2014 was an eye-opening year in mainstream popular culture, from the positive increased exposure of the LGBT community, powerful women, and men and women of color on TV, in film, and in pop music to thought-provoking (yet not always progressive) “think pieces” and articles written across various internet platforms like Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed to news sources like TIME, The New York Times, and Huffington Post that speak to the current state of social issues in society. Some were great, others not so much. No matter how progressive these emerging themes in pop culture are, no matter how progressive we claim to be, we can still do so much better.
The Biggest Wins of 2014:
Diversity on TV:
How to Get Away With Murder
Viola Davis leads this incredible hour-long drama about sought after lawyer Annalise Keating turned sought after-law school professor who leads a team of student interns on various cases throughout each episode. The big “mystery” of the front half of season one revolves around the murder of Keating’s husband, which all lead up to the “whodoneit?” winter finale, which dropped a very shocking final twist.
In addition to the show’s very fast-paced writing, typical of fellow Shondaland shows Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, the show boasts a diverse cast that breaks stereotypes at every possible turn. Aja Naomi King’s Michaela Pratt is an ambitious black woman, Karla Souza plays a timid, yet smart latina law student, and Conrad Ricamore plays fan favorite Oliver, representing sexy Asian nerds everywhere. From the complex Keating to the show’s breakout gay character, Connor Walsh, it’s a huge win for diversity.
Not to mention the ample gay sex scenes, which have been lauded as both racy yet forward-thinking. There has been this rejection of the effeminate gay male in media and Jack Falahee’s nuaced portrayal of Walsh establishes the idea that gay men are multifaceted and not just one-note.
Also, can we just talk about how awesome it is that Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, has three TV shows on air right now, all three of which feature strong, powerful women? #ShondaRules
Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox is a shrewdly smart woman, and being a part of the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black, she’s been allowed to enter the realm of mainstream pop culture and shed light on the type of diverse representations in pop culture that we so desperately need in order to continue to grow. Earlier this year, there was a public outrage over a joke Ellen Degeneres made at the Oscars about Liza Minelli, and this was the real start of a movement to understand the transgender community, to know what’s kosher and what isn’t, and to start a conversation that so desperately needed to be started.
American Horror Story
As is typical with American Horror Story, the show’s fourth season, Freak Show, highlights diversity in a new an exciting way: bringing what society classifies as mentally handicapped, disabled, or “retarded” characters to the forefront of mainstream pop culture, and letting a different type of person stand in the spotlight.
This season, though painstakingly slow and a not really scary, has done something no other show has done: given praise to the “freaks,” and despite the storyline and circumstances, will, I think, ultimately teach us to be a bit more compassionate with those who may be different.
Diversity in Sitcoms
Cristella, Blackish, Looking, Modern Family; all of these shows have shown come together to construct a different view of gender, race, and sexuality, something other than the typical middle class white family with middle class white problems. There are different types of families, different identity constructions, and for more and more TV shows to finally embrace that shows real progress.
Diversity in Pop Music:
Sam Smith was the breakout star of 2014, and though he began his reign as pops new prince, he started his tenure not really wanting to be known as the “gay pop star” because that’s not who he was, nor what he wanted to be known for, according to his much talked about interview with Fader, which HyperReality used as a baseline for the since-gone-viral article, “Sam Smith and the Gale Male Archetype.” Fast-forward to the beginning of 2015, and it seems he’s a bit more open about allowing his personal life to shine through the music, as seen in the Instagram photos of Smith and his new boyfriend, model/actor Jonathan Zeizel.
Here’s hoping 2015 sees more of Smith being open and honest; that’s exactly what the straight white male dominated pop music scene needs.
It’s no secret that I love Adam Lambert, and Lambert had an amazing year. Though he didn’t release new music, he did tour with one of the greatest rock bands in history: Queen. The tour was incredibly successful, garnering Lambert praise from critics and Freddie Mercury fans alike, being lauded as the only man alive who can match, if not exceed, Mercury’s signature vocal prowess. While coming out definitely derailed his debut album in 2009 (most Idol fans were simply not ready for a gay Idol, especially one as comfortably flamboyant as Lambert), being true to himself and letting his talent shine in 2014 has definitely set him up for a huge comeback in 2015!
