WP3: What Does and Should It Mean to Be a Media Creator?

Shefali Murti
Writing 150 Fall 2020
9 min readOct 31, 2020

--

The construction and enjoyment of aesthetics has been an integral part of society for a long time, and has promptly continued into the new age of media. The word “aesthetic” generally refers to being concerned with or appreciating beauty. However, it can also refer to a set of values that a particular artist portrays in their work. Using these definitions against each other, I want to unpack the idea that the media industry often focuses more on shallow aesthetics that portray stereotypical or fake values rather than being truthful and genuinely supportive in showing the beauty of different peoples’ identities and backgrounds. I identify as a Southeast Asian-American woman, so the gender and racial stereotypes portrayed in movies and television have greatly impacted my self-perception, because these are the views being put forth to the world about people like me. I have the ability to change these issues in representation, since I am a student in the media field and have a passion for multimedia production. The skills I learn in school combined with my intrinsic motivation for real change encourages me to create my own aesthetic in media art that counteracts the stereotypes that have been normalized in our society. An exploration of the intersection of these visual issues with my own identities allows me to analyze and understand what it means to be a participant in the world of media creation.

Any form of art, including media creation, serves as a form of storytelling, as a way to showcase the beautiful and unique stories of the places and people in our world. I’ve always been drawn to storytelling in forms of media, whether that be through my long-lasting hobby of photography, or my more recent interests in film production and digital design. In an interview with Variety, Viola Davis, an award-winning African-American actress, said the following: “If they exist in life, then we should see it on TV. We should see it on stage or on the screen. As many people are out there are as many stories that should be being told.” It seems so simple to say I agree with this, that media storytelling should be a creative way to express reality. But as I’ve experienced myself, this reality is often skewed, especially when it comes to biases and assumptions of gender and cultural norms. Movies and television have only further amplified and constructed these outdated and discriminatory stereotypes. Whatever realities or stories that movies and television have been telling certainly do not represent my (and much of others) actual reality.

It is difficult for me not to feel insecure or belittled when movies and television are constantly putting forth ideals of how we, as women, should behave, look, and feel. As I examined in my WP2 within the context of Disney, the “ideal woman” is one who is passive, dependent, naive, and in the background. And it’s not just character traits, but physical traits. The qualities that Disney (along with much of other media) attributes to a physically attractive woman include things like white skin, doe-like eyes, a thin but curvy figure, etc. Women’s bodies are an aesthetic. This very specific look deemed attractive creates unrealistic standards, and was something I, certainly, was never able to relate to. In terms of aesthetic value, these stereotypes are demeaning and confining. With Julia T. Woods describing this whole concept as “Gendered Media,” she writes, “Because media pervades our lives, the ways they misrepresent genders may distort how we see ourselves and what we perceive as normal and desirable for men and women” (32). As seen in examples like the Disney Princess movies, this perception of what is “normal and desirable” can be easily internalized at such young ages, which only allows these insecurities to be more deep-rooted.

Racial and cultural stereotypes are also internalized at young ages when movies and television create negative perceptions and appropriations of any non-western culture. As a person of color and a traveller, I am not only concerned with how others view myself, but I am concerned about how other cultures are viewed — like Arab and Lao cultures that I have lived and experienced first hand. As explored in my WP2, Disney is a huge culprit of this both for a general audience and for myself, and they recently have even addressed this very fact. There is a new advisory content at the beginning of movies deemed racially and culturally controversial that warns “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now” (Disney, “Stories Matter”). Disney also recently created a website labeled “Stories Matter”, part of which gives examples and explanations of issues in movies like Aladdin, Dumbo, Aristocrats, and Peter Pan. Disney is by far not the only company guilty of this, but on this website they mention their mistakes like “racist caricature[s]” and songs, “exaggerated tropes”, “offensive language”, and “form[s] of mockery”, that are some techniques in which these negative, appropriating stereotypes are formed. These elements go against what I know as the “truth” being Indian and what I experienced spending a lot of time in other Asian and Arab cultures.

I carry these present issues regarding gender and race so closely because I grew up in single-sex academic environment centered around diversity and empowering girls. The whole purpose of my education was to teach me how to grow out of society’s norms, to counteract these stereotypes; female and racial empowerment became my new “normal.” Being surrounded and supported by such an intellectually driven, diverse group of women was a normal that is different to the largely white, male-dominated world outside our small bubble. Furthermore, whenever we would read books, learn history, undertake research, write essays, or analyze media, gender was always at the forefront of discussion, with race always following. Thus, being a woman and being a person of color became a larger part of my life than it was before; going to my all-girls school allowed me to assume a larger role in my identity as a female and an Asian-American.

Thanks to my education, it has become second nature for me to notice triumphs and problems in gender and racial representation; this subconscious analysis is always happening in my brain. And since my life revolves around technology and media as an avid social media user, Netflix binger, Communications major, photography lover, and now Zoom student, it’s only fitting that I feel such a close connection to the problems of gender and race within the media field.

