Medium Rare, by John Ostrander
You can learn the damnedest things in the most unexpected places
I was paging through last week’s Entertainment Weekly, the one where they anoint their entertainers of the year, and came across four women – Glenn Close, Mary Louise Parker, Kyra Sedgewick, and Holly Hunter – all grouped together by the fact that they are over 40, that they are starring in their own TV shows on cable channels, and all had a uniting reason for doing so: the work simply wasn’t out there in movies for them.
Okay, that’s not news. And that’s what wrong. Pop culture is a reflection of our society and the way that it chooses to show certain demographics of people – including sometimes their omission – says a great deal about our society and what and who we value. While the article made me think of older women, the same point can be made for other minorities. We’re talking not only of movies and television but comic books and other entertainments as well. It is not only the portrayal of these groups – to which there is some increased sensitivity – but their omission that reveals how our society sees itself.
A few years ago, I attended a seminar geared specifically to how pop culture dealt with African-Americans – and this included advertising as well as entertainment. We were shown historical examples from black faced minstrel shows to labels on fruit cases. The older examples, especially, were hideously racist. The point that was made was that, especially in the segregated communities of those times, these images were often the only contact some white Americans had with people of color. Furthermore, society seemed bent on making certain those were the only images that were available. As a result, that was the way many whites thought about African-Americans.
Furthermore, the African-Americans had no one outside of their own communities to provide a positive image. That has an effect. None of us were born with guidebooks on how to negotiate life – although society is often all too happy to offer their own, complete with rules. We look elsewhere for role models that give us an idea how to act and then we copy them.
I was watching a rerun of the old Rifleman series recently and came across an episode that starred Sammy Davis Jr. as an embittered gunslinger. Back in the Sixties, when it first aired, I would have found the story “implausible.” Everyone knew there weren’t any black gunslingers or black cowboys. I knew this because – there weren’t any on TV or in the movies or in comic books. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was researching The Kents, that I learned how wrong I – and pop culture – had been. Truth to tell, there were plenty of black cowboys – they were just never depicted in the medium.
When you omit any one group – women or people of a certain age or people of color or different races or different sexual orientation, we say that they don’t matter. They have no stories in which we might be interested and to which we need to listen.
The question is important; indeed, I think it goes to the heart of our problems in the world. Are we who we say we are? Do our enemies hate us because of our freedom, as our president would have us believe? Or is it because of our hypocrisy? We mouth the word “freedom” and it makes a swell bumper sticker but whose freedom, whose rights do we usually mean? Who matters in our society? Everyone – or a certain select group? The evidence, as suggested by our pop culture, is the latter.
So I guess all this means we need to hurry up and change pop culture, right? Nope. If your image in the mirror looks wider than you like, don’t grumble that the mirror is adding a few pounds. The problem is isn’t in the image of you – it’s in you. Pop culture in nothing more than another mirror. “Fixing” it achieves nothing more than cosmetic changes; the real work has to be done in ourselves.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and much of Munden’s Bar, new installments of which will reappear anon here on ComicMix. Both for free. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.