How can pop culture teach social justice to the next generation?

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Overview: 

Many Americans today are familiar with widespread blockbusters such as The Avengers, Superman, the Harry Potter movies, and other widely recognized Hollywood films. Being a few examples of mainstream icons, the concept of popular culture can be defined as modern culture transmitted via mass media and often aimed particularly at young people (Zehr, 2014). Given its prevalence, pop culture is a channel of social justice education that has great potential to educate our current generation. Especially because children, adolescents and emerging adults are heavily exposed to these varieties of popular entertainment, pop culture can inadvertently shape and inform an individual’s core and peripheral beliefs about their society (Linker, 2014). Because it is so prominent in an increasingly millennial world, these forms of media can also be used in the classroom as a teaching tool to help young people better relate to concepts about social justice, diversity, and inclusion. The following article is an adaptation of a final paper I wrote for a social work course this past semester. 

Within the umbrella term of diversity, many dimensions, such as race, gender, and ability, serve as forms of privilege and oppression within our communities (Linker, 2014). Because these issues of social injustice are such prevalent topics of discussion within our society, opportunities to deconstruct discrimination and change prevailing stereotypes can be presented anywhere, including through the various movies and books that Americans enjoy for leisure. Such lessons of social justice are increasingly prominent in many mediums of pop culture, including illustrations of mental illness in The Avengers movies, metaphors about racism in the Harry Potter book series, and support for gender equality in entertainment magazines about upcoming blockbusters such as Captain Marvel. These portrayals of social injustice in pop culture can thus be mindfully recognized, along with implications for further representation and improvement, so as to best educate our future generations overall on these important topics on diversity and equity.

Historical Shift in Representation

Primarily, it is relevant to examine how society has shifted throughout the past decades regarding blockbuster pop culture. In the early 1960’s, Superman was the most widely recognized comic superhero, being a white male with no disabilities or overt experiences of oppression. Though he was a source of positivity for many fans and consumers, the Pop2image of Superman perpetuated the overarching privileges of being white, and being male, in America’s society (Gustines, 2018). Demonstrating this, an article from The New York Times wrote that “[Superman] constructed his own archetype, powered by a uniquely American fuel mixture: our white power and privilege, our violence and spectacle, our noblest ideals” (Weldon, 2013). It is thus evident that, though well intended, the attitude portrayed in historical pop culture echoed prevailing ideas of white privilege in America, and inadequately represented minority groups such as non-white ethnicities or non-male genders.

In comparison, looking at society in present day, there are now a multitude of diverse dimensions represented on the big screen. For example, Marvel’s Black Panther from 2018 showcases an entirely black cast, with strong, independent female protagonists such as Okoye and Nakia as the main characters fighting alongside King T’Challa of Wakanda (Feige, Grant & Coogler, 2018). DC Comics’ Wonder Woman in 2017 was one of the first record-breaking blockbuster movies to feature a female superhero, who does not adhere to traditional feminine roles such as relying on a male protagonist to save her in distress (Snyder, Snyder, Roven, Suckle & Jenkins, 2017). Disney Pixar’s recent film, Coco, features a Hispanic boy and his family during Mexico’s annual cultural celebration of Día de los Muertos (Pixar, Walt Disney Pictures, & Unkrich, 2017). Just given these examples, there has evidently been a significant shift in the media’s attitude towards diversity and representation within pop culture. With these promising changes, there has been notable progress regarding supporting social justice and diversity in our nation’s media reflecting America’s shifting ideals (Collins, 2018). To further examine representations of social justice in these popular mediums of entertainment, dimensions of mental health and ethnicity can be observed in Marvel’s The Avengers movies and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series.

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Mental Health in Marvel Superheroes

Mental health is an imperative dimension of social equality that touches on issues of ability and disability. For example, mental illness is often considered a “hidden disability”, and many individuals do not recognize it as an issue of social injustice or oppression (Surjus & Campos, 2014). To analyze the diversity aspect of mental health, three representative members from the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk (Whedon, Russo & Russo, 2008-2018). These superheroes are well-known heroic figures in our society, but looking closer at the films, there are messages about emotional well-being and hidden disabilities that can help teach students and adolescents about anxiety, depression, trauma, and emotional regulation. As such, these three well-received protagonists from The Avengers can teach viewers about mental health issues.

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Primarily, widely recognized for being one of the most prominent superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man, is the 40-year-old CEO of Stark Industries, and is the creator of high-power, superhuman suits that provide him with engineered superpowers that equip him to save society. Although Stark is the leading member of the Avengers team, this fictional character suffers from various mental health difficulties, chief struggles being post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety. As such, specifically evident in the film Iron Man 3, Stark’s presenting problem comprises of recurring panic attacks, insomnia, hypervigilance, and flashbacks, all which have persisted for two years (Feige & Black, 2013).

