialize, has the ability to ignite social change and shine some light on incredibly important, and sometimes underrepresented issues, which in this case is the issue of police brutality against people of colour, particularly in the U.S.
But this isn’t the only social issue pop culture has a say in, there’s another issue which perhaps is even more greatly affected by pop culture, and that is the issue of feminism and the portrayal of women in the media.
It’s no secret that in the world of pop culture, a certain stereotype or stigma has been attached to female figures, creating unrealistic expectations for what it means to be a woman. Generally, in order to be considered appealing as a woman, you need to be beautiful, thin, smart but not too smart, and often times, you’re the damsel in distress. You’re never the heroine.
This issue was addressed by businesswoman Amanda Rose, the CEO and founder of global website The Business Woman Media, who believes the media tends to portray women as,
As either victims or lip pouting posers. That’s how women are portrayed mainly in the media and also how the younger generation relate to being a woman as.
A staunch feminist, Rose is passionate about the role women play in the career sector, and has discussed on more than one occasion how the above portrayal of women in the media has a negative affect on women across all industries, believe women are often continuously put in the shadow of men, and aren’t shown to shine on their own.
In 2014, Rose wrote an article discussing the coverage of the wedding of high-profile celebrity couple Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney, but her article deterred from the standard reporting of the marriage, and provided a fresh take which saw The Business Woman receive global attention, and acclaim. Why was her article so well received do you ask?
Well, instead of focusing on the achievements of long-time bachelor and acclaimed bachelor George Clooney, Rose’s article focused on the achievements of Alamuddin, something most articles covering the wedding had failed to do. Her satirical tone and refusal to focus too much (or at all) on Clooney’s achievements, and instead claim he was ‘marrying up’, put her relatively new website on the map, and the article was covered by several high-profile publications such as The Huffington Post, New York Times and The Telegraph, among others.
When asked how this article came about, Rose explained it was simply due to a desire to ensure people saw Alamuddin for what she was – a high-profile, successful lawyer who was incredibly talented in her own right, and not due to who she was romantically tied to. Rose explains that:
Everyone was obsessed in the fact that long time bachelor George Clooney was getting married but they didn’t care to whom. Amal is an amazingly talented and qualified woman. I wanted people to see that he was in fact marrying UP.
Rose further addressed the issue in the way the media portrays women, stating it often tends to over-sexualize them and treat them as mere objects. But she also argues that for every negative portrayal, there is the opportunity for change, an opportunity to “stand out in a morally bankrupt society”.
It’s in this statement that the positive aspects of the power of pop culture are evident, because no matter the issue: feminism, racism, gender, sexual orientation etc. pop culture has the ability to portray a wide range of individuals, stories and experiences. It doesn’t matter if they’re fact or fiction, because if they have the ability to resonate in some way with its audience, and challenge them to rethink certain societal issues, it’s done its job.
Because no matter how trivial people may perceive pop culture to be at times, when it causes them to debate and evaluate, and sometimes even change their stance on issues, it is somewhat undeniable that the power of pop culture is very real, and anything but trivial.