Another song and video that has gained an incredible amount of attention is Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”; the video is striking and details gay-bashing in a hauntingly disturbing (as if there are any other words to describe it) way.
The song and accompanying video are examples of how the human condition can be documented through music, something that so many established artists forget that music is capable of doing.
Meghan Trainor is credited with ushering in a new era of body positivity with her chart topping “All About That Bass,” though it’s also joined a laundry list of songs, including Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” that have participated in “skinny-bashing.” Sigh. Maybe in 2015, we’ll get it right. Maybe they should take a page from Mary Lambert’s “Body Love” book, which is the true definition of body positivity.
“This is important: You are worth more than who you fuck. You are worth more than a waistline, you are worth more than beer bottles displayed like drunken artifacts. You are worth more than any naked body could proclaim in the shadows, more than a mans whim or your fathers mistake. You are no less valuable as a size 16 than a size 4, you are no less valuable as a 32a than a 36c. You’re sexiness is defined by concentric circles within your wood. It is wisdom.” – Mary Lambert, “Body Love”
John Legend also made a statement with his song “You and I (Nobody in the World),” having featured all different types of women, including the incomparable Laverne Cox. Beyoncé also did the same with her “Pretty Hurts,” though it would’ve made a much larger impact had it been released as a single instead of the domestic violence-promoting “Drunk in Love,” which references a violent scene from the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, where Ike hits Tina and threatens her friend. Now if only there were more diverse artists making statements and bringing forth change. We need to do better. Much better. Be more aware. Much more aware.
Diversity on Film:
The Normal Heart
On Sunday, January 11th, openly gay actor Matt Bomer took home a Golden Globe for his supporting role in HBO’s The Normal Heart, a film that centers around the the AIDs epidemic as it started.
The Ryan Murphy-directed film was a hugely important event film last year, and it’s great to see Bomer being recognized for his strikingly haunting performance of an man who slowly dies from AIDs.
Now, if only there were more gay-centric films…
Big Hero 6
The clear winner of the year is by far Disney’s Big Hero 6. Why? Because animation is generally thought of as a “child’s” genre, and despite how wrong that assessment is (good, quality animation, especially the “classics” created by The House of Mouse, has complex adult themes; the genre was created for adult entertainment during the Depression, after all), exposure to diversity at a young age is not only important, but necessary to create well-rounded attitudes about people from different backgrounds. The film is set in San Fransokyo, a hybrid of Tokyo and San Fransisco, and this speaks to the blending of cultures that’s both necessary and constant in the US. Three of the main characters are Asian (the protagonist Hiro, his brother Tadashi, and the kick-ass GoGo), one is black (Wasabi), one is a light skinned mix of Spanish and white (Honey Lemon, voiced by Génesis Rodríguez) , and only one is white (the lazy rich boy, Fred, which in-and-of itself makes a huge statement when compared to his genius — and diverse — friends.)
One of the bright spots of the film is GoGo’s character. She’s a kick-ass feminist, who in one scene tells Wasabi to “Woman up!” when he was complaining.
This film was a huge step forward for American animation, and definitely shouldn’t be overlooked. Disney has been called out for whitewashing, though every other mainstream animation studio has done the same. Hopefully Disney will continue down the path of cultural promise with Moana, the next Princess film about Polynesian culture.
Although Frozen technically came out in 2013, the film, the music, and the characters dominated the entirety of 2014. Though it’s entire cast is made up of white characters, it’s the complex relationships between the female leads that sets this apart; it’s not about the love between a man and a woman, it’s the tale of two sisters, a film that echoes the current state of homophobia (conceal, don’t feel), and clashes against the typical Princess film. Elsa is a QUEEN. She’s the ruler. And her story is about her own personal journey, not love. It was a refreshing way to begin 2014.
Strong Leading Ladies:
Like Elsa in Frozen, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Maleficent, and Black Widow, have also had incredible presence and lead their respective films to Blockbuster status.
It was a remarkable year for women at the Box Office, which even extended to TV, kick-ass heroines like Skye and May on Agents of SHIELD. The announcements of Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Wonder Woman also made huge waves and are great predications for more equal future for female-led action films, although earlier in the year, the announcement of a female Thor outraged the interwebs. Still, female-led action films made a huge leap forward. Gamora, one of the team members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, a first for a Marvel film that credits a female writer (Nicole Perman), was a huge step forward in a genre that has time and time again catered to male viewers.