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As a second example of mental health representation in the Avengers, scientist Bruce Banner suffers a severe dissociative incident due to the high stress and overwhelming pressure of his scientific research, and develops an alternative identity, Hulk, who becomes one of the most powerful creatures in the universe (Albert, 2017). Banner therefore is one of the first Marvel characters to have a severe mental illness. He has a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which entails the existence of two or more distinct personalities within one individual (5th ed.; DSM–V; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Severe stress and anxiety triggers Banner to transform into the Hulk, which despite being an unrealistically dramatized metamorphosis, can represent succumbing to high societal expectations that is relatable to real world individuals who suffer from dissociative or personality disorders today.

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Finally, one other example of mental health in The Avengers would be Captain America, who is a super-soldier serving in World War II and later wakes up 70 years past his time after crash-landing on a war mission (Johnston & Feige, 2011). Otherwise known as Steve Rogers, Captain America’s mental health struggles to rediscover his place in society can arguably relate in numerous ways to military veterans across the country today, and their potential experiences returning from service. Though physically improbable to survive for 70 years frozen in ice, Rogers’s experience rediscovering his life in a changed society can nonetheless be viewed as a metaphor of the dramatic challenges a military veteran faces when returning from deployment. Not only does Rogers struggle to reacquaint himself with society’s new cultural norms and events over the past 70 years, having made a list of “things to catch up on” including items such as Thai food and Star Wars (Russo, Russo & Feige, 2014), but he also feels disconnected to people around him due to lack of shared experiences, having been born in 1918. Captain America thus serves as an example of modern veteran depression, being a well-known figure that suffers emotionally after serving in a war.

As shown through the examples of mental health in Marvel’s blockbuster superhero films, pop culture is evidently one platform for learning and education that can help teach viewers about the negative effects of mental illness and how it can happen to even the most powerful superhumans. Given how mental health concerns are hidden disabilities that serve as a dimension of diversity, this often overshadowed form of oppression is an important social justice issue that should be acknowledged and supported within society. Society’s prevailing levels of stigma towards mental illness and struggles with mental health can be very harmful, especially with our tendencies to make snap judgments about others based on limited references, which is a social concept known as thin-slicing (Gladwell, 2005). It is thus imperative that society moves to deconstruct the stigma behind this form of diversity.

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Racism and Discrimination in Harry Potter

To analyze the social justice issue about ethnicity, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are an example of mainstream reading that exemplify pop culture for today’s generation. Because Harry Potter is a prominent series that most people recognize, especially youths, adolescents and emerging adults, these books serve as a great learning opportunity for many consumers, and have the great potential to shape young people’s opinions about certain concepts and core beliefs regarding racial inequality.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, the blood status of wizards is consistently discussed in a variety of contexts. Within the Harry Potter world, wizards who are born to two magical parents are referred to as “purebloods”, while some wizards originate from non-wizarding parents, otherwise known as Muggles, and are referred to as “muggle-born”. The majority of characters within this fantasy world identify as “half-bloods”, meaning that they were born to one wizarding parent and one Muggle parent (Rowling, 2001). In this fictional society, Muggle-borns suffer perpetual discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping (Sekar, 2014). For example, one of the main characters, Hermione Granger, is an intelligent student at the Hogwarts school studying with Harry Potter, and she was born to two Muggle parents. Throughout the series, Hermione is consistently teased and put down by other peers, because many wizarding students do not think she is as competent or capable of magic compared to those of pure-blood status. Additionally, because the main problem throughout the series is the threatening of the wizarding society by formidable Lord Voldemort, this antagonist’s main goals are to extinguish all Muggle-born wizards, in attempts to promote his core beliefs that worthiness of life equates to pureblood status (Rowling, 2007).

The blood status of wizards and magical beings within Rowling’s Harry Potter series can arguably be a direct parallel with issues of race and ethnicity in our country today (Walters, 2015). Likewise to how Muggle-born wizards suffer from stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice, individuals identifying as a minority race also experience a considerable amount of oppression within present day society (Pharr, 1988). Though J.K. Rowling’s series does not overtly mention issues of privilege and oppression in relation to reality, the consistent themes of social justice for Muggle-borns and overt targeting and racism against them by purebloods is a congruent example of oppression within a book series consumed by readers of all ages (Sekar, 2014). Rowling’s young adult fiction series can thus educate children and adolescents about such social justice disparities regarding ethnicity and race.

Gender Equality in Upcoming Superhero Movies

Finally, exploring a third diversity concept of gender, upcoming superhero movies can be explored based on their promotional and advertisement materials in our media today. pop7.jpgVarious magazine covers and news article blurbs, specifically ones about Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, have been showcasing feminine power and emphasizing gender equality within the nation (Child, 2018). These two blockbuster superhero movies both feature female heroines, and various magazine covers have sported headlines such as “The Future is Female” and “Women Heroes: It’s About Time” (Russo, 2018). As such, this third form of media—magazines and news articles—connects with how pop culture and movies are currently portraying gender disparities. Because magazines and news articles are so commonplace, being overtly present at the grocery checkout line, popping up on Facebook feeds, or showing up as advertisements before YouTube videos, these new portrayals in pop culture can be an indirect way of teaching consumers about gender inequalities in America.

