The (Social) Medium is the Message

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Apparently some of today’s most inflamed debates on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media revolve around the issue of diversity in comic books, video games, and Hollywood films.  At first this struck me as a surpassingly frivolous waste of data – who cares whether Archie has a gay friend or if the next James Bond is black? – but thinking it over I realized that the generation most agitated by identity politics is also the generation most active online, so it’s only natural that their concerns are reflected in their preferred mode of communication.  In 1967, teenagers telephoned radio stations to request airplay of their favorite psychedelic 45s; in 1987 they made mixed cassette tapes and bootleg VHS recordings of alternative music and movies; in 2017 they post clever memes about female Ghostbusters.  La plus ça change…

How multicultural populations are represented in pop culture is a legitimate question, sort of.  Fifty years ago, African American performers made breakthroughs on US television (Bill Cosby on I Spy and Ivan Dixon on Hogan’s Heroes), along with black cartoon characters (Valerie in Josie and the Pussycats and Franklin in Peanuts), although critics of all colors detected a facile tokenism in the casting.  Over time, TV series about independent women (Mary Tyler Moore, One Day at a Time), gay people (Ellen, Will & Grace), and even overweight people (Roseanne, Mike & Molly), have all been credited with promoting the acceptability of their real-life equivalents in contemporary society. By now there is a long history of “firsts” in show business, whereby once-invisible communities finally got to see one of their own in a sitcom, a superhero franchise, or a talk show.  Free at last, free at last.

All pretty harmless.  When you think about it, though, the recurring pattern here is not just that social standards evolve, but that their evolution is driven by technology and commercial entertainment.  Politics is no longer only practiced in town halls, or church basements, or voting booths, but on glitzy awards broadcasts, celebrity fan websites, and an array of trendy apps.  So you have to wonder whether the serious topics of civil rights and discrimination are being advanced or trivialized when they play out against backgrounds of lowbrow comedy, science fiction, and fairy tales (the recent Beauty and the Beast remake, for example, has a much-publicized “gay moment” which has rivaled Syrian refugees and Donald Trump for world attention).  It may be that the issues which get people frantically liking and sharing are mere fodder for whatever lets them like and share to begin with.  Which forces are more deeply affecting the modern public mind – feminist activism, or Facebook advertising?  Gradual tolerance of alternative lifestyles, or weekend grosses of Disney blockbusters?  Everyday interaction among neighbors, colleagues, and families, or a famous person’s controversial tweets?

Again, times change, and so do tastes, customs, and demographics.  People should be able to discuss those changes by whatever means are convenient for them.  Yet there is a sense now that the means matter more than the discussions themselves:  that, whatever you feel about racism in the film industry, or sexism in gaming, or transphobia on Tumblr, the really important thing is to keep watching films, playing games, and clicking on Tumblr. Polarized opinions and message board flame wars merely reiterate the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  The real winners of the latest culture battles, it seems to me, will be neither the progressive scolds nor the reactionary trolls, but the ubiquitous, indispensable media over and through which the battles are waged.

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