The Representation Project, the organization behind the compelling and eye-opening 2011 documentary Miss Representation, released “Demand Better Media in 2015” on Monday, January 5th, and despite being editorialized, hasn’t reached the view numbers that would indicate web vitality. Why? Because nobody likes to be confronted with the reality of the media. I see it day in and day out in the courses I teach. I hear it in social conversation: “Media isn’t the problem, the problem is ___[insert subjective answer here]______.” Take a look at the video below and tell me that media doesn’t play a part in the construction of problematic stereotypes:
This brings us to …
The Biggest Media Fails in 2014:
Lack of Diversity in Film/TV
While Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films are by all counts rollicking good fantasy adventure epics, there is a serious lack of diversity in Middle Earth. Granted, that may be Tolkien’s fault, but if we’re being realistic here, the films should all be subtitled, Tales of White Dudes.
Another gripe with The Hobbit films is Tauriel, a character created by Peter Jackson who does not appear in the original source material by Tolkien. She was created to give more of a female presence to Middle Earth. You know, since Middle Earth seems to be populated only by white men who wish to obtain power. I loved the idea, and she appeared strong and kicked a lot of ass; Katniss would be proud. However, ultimately, her inclusion was pointless, as it lead to nowhere but a broken-hearted unrequited love story, a C-storyline at that.
The Other Woman
Three women band together to take down a cheating husband! Sounds great, right! Cameron Diaz is a high-powered lawyer, which is great, but that’s about as far as this particular film goes in the “Gender Equality” department. In fact, this film takes the cake as the worst step backward in Hollywood history. It’s a flawed, clichéd film that pairs an air-headed stay-at-home wife (played by Leslie Mann, who apparently is the CEO of her cheating husband’s company, yet doesn’t know it and blindly signs documents he gives her), with Diaz’s man-hungry lawyer character, who only seems to care about finding love in a cold New York City, and Kate Upton, whose only identifying attributes are her enormous breasts and flawless physique, which at one point in the film causes Mann and Diaz to get into an overtly sexual girl fight on the beach.
It’s clear that the film was written by a man — except it wasn’t. It was written by a woman. Melissa Stack.
That’s the most troubling fact about this film. It was written by a woman, but it doesn’t respect women. Not even in the films climax, where Mann takes her husbands company back and leaves him penniless and broken (literally, he walks into a glass wall, an act that wouldn’t even be believable in a fantasy film), do the women really feel well-rounded. It’s a huge step backward, sending women in Hollywood back 50 years. At least.
Oh, and Nicki Minaj appears too. Shrugs.
The number one offender? Iggy Azalea. Click here to read all about why Iggy Azalea is the worst amalgamation of cultural appropriation.
Frenemies Taylor Swift and Katy Perry also got flack for appropriating black culture in music videos and on tour, respectively. Perry, who has been accused of this before, doesn’t quite understand what’s so wrong with the blackface-like mummies in her ensemble, which is just inexcusable.
And don’t even get me started on Kim Kardashian and her cover of Paper magazine in November (I won’t post it, as I don’t want to spend even one minute giving her any more attention.)
Objectification and a Lack of Gender Equality
Two words: Male objectification. In a world dominated by female objectification and the constant reminder of how demoralizing, damaging, and destructive that can be, it’s easy to forget that it’s just as wrong and harmful to objectify men, too. BuzzFeed produces content designed to go viral, and their website garners, on average, 10 million unique views per day, and of that unique content that they develop, at least one post per week is devoted to shirtless men, most of which are about Zac Efron.
Their objectification of men needs to stop. In fact,
male objectification of any kind needs to stop. #StopBuzzFeed2015
Lena Dunham and the Myth of Feminism
Feminism gets a bad rep. Why? Because the belief that exists is that, if you’re a feminist, you believe women should rule the world. True feminism is about gender equality. No one gender rules; instead, everyone is on an even playing field. It was a great year for actresses who came out as feminists and who actually spent time trying to dispel the misguided beliefs of feminism, like Beyoncé and Emma Watson.
