When popular culture amplifies the real world

Author: Samaritans CEO, Brad Webb

In short: (this summary should help our time-poor readers) 

  • Popular culture has an important role to play in showcasing diverse stories and representing all people. 
  • When the stories that are told on our TV shows, at the cinema, in books and on our streaming services are from communities who don’t often get the spotlight, we all benefit from the diversity.  
  • Representation matters! Feeling represented in TV shows or movies or books is important, no matter what your age. 

Full blog

When you were younger, was there someone you admired on TV who made you think, “that is who I want to be when I grow up”?  

Perhaps it was someone real, like a sportsperson. Or someone fictional, like a character in a show. 

There’s a quote, widely attributed to American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, that says “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This speaks to the importance for each of us to see ourselves reflected in the world around us, in places like books, TV shows and movies. Thinking of it in another way, representation in pop culture matters, because for many, if you can see it, you can be it. 

Representation is often discussed in relation to gender, such as the need for more lead characters in children’s books and entertainment to be female (because for many decades the leads have been mostly male). 

In recent years the issue of representation has moved beyond gender, to cultural identity, disability, age, sexuality, ethnicity and religion. This is not some politically correct, progressive agenda as some would say, it is simply reflecting the real world back to us.  

A recent series of short films on ABC ME called DisRupted were made by Australian creatives and content makers with disability. A lead in one of the films, Emily Prior, tweeted this about her role: 

“Do you know why Rocky & Me is important on Aust
Children’s TV? The lead character is disabled, she’s not
the “token” disabled best friend. She IS the lead
character! We need more of her! @ABCTV @cjztv
@RudermanFdn”

This is the power of representation. Our TV screens, movie theatres, streaming services and books are all places where we hear stories every day; both real and fictional. Ensuring that the people at the centre of those stories represent the diversity of our society is incredibly important. 

Have you met Kiya from Play School? Kiya is from Noongar country, which is in the southern corner of Western Australia. New toys are rarely introduced in Play School and to show her importance Kiya was made a regular member of the cast starting last year. 

For young Aboriginal people, Kiya is one of the first mainstream characters in the Play School work who reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Kiya will reflect what it is to be a proud Aboriginal girl with a strong connection to culture and country. 

Kiya from Play School, left and Karli from Sesame Street, right.

Another fixture in many childhoods is Sesame Street, which has a long tradition of diversity that stems back to its inception, introducing diverse characters to the mainstream.  

Meet Muppet Karli from Sesame Street. Karli is in foster care because her mother is battling addiction. There’s also Muppet Alex, whose father is in jail.  

By including characters with these backgrounds, Sesame Street is building hope for children facing stressful situations at home. Children can see characters on TV facing similar experiences to them, and the show also serves to raise awareness and break down stigma. 

The importance of representation extends beyond children’s entertainment. 

Last year I watched the Netflix series Special. The show follows the life of lead character Ryan, a young gay man with cerebral palsy. The show was written, produced and stars Ryan O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy and in addition to his writing and film work is a comedian, LGBTQI+ activist and disability advocate.

These are just a few examples of where stories and characters who are often left on the margins or erased completely, are brought into mainstream entertainment channels. 

In our communities, diversity is strength. It is so incredibly important that diversity is reflected back to us as we watch, read, listen and witness the world around us.