Scene 1: It’s an interim year between 1922-1966. The Hays Office is ceding ‘morally inappropriate’ expressions of reckless abandonment in visual media to Protestant values via the uncannily religiously-influenced, Hollywood generated terms set out in The Motion Picture Production Code. Circumventing a government-imposed code situation, these suffocating guidelines are agreed to; it’s meant to keep the industry self-regulated. Controversial filmmakers are challenged to creatively squeeze subtle hints, jokes, and insinuations into their visions; a doublespeak of insubordination that can be cloaked as innocence if someone with regulatory authority should press bans or censure. This is true for director-writers such as Alfred Hitchcock as well as director-writers-actresses such as Mae West. There is subversion to read between the lines of approved script—impressive pushing of boundaries, really—but, the revolution will not be televised. Or will it?
Scene 2: It’s the original Woodstock, 1969, smack in between the years of 1955-1975. Nearly half a million hippies revel in ecstasy, streak, mud-wrestle, smoke joints, and rally with deafening impact against the war machine, pulsing in waves set to tempo against the deployment of forces to Vietnam. This massive fandom event, 400,000-500,000 people deep, grew up listening to talented and passionate artists sew seeds of system discontent via not only protest songs sung by off-beat rock stars, but also via beat-and-post-beat poetry and novels of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey. Tuning in and dropping out (a la Tim Leary) is in vogue, much like modern nihilistic hedonist escapes, and there’s no question why; the why is on TV—the first videos and direct pictures of the gruesome destructiveness of combat brought to the small screen and drafts sending home youth coffins of kids cut short of the cusp of their first chance to live as adults render war hero narratives less convincing. Rebels run across the countryside, from the beat nomads hopping trains to eccentric writers holing up in cabins and mansions of privacy, bringing escapes to readers laid down heavy by turmoils of real world strife, to the institutionalized, labelled-mad chaotic writers, perhaps not so odd or mad in a world that itself is truly mad, to the journeys of Merry Pranksters and Deadheads traversing the continent to bring absurdist art to each corner, with only one guiding principle for choosing to join or leave: “You’re either on the bus…or off it.” (Wolfe 1968)
Even after the Hayes Code, television is still highly policed, and yet, filming with revolutionary intention isn’t unheard of. The Merry Pranksters bring cameras with them, capturing things inside and outside their bus as it sails between the coasts and back again—making sure to cause a stir with visual and audio media manipulation in attempts to induce something wild, effects along the way that arguably will later inspire rave culture. Images of the Vietnam war—and of war protests, and of events like Woodstock—all have an impact on social conversation that is revolutionary, a way of seeing on-the-ground action and impact of national policy. Film is recognized as a tool that can be used by oppressive forces to clamp down on state approved images—that old ‘media is the fourth branch of the government argument’—but also as a medium for detractors to cite proof of the dire need to change things.
Scene 3: 1975-2000-ish. The motion picture association of America rating system that premiered in 1968 becomes the standard to label media for age-appropriate audiences. Technically, you can get media that fights the power; it’s burgeoning on the margins, but it’s not statistically significantly present in what you see on your average all-access basic TV channels covered on your cable bill. Representation starts to occur, but sitcoms and movies often still fail to decenter the narrative from white people’s stories and interpretations of represented subject matter, and token roles / segregated productions often fail to reach what we’d consider 20 years later to be woke. Violence is profligate across channels, and seen more harshly than sex, nudity, drug use, and even in some programs, more acceptable than bad language. Any hopes of televised revolution are few and far in-between; the economic bubble has grown alongside conservative political policies fueling preoccupations with materialism, status, ‘coolness’, and propriety that rests on the poor behaving and the rich splurging. Reality TV shows abound, claiming to be just cameras aimed at life but creating instead people who behave dramatically, pushed to their limits with sleep deprivation, alcohol, pressure to be entertaining, and lack of privacy. Tough issues are tackled, but mostly on common tv channels, through lenses that still prioritize white, straight, heteronormative, male opinions, interpretations, and representations of the world—or which include noticeable apologetics and assimilations, framing diversity and controversy alike in ways that make the fewest waves possible.
Sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic sentiment is shown in rawness, included as jokes everyone is supposed to let fall off their shoulders, or ignored in fantasies of the world where few to no ‘diverse’ characters exist. Porn has risen, and often fetishizes fantasies of violence, dominance and submission, or fantasies of liberated sex culture that neglects all plots of attraction—offering images of women often as either slaves, victims, villians for their lack of recognition of the supremacy of a man or daring to express sexuality in a double standard not applied to men ('She's a slut' versus 'He's the man' or 'What a player!'), or easy airheads–even queer alternatives at times mimic these themes and patterns. This is not revolution televised; it is a status quo that rests on the continual maintenance of oppressive standards for representation of groups who statistically are held disproportionately out of power.
