Why Media Matters

In the current political and social climate, writing about feminism in fiction can sometimes seem like a pointless pursuit. When abortion and health care rights are under attack, women still earn less than men, and rape conviction rates hover around 5%, why talk about women in video games and the problematic elements of Doctor Who? Why not talk about things that are real? However, I am a firm believer that our media and our stories not only reflect society's general perspective on women and minorities and equal rights, but also influence that perspective and even the reality of society in the future. Stories are one of the ways in which we can tackle inequality, by exposing the majority to people they otherwise might not meet or connect with, and exposing the minority to stories that support and inspire them.

GLAAD recently released a study showing that the presence of LGBT characters in television shows has a positive effect on the public's views on LGBT individuals in general. Meanwhile, ThinkProgress recently discussed a study that showed that watching television boosted the self esteem of white boys, but lowered the self-esteem of girls and ethnic minorities. White boys see people like themselves at the center of stories, as adventurers capable of achieving anything they dream of, while girls and racial minorities are sidelined, turned into background characters or sidekicks at best. So, of course, white boys who watch these shows learn that they are capable and important and should dream big, and girls and minorities learn that they are less important and less capable. Potentially, white boys also absorb the message that others are less important and less capable, and these internalized messages are reflected in all of these individuals' attitudes when they grow up.

And, as the GLAAD study shows, we don't stop being affected by stories just because we've "grown up." Women can continue to be inspired by fictional characters, and either bolstered, or held back, by the messages they present, and men can either learn to dismiss women's concerns (due, in part, to media stereotypes), or they can learn greater respect by  watching and reading about well-developed, engaging and complex female characters and their lives.

These days, we are constantly surrounded by stories, and even more constantly surrounded by the media. We spend hours a day playing video games, and even more hours watching television. Movies are a hugely profitable business, and reading is once again on the increase. In many ways, these fictions shape our world. And if we want to improve that world, we have to look at and improve upon the messages that these stories are telling us.