Discrimination: The Dark Side of Pop Culture
The concept of pop culture has been around for decades, providing the masses with everyday entertainment and at the same time, directly and indirectly influencing one’s day to day life. However, unfortunately, this industry comes with toxicity and difficulties in the form of discrimation of all kinds. Discrimination, whether in the form of sexism, racism, homophobia or ageism has been around without being officially addressed or even rectified. However, the world is evolving and moving rapidly towards open-mindedness and acceptance which is why this topic is being actively discussed, especially over social media. The following article brings an insight into not only the relation between pop culture and age-old discrimination, but also how it is finally being rectified. And guiding you through it, here is Perspectoverse’s Aahi Guha Thakurta.
Various different kinds of discrimination have been prevalent in pop culture for ages now. While many of them went unnoticed back when they first became prominent, those aspects are being largely discussed and called out now, as people become more accepting and observant.
In terms of something as globally salient as racism, ever since the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement started and spread rapidly to all parts of the world, tugging at the population’s heartstrings and heavily influencing their perspective and outlook of the world, many have been revisiting so-called ‘iconic’ pop productions of the past and also of more recent times to point out the gross racism and wrongful and stereotypical representation of different races.
Upon careful observation, a very clear pattern in the depiction of various different races have become apparent to the world. Racism and extreme stereotyping was even more outrageous during earlier times and African-American as well as Asian people always seemed to be prey to these.
For instance, in the renowned 1961 movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s', the character of Mr Yunioshi is the perfect example of Asian stereotype; portrayed as a laughable caricature with the typical 'Engrish' accent used to mock Japanese people. In addition to this, Mr Yunioshi was actually played by a fully white actor in the name of Mickey Rooney instead of an actual asian person, making this a classic example of ‘yellow-face’ (pretending to be Asian even though they are born with a different ethnicity).
The concept of ‘yellow-face’ was quite prevalent during those times since production teams were reluctant to hire minorities in general and therefore, gave the little roles to white actors. The concept of yellow-face continues even till recent times, although less outrageous. For example, the 2012 film 'Cloud Atlas' received tons of backlash for hiring white actors to play Asian roles. A similar situation occurred when Tilda Swinton played an Asian role in the popular film 'Dr. Strange'.
To this day, Asians are highly stereotyped in movies and TV shows- for example a popular assumption is that all Asians excel at martial arts, that specifically started after the rise of Bruce Lee; or another is that Asians are usually always intelligent and gifted in academic fields whose career paths are gonna end up being that of a doctor, lawyer or engineer.
Of course, Asians are not the only ones who have fallen prey to stereotypes in pop culture. There’s the oversexualizing of Latin men and women and how they are stereotyped to be eccentric or loud and almost always sexualized or used for 'eye-candy'.
African-Americans, too, faced ill-treatment, generalizing and stereotyping. It started with the prevalent use of black-face, that is, using white actors with face paint to play African- American people, which originated in the American theatre tradition of minstrelsy, where racist tropes were quite common. For example, the American classic 'Gone with the Wind' is being heavily criticized for its mythical depiction of slavery; another example lies in the animated film 'Dumbo' featuring a character named Jim Crow who was voiced by a Caucasian actor speaking in a typical 'African-American accent'.
African-Americans have, for years, been stereotyped on television, like how a black male is supposed to come off as aggressive and dangerous while a black woman is supposed to be loud and sassy.
However, with the spread of the BLM movement, significant improvements are taking place; actors like Tina Fey apologised for using blackface and African-American art, books and podcasts are gaining recognition. People are starting to take interest in this matter, calling out any ill-representation that catches their eye. TV shows and movies are evolving as well, casting people of various different races in lead roles, a popular example being Viola Davis in the Emmy-winning show 'How to Get Away With Murder' and Lana Condor in the successful trilogy of 'To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before'.
Racism is not the only form of discrimination faced in the pop industry. Misogyny or so to say, gender discrimination has been unfortunately prevalent for a while now and although now it tends to be subtle or well-hidden, it still very much exists. According to a 2014 article by the Teen Leadership Council for Positive Sexual and Gender Representation, women in Hollywood earn between 75-90% percent less than men depending on their age and get lesser job opportunities too. To this day there are many more male-led movies than female-led ones and most of the time, a woman’s presence in the movie is purposefully made insignificant so as to give the spotlight to the male hero.
This gross discrimination gave birth to the infamous 'Bechdel Test', a test to determine gender discrimination in a film; it entailes that two women should have atleast one proper conversation, which does not involve a man.
But gender discrimination does not only limit to cinema. The music industry, for years on end, has been an example of a gender discriminatory workplace. During the early 1960s, male critics hardly gave importance to women in the rock genre since they did not believe in their talent and sometimes, did not even bother to hear their work.
Women did gain success in the pop genre but were extremely sexualised and therefore, were hardly taken seriously by critics. Women have had to face quite a lot of ill or sometimes criminal treatment by their management or the media in general.
An eminent example is the popstar Ke$ha, who tried to sign out of her management company for sexually assaulting her, thus calling out the ill-treatment publicly, which proved to be a great step forward for feminism even though she lost the case, Another example is Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs, who released a memoir regarding her rape by her manager Kim Fowley which inspired many more women to come out with their own stories regarding Fowley’s sleazy behaviour. Very recently, the Free Britney movement to help Britney Spears escape her conservatorship, is a prime example of the mistreatment of women in the pop industry and how it should be prevented (she received extreme support from people round the globe).
There remain many more forms of discrimination which are not discussed enough. For instance, homophobia was prevalent until very recently or the misinterpretation and stereotyping of LGBTQA+ members on television (they are portrayed as if being a part of the LGBTQA community is their entire personality or storyline etc.) and also the concept of ageism, a very underdiscussed form of discrimination.
Ageism even exists in child-friendly films- firstly, there are hardly any older people in the film or how any old person is supposed to be senile, or crazy, or senseless. It is really unfortunate to see that such gross forms of discrimination exist in an industry which is supposed to entertain or bring joy to ALL people around the world. However, things are rapidly improving now as the eyes of the people are opening and the world is becoming more understanding.
Written by Aahi Guha Thakurta
Illustrated by Anannya Pincha