It’s a narrative of the good and the bad; following the rules by mimicking the Brady Bunch or facing consequences of being targeted for the immorality of not assimilating to standard. Just say no to drugs, or your brains will turn to eggs (that commercial actors eat for breakfast.) Fulfill the role of wife, or be treated like a skank. Don’t be a savage like your ancestors or brethren; be civilized—like white people. Television is here with repetitive plot lines on tired sitcoms that make you laugh while slipping in those good ol’ stereotypes, surging in the boon of inequality, that shelter and insulate or congratulate some character life plots--while leaving others untold or told by somebody who hasn’t walked in the same shoes, reducing the original to a poorly drafted copy. Any character doing drugs or having sex or engaging in ‘morally inappropriate action’—back to the Code without the Hays office—must have a comeuppance that shows negative consequences to get on the air. Literally, we have to punish all characters who dare not fit a mold. We’re so inundated with violence that we’re desensitized. Bring on the slasher films. I’ll get the popcorn.
Scene 4: We’re still in 1975-2000, on the other side of the looking glass. Despite proliferation of status quo media, on the peripheries of the mainstream, post-modern avante-garde films escape the confines of prose, offering visual poetry by juxtaposing fragmented images of the world. Formerly quieted stories of injustice, inequality, and bias are being spoken alongside diverse challenges to the ‘mainstream’ culture we live under and make popular. These rejections and more liberated narratives sit on the fringes, in offbeat performances and offered art—in science fiction, but not on many sitcoms; in punk, but not on the family radio station.
Star Trek is in it's heyday. It represents stories of diverse characters holding power and dealing with personal, professional, and otherworldly challenges; Deep Space Nine in particular notably offers a main character representation of bisexuality (Jadzia Dax) as well as, arguably, a transgender character--(Dax, who has switched genders, represented across DS9 and two spin-off book series, as both Jadzia Dax and Esri Dax with flashbacks and allusions to adventures of the former Dax trill-symbiont hosts such as Curzan). Alongside The Next Generation and Voyager, philosophical what-ifs—questions on ethics and metaphysics, particularly—are applied to otherworldly scenery. Both the prime directive--to observe and not interfere with other species met, especially without direct request (and even sometimes with direct request)--and the characters struggle to keep their vow to uphold it are imperatives taken straight out of anthropological theories of cultural relativism and tensions between research practices of alternately being a ‘fly on the wall’ and connecting on a human level with participants over surprising bridges discovered during fieldwork. This isn’t to say that Star Trek has always held perfect representation—often using the word ‘race’ to denote species and sometimes being a bit essentialist in the embodied descriptions of species shared characteristics (as if acquired social traits are genetic.) That being said, these issues are, from initial conceptualization, regularly challenged in the various series branches, and are challenged in some episodes within the same series, even as they are repeated in others. It is not surprisingly, as a nerdy show, at least somewhat informed by the principles of sciences, ranging from physics to anthropology. Though there is clearly creative license and inaccuracies with time, it is a meeting point between what is known and what imagination can conjure. Some non-sci-fi series have moved forward too, a little, with voiceover monologues that offer snippets into a character’s mind, an essential step to gaining understanding of why (at least initially) main characters (and later all characters) the character is the protagonist, how they think, and what motivates their actions (Ally McBeal being an early example.) Following multiple characters in the queer and feminist communities, the original Tales of the City has a controversial season, goes off air, and then is revived only after long intervals in short miniseries following long term trajectory of the (originally novelized) characters.
Meanwhile, in music of rebellion, the rise of the punk scene in reaction to Reaganomics, continued screwed up foreign and local policy, and pure rejection of the enforcement of Brady Bunch life takes on the system in increasingly crude terms. Echoing from record and eventually cassette players across the english speaking world are the Dead Kennedy’s roar against Cambodian genocide, the Clash's cheery sound ironically merged with commentary on the Spanish Civil War, the Ramones bopping away likewise with tunes protesting the KKK, and the Sexpistols screeching against the Queen and for government disassemblement. Joan Jett supplants Janis Joplin, but the anguished shouts of both still resonate to the sky. Similar sentiments are matched in hip hop, emblemized in anthems against police brutality and racism from NWA to Biggie and Tupac, precursors to later artists such as Dead Prez, Nas, Immortal Technique, and Lupe Fiasco, amongst others. Far from the era presented in our examination above, if you know where to look, it’s a new era of outspokenness and using media to promote revolutionary causes.
