Children tend to grow up in bubbles. Even in an age of ‘socially conscious’ parents, there’s a tendency for white, middle class children in particular to clump together with children of similar origins and class. Their parents drift towards people with similar ideals and beliefs, and it shows among their kids — because children’s lives are dictated by those of their parents, and this holds true for exposure to communities outside their own, too. Even at the time when the mind is the most malleable and open to suggestion, children don’t have an opportunity to interact with the Other and demystify people who are not like them.
Except through pop culture.
As I child, I read broadly — we didn’t have television — but not as broadly as I could have, to be sure. It’s through books, though, that I was introduced to cultures and people who lived in ways that were unfamiliar to me. I read books set in Harlem, crossed the seas to Thailand, looped back to Chinese communities in Los Angeles, read about the strange and mysterious lives of middle class people. My ability to read more broadly and encounter a broader representation — a diverse representation, if you will — of people was curtailed by two factors.
The first, of course, was my own bubble. I grew up in a small, majority-white, liberal community, and that community determined what was in the library, what friends’ parents would let us watch on TV, what parts of the world we were allowed to see. That naturally limited my exposure to the outside world, sometimes in very damaging ways, because, oddly enough, few people can be quite as bigoted as progressive liberals. Notably, for example, despite living in a community with a huge Latino population, I have a difficult time remembering any Latino classmates, let alone books and other media from my childhood featuring Latino protagonists.
The second, though, was the perennial diversity issue. I couldn’t encounter the Other in pop culture if the Other wasn’t there. The things that got traffic were those that more or less aligned with my own bubble, and that meant I wasn’t exposed to the lives of people unlike me. I also didn’t get a chance to see people like me depicted in a way that was normalised and accurate, instead of laden with misconceptions and flights of fancy. Before I identified as disabled, for example, the majority of the media about disability that I saw was filled with stereotypes and troubling commentary on disabled people and disabled characters. Not exactly a fair representation of disabled lives — no matter I came away with the impression that disability was something tragic and inspirational. I saw no trans people at all. My exposure to queer characters was quite limited.
The range of diversity in pop culture has expanded radically from my childhood days, when I lay on the porch railing surrounded by trembling nasturtiums with my nose in a book. But it’s still not diverse enough. This is a subject that’s being discussed across a wide variety of platforms as people talk about the value of a generation of minority youth growing up with characters who look and live like them, and a generation of people growing up with diversity built into their media so they see that their lives are part of a larger framework and they aren’t culturally superior to other people.
But specifically, we need to reinforce the fact that pop culture is, for many people, the first exposure to the Other. Pop culture is how we are introduced to entirely new people and concepts that don’t touch our physical lives until later, and it’s how we’re introduced to things that explain the world around us. Pop culture can determine whether we interact with things positively or negatively; think of the child who reads books with diverse, strong, interesting disabled characters and later meets a wheelchair user. Her reaction will be very different than that of a child who grew up reading tragic disability stories about sick children and inspiration.
Pop culture is a gateway drug to social attitudes, which is why it matters so much and people dedicate absolute reams of commentary to engaging with it. I think back on my own childhood and engagement with pop culture, and the things I missed — and didn’t. When I listened to jazz with my father, did I learn about Black culture and the complex history of jazz? No. And I should have. When I read books with characters who weren’t explicitly coded as white, why did I assume that they were? Because it would have been in line with everything I’d absorbed through pop culture thus far. Pop culture taught me about a very narrow range of experiences and created a world in which children more or less like me were the norm and everyone else was Other, alien.
Maybe the way I interact with the world today would have been radically different if I’d known, for example, that Billie Holiday dealt with segregation and racism throughout her life, dying chained to her hospital bed and going through acute drug withdrawal? How would my life be different if I’d asked my father what the ‘Strange Fruit’ were?
How would the lives of today’s children be different if they asked their parents about the deeper implications of ‘The Hanging Tree,’ which is much more than a catchy anthem for a pop culture phenomenon, and was clearly inspired by ‘Strange Fruit’?
This is why pop culture matters — because it’s easy to isolate yourself, and pop culture has the ability to effortlessly pop the bubble you hide behind. A well-timed pop culture punch can do more than a thousand awareness classes or Very Special Discussions in school.
Image: Uhura from Star Trek, Rob Speed, Flickr