The personal connection I feel to these issues as a woman of color myself is profound, as this content reflects generalization about people who more or less represent me. “Stereotype threat” is this idea that there is an expectation that one might be judged on the basis of social group membership and there is a negative stereotype about one’s social identity group (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson, 389). I certainly still have this subconscious insecurity that I am being judged or looked down upon because of these stereotypes perpetrated by the media — especially when it comes to my skin color. This insecurity, this “stereotype threat” way of thinking, pushes me to want to make a change, so that girls and children of color don’t have to grow up with this mindset.

My awareness of the effects of these stereotypes combined with my passion within the industry gives me a sense of moral obligation for my contribution in the media space to counteract these stereotypes. In the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, is characterized as the closest thing that Google and Silicon Valley has to a moral compass (00:07:55). When speaking in large about the technology companies that have physically created the media space I’ve been talking about, he says the following:

“Never before in history have 50 designers — 20- to 35-year old white guys in California — made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts they didn’t intend to have…We have a moral responsibility, as Google, for solving this problem.” (The Social Dilemma, 00:09:10–00:09:35).

Harris saw the obvious ethical issues in the work he was doing — in the values of his and most other technology companies — and he truly felt a need to change it. I feel this same moral obligation as Harris feels. Some of “these thoughts” that Harris mentions refer to the stereotypical judgements of targeted racial and gender groups and subsequent insecurities of users within those groups that I’ve been talking about. Just as he wants to engineer solutions to prevent the profound detriments to humanity from these profit-driven technology companies, I feel a need to change the content that these technology companies allow to be spread from profit-driven media creators. I want to create content that goes against these stereotypical norms that infiltrate our brains starting from childhood, to create actual, substantial, change.

In order for the issues of representation in film to no longer be relevant, there has to be fundamental changes within people’s beliefs, because not all commitments to diversity are meaningful and genuine. In my Communication and Social Science class (COMM200), our professor talked about the idea of attitude-behavior consistency. That is, we have a tendency to assume there is a consistency between attitude and behavior; we believe that if we want to change an inherent belief or behavior (in this case, diversifying the media), then we just need to change an attitude. However, attitude change alone is insufficient in enacting behavioral change (Dainton and Zelley, 87). This can be seen within the many companies producing empty claims of diversity in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is perceived as an apparent change in attitude. Due to widespread backlash of gender and racial inequality, more often than not companies will proclaim anti-racist protocols as an opportunity to keep their consumers, otherwise known as their profit. With this being said, Disney’s purity of motive when it comes to their “Stories Matter” website should be questioned. Is their apology and solution genuine, or are they just trying to appease audiences so that they don’t lose money? In scenarios like these, their inherent beliefs and behaviors in regards to gender and racial equity do not change, and so pure change in the industry is not made.

My aesthetic, my set of values, cannot be profit-driven, psychologically manipulating, or only focused on surface-level beauty. The values presented in my work — must be about fair representation, awareness, and equality. There’s this idea of equifinality, that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal (Dainton and Zelley, 251). Whether that be through a future career in advertising, directing, film production, digital design, business…as long as I have this core goal internalized — this specific desire for change — then I’ll be able to enact it wherever I end up. I want to instill feelings of confidence and acceptance and to celebrate differences, because everyone should feel proud of who they are. I want to change the way children grow up believing how society should be, because there is not one set of norms that defines everyone. To do this, I need to join the community of creators who are also focused on diversifying media and changing social norms. The more people there are that genuinely want to create this difference, the more likely this movement will grow and become an integral part of society. Thus, I don’t need an absurdly large audience to make an impact. There is so much value in being able to make an impact in as little as one person’s mindset. Slowly, as more and more people consistently find these issues in the media problematic enough to want to make a change, the industry will change with us over time.

Works Cited

Dainton, M., & Zelley, E. D. Applying Communication Theory for Professional Life (4th Edition), Sage, 2019.

Harris, Tristan. The Social Dilemma. Netflix , 26 Jan. 2020, www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20social%20dilemma&jbv=81254224.

Murti, Shefali. “‘____ Ever After.’” Medium, 2020, medium.com/wp2-ever-after.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. “Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat.” Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 34, (2002) pp. 379–440. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

“Stories Matter” — The Walt Disney Company, 2020, storiesmatter.thewaltdisneycompany.com/.

Wagmeister, Elizabeth. “Viola Davis on Women and Diversity: ‘They Exist in Life, We Should See It on TV’ (VIDEO).” Variety, 18 Sept. 2015, variety.com/2015/tv/news/viola-davis-emmy-how-to-get-away-with-murder-women-diversity-1201597083/.

Weir, Peter. The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures, 1998. Copy.

Wood, Julia T. “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender.” Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Wadsworth Publishing, 1994.

--

--