Historically, stereotyping has been a dominant element of oppression for women since America’s civilization. Common presumptions and expectations about women include that they should be homemakers, their main purpose should be to rear children, they should not work full-time jobs, and that they are not capable of sustaining themselves without a male husband (Hillock, 2012). These are but a few common stereotypes about women that have prevailed over the past centuries. Given these antecedents, it is notable to observe how societal attitudes have shifted progressively over the decades. These upcoming movies, and their consequent promotional materials and advertisement across multiple platforms, symbolize society’s shift towards a more accepting and equity-focused approach regarding gender differences in America. As such, in addition to increased portrayals of mental health and racial diversity in pop culture, progressive attitudes about gender equality can also be found and taught through today’s media and popular entertainment.

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Future Directions

Primarily, though the given examples demonstrate a notable shift in attitude towards social justice in the media, there are numerous limitations to the current state of pop culture that imply directions for growth. For example, though mental health and gender equality are becoming more promoted with positive implications, there are numerous other domains and communities that can be portrayed more. LGBTQIA communities are not as widely shown in large blockbusters or popular books, and neither are lesser-known ethnic communities such as specific Asian groups or Indian communities. This therefore shows that although society is progressing in a positive direction, with increasingly representative and open-minded portrayals of diversity and differences within our pop culture, there nonetheless remains a substantial gap towards adequate social justice portrayal. Additionally, though representation for certain dimensions may be present in pop culture, these depictions may not always be fully accurate, since issues such as mental health can often be glamorized or misrepresented.

Though only a few examples of pop culture were analyzed, these given instances make broader implications about the idea of media as a whole, and how consumers in our society can inadvertently and unconsciously develop ideas and concepts about various social justice issues due to what they see everywhere. As shown through the Marvel superhero examples, fictional public figures within our society’s culture can play large roles in shaping our perceptions about certain social justice issues, such as ability versus disability, and the stigma around mental health. Because such images and videos are so prominent within our society, with characters like Iron Man and Harry Potter being universally recognized among these newer generations, educators and social justice advocates can take these opportunities to teach valuable lessons about equality and diversity in our society. Not only would conceptualizing mental health be more relatable and even fun for Marvel fans when discussing their favorite superhero, but using such iconic figures can also make a great introduction to a more detailed discussion about realistic and prominent issues in the country as a whole.

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Discussion

Oppression is inherently built into America’s culture, and eliminating such disparities will entail an ongoing, gradual process fueled by social justice advocates and passionate social work practitioners. In Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race, the final chapter discusses what actions can be taken regarding moving forward and advancing issues of social justice, advocating for social equality and recognition of diversity within our communities. As one solution of many, Oluo advocates that we “support music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color…[because] so much of our cultural representation is white by default” (Oluo, 2018, p. 233). Aligning with this assertation, the described examples of diversity representations in current pop culture today illustrate considerable movements towards better acknowledgement and promotion of a diverse and representative culture within our society. Further aligning with Oluo’s claims, filmmakers and other advocates for social justice working in the production of pop culture can continue to ensure that diversity issues are represented in what we watch on our screens, hear on our radios, and see on our magazine racks. Some connections to social justice issues, such as mental health conditions among the Avengers, are not always overt, and may have to be analyzed and pointed out by educators and advocates. However, the portrayal of such important issues in popular and well-appreciated blockbusters is a promising start towards deconstructing the stigma attached to various diversity issues.

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Though there has evidently been a significant shift in representation and attitude towards diversity and equity within America’s pop culture, it can arguably be discussed that there is still a long way to go. As previously mentioned, many dimensions of social injustice—sexual orientation, disability, lesser-known ethnic groups, to name a few—are still not prominently represented in our media. Despite how mental health is portrayed in Marvel’s superhero movies, many of these protagonists still happen to be white and male, such as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, inexplicably nodding towards the prevailing images of white privilege. There are therefore numerous opportunities for education using our present forms of media, along with endless potential to improve said representation being promoted for our entertainment.

As Oluo writes in the final chapter of her book: “Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system…we pop10.jpghave to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society” (Oluo, 2018, p. 230). Pop culture and media representation for a variety of social justice issues and minority groups are but one channel for talking and acting upon the numerous incidences of privilege and oppression within our society today. Social workers, educators, researchers, filmmakers, media producers, students, psychologists, general advocates, and more, all can serve a large role in talking and acting for social justice and equity. With increased advocacy efforts and raised awareness of diversity issues, momentum is building towards breaking down barriers that separate minorities from the majority, and movements can be made towards bridging gaps between disparities that exclude certain groups from others.

In conclusion, representation in pop culture has shifted over the years, signifying a promising effort to address society’s social inequalities, though this by no means indicates that we have fully succeeded. There is still much action to be taken, and many more movements to be made, before minorities and oppressed groups may feel fully accepted by and equal to others within society. Utilizing our resources, and educating our next generation through any means possible beyond the classroom, are thus just a few ways to keep building this momentum towards social justice. It can therefore be confidently asserted that, given the prevalence and potency of pop culture in our millennial and susceptible generation today: with great power comes great responsibility.

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