Our pop culture says much about what we are thinking and feeling, culturally, because it is how we express ourselves without admitting that this is how we really feel. It becomes a brilliant distancing tactic as a mode of communication that can be easily dismissed when anyone questions it; relax, it’s just pop culture, you weren’t meant to take that seriously. Whatever signaling you may think you saw there wasn’t intended, and you’re obviously reading too much into it.
Which is maybe why many progressives seem okay with the rising anti-immigration rhetoric embedded in pop culture, running through many of their favourite media like little poisoned threads. Whether it’s hipster racism on full display in ‘comedies’ or blatant hatred of immigrants on dramas, it’s there, and it’s coming up more and more often, suggesting not just that it’s on the mind of creators, but that they think audiences are thinking about it too, and they want to feed a desire for it.
Immigrants are trapped in some very specific stereotypes in US pop culture. Either they are model minorities who overcame difficult pasts to come to the United States and become wildly successful by working hard and, of course, being well-behaved at all times, or they’re dirty frightening people who have come to take over. One set comes over with documents and visa stamps in order; the other is undocumented (usually a different word is used) and comes with almost nothing, but doesn’t embody the rags to riches American dream promoted with immigrant dream narratives.
It comes up in the casual treatment of ‘the Mexican gardener,’ the oh-so-hip comment about ‘wetbacks’ from a character in a comedy. It comes up in dramas where immigration is a major source of tension and immigrants are definitely cast as the villains of the piece; got a suspected terrorist plot, hit and run, or a shooting? Probably an immigrant. Because, as we know, they’re prone to committing crimes, so clearly that’s where investigative efforts should focus.
But it’s just entertainment, right? I’m reading too much into it by seeing a disturbing trend in the framing of immigrants. There’s nothing that deep going on there and I’m clearly just oversensitive. Looking for something to be offended by, perhaps. It’s not like there’s a connection between the increasingly hostile treatment of immigrants in pop culture and the news media and the rise in hate crimes against…oh, wait.
The fact of the matter is that our pop culture does influence the way we think about the people and the world around us, which is why so many people are keenly interested in critiquing it and exploring it from a number of angles. Because it says a lot about embedded attitudes—and what kinds of attitudes people wish to embed. Casting immigrants as dangerous and threatening contributes to legislation that targets immigrants and makes their communities unsafe. It contributes to calls to police when anyone with brown skin walks through the neighbourhood. It contributes to the way people decide to vote in contentious elections, based on a candidate’s stated opinions on immigration matters.
Which means that it’s important, and progressives need to pay attention to it, particularly when they’re focused on media. If you consume media and criticise it, you need to talk about it even when it’s hard and it involves saying harsh things about media you love. That is, as I always say, the greatest sign that you genuinely care, because if you’re saying something, it means you think the media is worth working on and has the potential to grow into something greater.
Immigrants have always been used as the butt of jokes and as plot devices. But it’s harsher and sharper now, coming with a new political edge given the increasing anti-immigrant hate in the United States. It comes with an added and more loaded meaning when you live in a country where being an immigrant can put you in serious danger; not just from law enforcement, who may profile you, shoot you, deport you, separate you from your family, rape you, abuse you, but also from the general public. From the people who patrol the border looking for people like you to hurt you. From the people who want to deny you service because of how you look. From the people who think you are easy prey for rape and financial exploitation.
From the progressives who buy the strawberries caked in your blood and sweat and tears, fully aware of agricultural exploitation and unwilling to do anything about it, frozen because they think it’s too much work and they love strawberries so much and they’re anti-racists so anyway it doesn’t matter. The same progressives who curl up on the couch at the end of the night to watch a television series, or a movie, or read a book, that features a storyline casting immigrants in a highly negative light. A damaging, threatening, evil one. The same light that makes those progressives ‘unconsciously’ clutch their purses when a brown person walks by them on the sidewalk.
The media we consume has a profound impact on how we interact with our environment, which means it’s critical to interrogate the things we love to find out how they affect us. Watching media where immigrants are framed as evil or objects of mockery means that we will absorb these attitudes, no matter how much we pride ourselves on being progressive and anti-racist and focused on making the world a better place.
And saying nothing about this media sends a signal to immigrants, one that people who claim to be interested in working in solidarity with them should be viewed with grave suspicion. Why trust people who unreservedly enjoy media that makes you into a target?