But then there are the Lena Dunham’s of the world, who use feminism as a scapegoat for their actions or words instead of taking responsibility for those actions or words. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl, details her molestation of her sister as a child. Brave to talk about, yes, but as a celebrity, she should have been aware of the media firestorm that that kind of confession would cause. She blamed the readers. Nobody gets her. She’s “progressive” and “feminist” and “trying to bring awareness” to issues. But then she also ruined lives by [fake] naming her own rapist, “Barry,” who turned out to be a real person at Oberlin College at the same time as Dunham, and thus ruining his life (because he was not, in fact, her real rapist.) Did she take personal responsibility? Nope. Though her publisher is altering the next prints of her book. Because that’s enough to repair the damage already caused, right?
Stop hiding behind Feminism, and the public’s “lack of” knowledge of feminism, Lena. If you’re going to fight against the stereotypes and misguided beliefs, don’t do so by also justifying your own actions. Do better.
Follow Emma Watson’s lead.
The Fall of Responsible Media Coverage
The latter half of 2014 was, for lack of better terms, scary. The mass confusion about Ebola, the Sony hacks by North Korea, the threats of acts of terror surrounding The Interview, and the race riots and protests all across America following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ever-emerging theme of racial profiling by the police, and the murders of black teens and police officers alike.
In the fall, day after day, the media published conflicting content about Ebola.
“It’s deadly!” “It’s contained!” “It’s not contained!” “The United States is fine!” “The United States is not safe!” “It’s spreading” “It’s not spreading!” “It’s contagious!” “It’s not that contagious!”
It got to the point where nobody knew exactly what to expect; it festered on news outlets, it caused panic and hysteria, yet after a few weeks of heavy news cycles, it’s like Ebola has vanished completely from our line of sight, used now as a punchline at a cocktail party.
The Sony hack by North Korea was another event that was often trivialized by the media. In an interview with Deadline, George Clooney spoke out about the necessity to take action and how the media didn’t do its due diligence:
A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea. The Guardians of Peace is a phrase that Nixon used when he visited China. When asked why he was helping South Korea, he said it was because we are the Guardians of Peace. Here, we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have. That’s the truth. What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. Sony didn’t pull the movie because they were scared; they pulled the movie because all the theaters said they were not going to run it. And they said they were not going to run it because they talked to their lawyers and those lawyers said if somebody dies in one of these, then you’re going to be responsible.
We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we’re going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line. This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this. That’s not just Sony, but all of us, including my good friends in the press who have the responsibility to be asking themselves: What was important? What was the important story to be covering here? The hacking is terrible because of the damage they did to all those people. Their medical records, that is a horrible thing, their Social Security numbers. Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism.
The media coverage of the race riots and the (still) ongoing mistrust of the police has been another shocking turn of events. In a world where nobody wants to freely admit that race is still an issue, not enough important pieces were written. The coverage was piecemeal, at best, and often fed into the larger media machine of “what’s going to sell,” instead of “what’s really important? What story needs to be told.” Perhaps it’s time that we re-examine the purpose of media coverage and what a reporter, journalist, news anchor, etc., is supposed to do. Writer’s Alan Krawitz (for AdWeek) and Donovan Ramsey (for Medium) detailed the biased nature of the reporting. Ramsey wrote:
To many, however, mainstream media’s failings in Ferguson are more than just a few poorly-chosen words. With the exception of a few bright spots, the mainstream Ferguson coverage reveals a mix of bias, laziness, thoughtlessness and sensationalism. From paltry coverage and over-reliance on police reports to a self-referential focus on the plight of journalists in on the ground, media outlets have proven themselves unable to get the story right — and readers and viewers are taking note.
Ferguson started an important conversation about race, reliability, police practice, and prejudice in America, making it one of the most pivotal events in American history since 9/11. We have a long way to go before we ever reach true equality in America, and mainstream mass media has made that clear throughout 2014.
SO much of the media coverage of various events throughout 2014 tested the nature of bias in journalism, and it’s more clear than ever that so many are getting their “facts” from social media.
If the mainstream media coverage of the Ferguson riots, the Eric Garner case, all of the many murders of black teens and now execution-style killings of police officers, the NYPD versus Mayor DeBlasio, is any indication of what we’re going, then it’s clear we have a lot to learn. We have a lot to learn about race and tolerance and bias and fairness and equality. We have a lot to learn about news coverage in the 21st Century, where Twitter and Facebook is responsible for spreading the word on pivotal events. We’re teetering on the edge of yet another Civil War. And if that isn’t enough, with all of the controversy surrounding the censorship of Sony Pictures’ The Interview, the acts cyber-terrorism against the US and Sony committed by North Korea, and the multitude of other international issues currently at play, we’re teetering on the edge of World War III: The Digital Frontier. This, right now, is a turning point. There’s a quiet-before-the-storm feeling to the beginning of 2015.