Alongside this popular transformation, scholarly research publications in journals are increasingly self-reflexive and historically critical. Anthropology, history, and identity study fields (on race, heritage, gender, and sexuality) feature more voices rising in calling bullshit on long-held ideas about natural (pseudo-scientific), divine-defined (religious), or devil influenced (also religious) origins and nature of human variation across heritage, race, and gender. Critiques led by feminist, indigenous, immigrant, black, and other scholars from oppressed communities highlight sordid histories, unequal representation, and unfair treatment, intensifying calls for reform.
Some revolutionary ideas are televised, but reality has a long way to go to measure up, and we’ve yet to see the apex of these ideas actually entering mainstream consumption. Scene 5: Fast forward.
Netflix is the new mainstream media, alongside other streaming sites like Hulu and Prime, while TV struggles to keep up and to find new ways to deliver their own channel programming to the increasing young audience ditching the antenna and cable boxes for digital delivery of content. Shows are now mirrors or a looking glass—reflecting the world as it is, optimistically depicting the world as we wish it to be, or pessimistically depicting the world in the state we fear it will fall into following potential disaster situations we are ever more self-aware about as global and local news provides a list of crises that could happen tomorrow (or next year, or never, or likely in the next 50 years but which we’ll continue to both increase awareness of and apathy for our culpability in and duty to solve, because we’re all fucked anyway is an overwhelming message to consistently be bombarded with.) It’s easier to retreat to fiction, and to social problems that can be solved with acceptance, love, equity, and equality. If the planet’s going to force us into adaptation and extinction, maybe we can stop being assholes to each other for five minutes prior to inevitable doom.
Voices tell previously unheard stories not on the fringes, but on episodes of the latest well-funded and bingewatched series released all on one day via the most popular streaming media sites across the globe. Directors film in locations around the planet, linking together characters across divergent worlds of multiple international settings within the same series (Heroes, Sense 8, Lost), as well as showcasing the lenses different people see the same spaces with due to roles we inhabit along the intersections of social, economic, and political power held (or denied, or fought for.) Science fiction and fantasy still arguably lead the way, but even these genres are no longer on the fringes, having sailed on an uptick to mainstream status.
Narratives focus in, magnifying communities previously unrepresented or misrepresented. Threats to marginalized communities are grittily confronted on the screen alongside empowering, empathetic portrayals of character struggles, goals, and joys—a step inside shoes of someone from a very different community or a reflection of one’s own community, shown in ways that offer strangers glimpses of daily lives that attempt to gain viewer understanding for people who come from very different backgrounds and communities. (see: Tales From the City original/reboot, Dear White People, Pose, Wentworth.)
It has been noted how the voiceover often serves essentially as a return to interior character narration seen in novels and memoirs and opens up channels of empathy. The flashback is used frequently in the present, offering a new level to the voiceover; it’s prevalence in popular television shows—already with long character arcs—flashes back to a characters past to show the events that have led the character to their current circumstances—both to their character traits and to the places that shape them. (Lost, Heroes, Orange is the New Black) Understanding someone isn’t just about getting into their mind for the solipstic silique of navel gazing on how the events around them are centered internally to order their inner worlds, but also about understanding the places people have been—how our experiences tint the lenses we see the world with, and how this ripples out into our thoughts, behaviors, and self-perception—who we think we are, who we think we should be, how we try to live up to our best selves or cling to old habitual responses.
Beyond this, the CW has become the posterboard for feminist and anti-racist shows, originally seeming to be aimed at young teens but increasingly growing programing clearly made for older viewers. (Reign, Charmed, Into the Dark) Whether in a historical past or a magical alternate reality, it is explicitly devoted to feminist portrayals, in ways that are a little campy at times, but honestly refreshing and heartwarming in comparison to the drivel that affected so many of shows, movies, and media popularized in my youth. Relationships are shown as equalizing, loving, tender ways that go against models of dominance and submission, or women’s putting up with sexist BS b/c it’s ‘just men being men’ and ‘locker-room talk’ kind of funny. Women are shown empowered, though still at times not always taken seriously or dismissed for their gender—but a continual challenge of such. Do all the historical events line up in Reign to their actual happenings? Well, who knows? Maybe there's some creative license, but it’s a new kind of creative license, a woman’s lens applied to events that happened rather than a man’s tale of ruling, conquering, elevation of violence, reduction of ‘the lesser sex’s motives and roles in shaping and responding to historical events. Rape is tragic, not glorified; women have agency, rather than being passive, women have complexity, rather than being a stereotype. It’s a big Fuck you to the male gaze, and I for one am so glad the next generation is growing up with healthier images to learn about gender roles (and escape from them) and more loving images of relationships, sex, and our inner emotional worlds.
