The concept of “diversity” has become a guideline for society. It is now taken as a given, an absolute truth, that the greater the variety of human beings in a given setting, the better. This variety used to be considered only in terms of gender (more women in the workplace, etc.) or race (more blacks/Hispanics/etc. in schools and the workplace) but now has been expanded to include gays, transsexuals, women, people of certain religions, and people of certain cultures, in addition to those former markers of identity. One of the most fertile grounds for inclusion of diverse populations has been the popular media.
One reason that popular media is and has been so receptive to managing diversity is that it thrives on variety. After a while, people get tired of seeing gorgeous sexy blondes with dazzling smiles and hunky guys with rippling muscles; they want to see “normal” people. This includes blacks, gays, fat people, short people, and strange-looking people. For example, Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old British housewife, appeared a few years ago on “Britain’s Got Talent” and wowed the audience and judges with her magnificent voice. This has led to a meteoric singing career for her. Yet, she could charitably be described as “average-looking.” Ever since the MTV days, popular singers have had to be gorgeous and sexy to succeed (and some of those gorgeous and sexy singers have succeeded despite any actual singing talent). The success of “average people” like Susan Boyle may suggest a change in the weather, that a person may now be valued for his or her abilities rather than his or her looks.
Another area where diversity is showing itself more and more is in the movies. For decades, the more “average Joe” actors were cast as “character actors,” which basically meant that they were supposed to play either “everyman” roles or were typecast into a particular slot where they had demonstrated expertise, such as playing very good villains, criminals, etc. Nowadays, however, while there is still an “A-list” group of pretty people dominating the silver screen, there is also plenty of work for the “average Joe” actors. Jancovich (2003) made an interesting point, that there has always been a market for non-mainstream actors, stories, etc. but that recently, the definition of what is “mainstream” has broadened: “Even the ‘mainstream’ is not a clearly defined and fixed object, but rather a vaguely defined and imaged Other” (Jancovich, 1). Certainly, any drama, comedy, or other genre movie wherein everyone was tall, gorgeous, and had a dazzling smile would no longer seem realistic: most people are, in fact, short, bald, funny-looking, Hispanic, black, or wear glasses, or some combination of these or other “imperfect” features. Many popular actors, such as Woody Allen, Paul Giamatti, and Linda Hunt are short, wear glasses, and are average-looking. Yet, such people often make fine actors and their inclusion lends authenticity to a production. This is a major benefit of diversity, in that the world itself is diverse and therefore, diversity in the choice of actors mirrors the real world.
Another benefit of depicting diverse characters in popular media entertainment is that it sends the message that society itself is diverse and thus, an honest depiction of it should include a wide variety of people. In terms of teaching the value of diversity to our children, this may be the most effective tool of all. Tyler and Guth (1999) noted the potential value of the depiction of diversity in multimedia as a teaching tool using “cognitive-experiential self-theory” (Tyler & Guth, 153). Experiential learning is what the term implies: learning based on the learner’s experiences. If part of those experiences involves routinely seeing diverse depictions of individuals in entertainment media, the concept of diversity will be embedded in the learner’s mind. The beauty of this concept is that the importance of diversity is implied rather than stated; it is eventually taken as a given by the young learner.
In addition to imparting the value of diversity per se, teaching diversity reinforces the concept of social justice, something that is more and more important as our society becomes more multicultural and pluralistic. The Hollywood depiction fifty years ago of society being 99% white and characters of other races being included peripherally, if at all, sent the message that only handsome white people really counted. This trend has, thankfully, been reversed. In fact, many of the most popular—and powerful--depictions in the movies have been of nonwhite characters struggling to find justice, such as the depictions of the Sioux in Dances With Wolves or those of slaves fighting to free themselves in Amistad or Twelve Years a Slave. Germann (2005) underscored the power and importance of diversity in popular film: “The cultural diversity of audiovisual content is of value on its own merits” (Germann, 93). While Germann was decrying the global domination of the film industry by America and labeling it as “cultural imperialism,” he also acknowledged that popular media can be a powerful vehicle for introducing the concepts of tolerance and the value of diversity worldwide.
It is difficult to inject a given idea into the public’s consciousness (whether at the school level or the adult level) when it is presented as an abstract concept. Film and television have been powerful tools in not just articulating the concepts of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance but more importantly, in demonstrating how they work in real life. It could be argued that something as simple and basic as the depiction of the (black) Huxtables on The Bill Cosby Show as a “normal,” everyday middle-class family did more for the concept of diversity than a hundred speeches would have. Most of us learn experientially at least to some extent, so we want to be shown rather than told. For many people, and children, in particular, social justice is an abstract concept until it is demonstrated in some fashion. Kids can recite “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” until they’re blue in the face and not really understand the concept. Media depictions of injustice and its redress can show young learners that the freedoms and opportunities they enjoy are not and never have been a given for most of the world.
Germann, C. (2005). Content industries and cultural diversity: the case of motion pictures. Cultural Imperialism: Essays on the Political Economy of Cultural Domination, 93-113.
Jancovich, M. (Ed.). (2003). Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes. Manchester University Press.
Tyler, J. M., & Guth, L. J. (1999). Using media to create experiential learning in multicultural and diversity issues. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 27(3), 153-169.