How does this connect to pop culture? We learn more from media than from any other source, including our teachers, coworkers, family members, or friends. That’s why diversity in the media is not just important, it’s necessary. As Emma Watson said so eloquently in her speech at the United Nations: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
What to look forward to in 2015:
There’s no doubt that it will be interesting to see how the media progresses throughout the course of the year. If you were paying attention, 2014 asked a lot of questions and hopefully made us reevaluate a lot of our principles and beliefs. There’s no point in denying the presence of the media and pop culture anymore because it’s become synonymous with reality. We’ve created this hyperreality for ourselves, and it’s time to break through all the messages and come together for the sake of a better future, a future where equality and diversity is celebrated. There’s a lot to look forward to in terms of pop culture. The first all-Asian family sitcom Fresh off the Boat is set to premiere in February on ABC.
Glee just landed with it’s final season, and came out of the gate strong with a conversation about the what it means to be a “post-modern gay” who rejects the stereotypes and labels of what it means to be gay (and in true Glee fashion, did so with witty satire), gender equality issues when a talented young black woman fights her way into the all-male Dalton Academy and vies for a spot in the Warblers, while also tackling body image issues.
Agent Carter, the 8-episode mini-series finds Captain America’s sweetheart Agent Carter in a male dominated world trying to prove herself as a secret agent (and doing so splendidly while at the same time tackling gender issues head-on). Check out this list of feminism awesomeness on BuzzFeed.
The most promising new show, though, is Fox’s Empire, which features a mostly black cast centered around Terrence Howard’s Lucius Lyon and his music empire, which includes an ex-con ex-wife (the brilliant Taraji P. Henson as Cookie), a gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the fame-obsessed rapper son Hakeem (Bryshere Grey), and Lyon’s eldest son, the conniving and business driven son, Andre (Trai Byers.)
Homophobia runs rampant in the hip hop community, and Empire wastes no time tackling it with Smollett’s character Jamal, who lives with his Mexican boyfriend Michael.
In the premiere, Jamal flashes back to when he was four years old and came into a party his parents were having dressed in high heels. What followed was a bone-chilling scene where Lucious whips him into his arms and carries him outside and flings him into a garbage can. Flash forward to present day 2015, and his mom Cookie is determined to make him a star. As a gay man.
Empire is Fox’s highest rated new show in three years, premiering to over 9.8 million viewers. Helmed by Lee Daniels of Precious-fame, it seems like it’s going right in on the jugular and, if executed properly, could bring awareness about gay men to a community that continues to reject it. Also, it’s refreshing to see a mostly black cast (all of whom are incredible talented actors) dominate the ratings.
The second film of the Divergent series, Insurgent, is set to release in March. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set to feature a black stormtrooper (the character appeared in the teaser, which premiered in 2014 to rapid criticism from undercover racists).
The final Hunger Games film, Mockingly, Part 2, will bow in theaters in November, and there’s a whole new crop of fairy tale films debuting this year as well. We’ll see what happens with Pixar’s Inside Out, though the trailer is a huge step backward for gender equality. Also, The Representation Project will be releasing their documentary The Mask You live In, which is all about the media’s effects on men.
I’d love to see more films about gay characters. I’d love to see more films about complex black characters. I’d love to see more films about women that actually pass the Bechdel test. I’d love to see less about the plight of the straight, rich, white man. Because we need diversity, and the Hollywood and the media machine has to reflect that.
Coming to HyperReality in 2015!
In the coming weeks, HyperReality will be featuring pieces written by students in my courses about pop culture and mass media. Also, once a month starting in February, I’ll feature a “Book Spotlight,” that will highlight diversity in books. The first one will be about Amy Ewing’s debut fantasy novel The Jewel.
Thanks to everyone who has stuck with HyperReality over the last year! We hope 2015 will be just as, if not more, exciting, and we’re looking forward to ushering in a new age of media literacy content.