Marvel and DC both have updated to explicit storylines involving direct confrontations of in-group/out-group behaviors, as well as targeting, harassment, unjust laws, and villians that are more than just vile, but also bigots, rapists, and white supremacists. We don't do subtlety nor bullying anymore; we do righteous rage.
This leaves the question still: To what extent is the most popular and accessible medium of a turmoil fueled era used as a tool for social change? Will the revolution, in fact, actually be televised? Does it take place more on screen, or behind the scenes?
Human creativity has been a central driving force in many social change movements across human history. Curiosity has led us to science, philosophy, and art alike. Notably for this discussion, deviations of human thought and expression often have been met with resistance, censorship, and repression—usually in the name of not upsetting traditional values, whatever those may be for each particular societal era. Also notable for this discussion, the potential power of human ideas expressed in effective media (whether that be writing, visual, or performance art) is often recognized to be a threat by oppressive regimes who keep their own benefits intact by ensuring everyone goes along with the status quo playbook for how things are done, how good and bad are defined by rhetoric that justifies the state things are in, and who seek to contain the conversation to their own winners narrative.
Winners narratives, for this discussion, are the stories told by those in power. These often exclude, scapegoat, and make an enemy of groups that can be blamed for all the problems the in-group face. They excuse, overshadow, and deny the stories of those who have been hurt by the winners, or more extreme yet, mock those they hurt as the losers that deserve it. Trouilliot put it great, defining this as “formulas of banalization” and “formulas of erasure”—minimizing the suffering and experiences shared by others, or erasing the crime completely, denying it was ever a wrong, or denying the victims existence. The fact that tyrants have so often readily used this method is evidence just how big of a threat that visions of something different—and the ideas behind them—can have. It’s also a sign of human tendencies to get attached to the idea that they know the truth—that it’s been passed down to them by their families, and to honor it they must maintain it as truth, and to not have their world’s shattered, it can be the only truth—even when the ‘truth’ or lines made up about it serve to justify harm to others.
Often times, it’s not just that specific media forms are just demonized as potential disrupters of ‘all good sense’ in the world, but it’s also jumped upon by those in power as an effective tool to broadcast winners narratives—the propaganda machine. This is made all the more powerful if, by outright ban or successful cult hypnosis, the support base is prevented or discouraged from listening to outside ideas, especially those held on channels of the enemy. This is quite different from logical, provable reasons or compassion based ethics one can use to assess the value of the information, ideas, and perspective offered; instead, a flood of lies pours out of a supporter-base respected mouth to people who are used to listening to authority, and who have gained habits of particularly perking their ears up at a battle call that make them feel more powerful (usually, in true bully style, by putting down others.) If the government or ruling oppressors own the airwaves without checks or freedom for others speech—freedom for all citizens to have discussions about the place they want to live in, and want their home to be—they can say anything they want. To understand how media can offer freedom means to also understand how it does not require filters--for accuracy, influence, and unpredictable outcomes.
Film is a whole new kind of media humankind has developed and spread over the most recent century and a half-ish—television in particular being a new-ish development in spreading information, telling stories, and offering both reflections of the world we live in, and visions of the world as it can be. There was a time when new classical musicians for their time were considered to be wild deviations from the appropriate; my mom sometimes reflexively stated that she knew it was a repeating cycle—that her mom disapproved of her taste in music, truly didn’t get it, although music from my generation (and even the one before mine, as my mom was quite older when she adopted me) was something else.
That being said, can this revolution in media turn into a revolution of reality?
Further, can it be called revolutionary when it big money is involved—challenging one set up stereotypes but still being funded by /participating in systems that maintain economic inequality? If we don’t support small media, locals, and start-ups aren’t we still supporting those in power—changing one social dimension of power but not the political decision making or economic systems we operate in? With a reality star president using his stage to lie, promote bullying and bigoted behavior, maybe the biggest question is not if revolution will be televised, but what revolution will televised ideas bring?
*Note: This account is incomplete, possibly overgeneralized, and probably telling of my particular limited familiarities with the whole of all media created during these times. I freely admit this, but feel it covers a particular type of media—the use of music, film, and media as a tool of power that has been used to reinforce, or rebel against, the status quo. This mostly focuses on creative fictionizations, leaving out the biggest social power performances of the political stage (such as meetings of Congress, the presidential debates, the State of the Union speeches, etc)--all which require separate articles of their own that far exceed this already lengthy (though still limited) examination of media over time.
Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism. These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly.
Article: Netflix and revolution?: The Social Transformations That Will and Will Not Be Broadcast. Column: The Conscious Critic.