Sometimes pop culture awareness is worse than doing nothing

For all that creators like to retreat into ‘it’s just art!’ when criticised, pop culture creators seem to deeply love doing things for awareness, especially on television. The Very Special Episode is the classic example, with an entire episode’s worth of overwrought, painful representations that are often pretty damaging and run contrary to the goals of advocates. There are also the awareness storylines, often punctuated at the end of the episode with a flash card and some information about eating disorder/substance abuse/gambling/suicide/etc hotlines.

But there’s another kind of awareness campaign that tends to be more insidious, and sometimes it can be more damaging. When there’s a clear educational storyline, as it were, it’s super easy for critics to talk about it, to dissect it, to discuss how it worked and how it didn’t. When a character is raped and it’s a big deal in the context of the show, for example, you are going to encounter reams of commentary about it from all sorts of perspectives. Similarly, people might take advantage of a storyline about substance abuse to tell their stories and make this a more personal issue, to laud the creators for depicting it well or to criticise them for clearly failing to consider the implications of the episode.

Pop culture directly influences the way we think about the world — you don’t need me to tell you this. Consequently, when creators do awareness episodes or big splash things that leverage actual social issues, they do it very consciously. They know they have a responsibility because if they weren’t working in a vacuum before, they definitely aren’t now. You can’t rip stories from the headlines without expecting people to respond to them — that’s why you’re doing it.

But what about…more subtle things? Messaging that’s designed to skim just below the surface? How do people react to that, and how do they engage with it effectively in a world where the voices of critics are often silenced? If something is a more subtle component of the show, it’s easy to say critics are reading too much into it and making a big deal out of nothing and not really considering all the issues and whatever else you want to claim to dodge responsibility.

Let me give you a concrete example. Historically, Shonda Rhimes has been a big supporter of Autism Speaks, which is effectively a hate group that promotes absolutely terrible ideas about autism and autistic people. Self-advocates have heavily criticised the group for failing to have autistic people on its board, and for leaning heavily on cure rhetoric and suggesting that autism is a problem to be solved. The group has risen to prominence as ‘the voice of autism’ over the voices of actually autistic people.

And yet it remains incredibly popular with allistic people, and nondisabled people in general. It says things that they like to hear, confirming their biases about autism and reinforcing a disability-as-tragedy view of the world (and, for that matter, framing autism as a disability, something not all autistic people actually agree with). It has a ton of celebrity support, with very high profile boosting people Autism Speaks, which means that when people attempt to criticise it, they get shouted down.

So if you watch Rhimes’ shows, you may notice fleeting references to Autism Speaks, such as posters on the walls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. They’re just kind of…there. Autism itself is rarely depicted, and so there’s no specific ‘autism awareness’ thing to point to, but the posters are clearly very deliberate set dressing, intended to send a specific, uncritical message. Autism Speaks is a good organisation. Shonda Rhimes endorses and backs their work. You should contribute to them. Here in a medicalised setting, autism is presented as a problem, and you are encouraged to think about how you would ‘cure it.’ Autism is also a mystifying, alienating puzzle, hence the famous puzzle piece symbolism associated with autism in many ‘awareness’ campaigns.

Once you start looking for it, you will find this kind of endorsement/awareness in a lot of works of pop culture, from throwaway references in books to storylines in films. It’s not in your face. It’s quiet. It’s not decisive. It’s just…there. It sends a signal to the consumer of that pop culture that this thing was carefully considered and vetted and likely went through writers and producers and editors and set dressers and fact checkers and anyone else potentially involved in a production. That lends it a lot of weight. This isn’t a glancing reference in an interview, but something that has been codified into a work of pop culture.

People do this for good reasons and the best of intentions. There’s an issue they care about and they want to quietly promote an organisation that they think is doing good things. Here’s the problem, though: Pop culture is predominantly produced and presented by people in positions of dominance. There might not be a single trans person around on a production or editorial team to push back on a favourable reference to the HRC, for example. Because of the lack of diversity in pop culture, the natural checks that might keep something from getting out of hand are gone, and no one thinks to do a little consulting — even a quick Google, let alone contacting someone to ask their opinion on something.

People don’t think to do this because they are used to the idea that opinions rooted in social dominance and viewed through the lens of privileges are the only ones worth having and promoting. It doesn’t occur to them to ask people who are authorities on their own experience, to enrich the ‘awareness’ they are trying to promote. And until the lack of diversity and lack of interest in underrepresented voices change, frustrating ‘awareness’ inclusion is going to be a way of life in pop culture, with each thing reinforcing a body of dominant work, over and over and over again.

Image: awareness, K. Nicole, Flickr