While it seems, sometimes, like pop culture and popular media and storytelling in general can be nothing more than escapism into fantastical worlds, albeit with resonant themes and characters, the truth is that we have lately been able to see how it reflects peoples’ roots much better over recent years. While we still have a way to go, popular media is helping to better represent the people that both enjoy and make it as well as its audiences, as well as to help us learn and inspect bits of our history and culture that might not get enough attention. Here are a few ways it’s been doing that.
Contemporizing our myths
When you think of myths and legends, you might think of ancient Greek, Egyptian, or Nordic pantheons and their fantastical stories but here, in the US, we have our own myths. Even if they’re based in more modern history, with people who were alive much more recently, the stories of the Founding Fathers have been exaggerated and essentialized to such a degree that they do form a common mythos. Lin Manuel Miranda has caught the spotlight recently by taking part in that mythos and adapting it to an excellent, contemporary style with Hamilton, a trend that we expect to see more of in the coming years of theater.
Exploring histories from across the world
It’s not just the American experience that matters, of course. There are plenty of creators who are delving deep into the histories of the cultures they are descended from, here and otherwise, and exploring them through mediums that allow them to express them in new and engaging ways. The dance theater performances of Shen Yun and his team, delving deep into ancient Chinese history, are just one example. With traditional Chinese dance, costumes, and a combination of eastern and western instruments in his productions, Shen Yun deftly handles the transition from ancient eastern storytelling to a modern, global art form. Supporting your local arts from more diverse creators can help expand this knowledge, too.
Disney’s ongoing struggle with multiculturalism
To say that Disney’s path to its modern standing with a wider range of multicultural films has been fraught would be an understatement. Even putting aside the fact that most of the team who worked on things like Song of the South are long exited from the industry, Pocahontas is practically the best example of the “noble savage” trope at play in Disney princess form. However, recent stories like Moana, Encanto, and the upcoming Turning Red are showing a much deeper dedication to involving those members of the communities depicting and giving them the ability to roam and explore elements and artifacts of their culture that is helping people feel “seen” in so many ways, which has to be a net good.
Reckoning with race
The question of race is one that’s often handled in a clumsy way by media, often being portrayed as stories and encounters against one, or several, “bad apples” and rarely as a systemic issue to be tackled. As well as plenty of great movies, plays, and stories by people of color worth engaging in, getting to think critically about the portrayal of race in media is important, and YouTube is one of the best places to learn about that, especially from creators like F.D Signifier, creator, writer, and performer of the Black Media Breakdown, and much more. A great resource for anyone who wants to read about how the way that society perceives racial issues bleeds into how we tell stories, even with good intention.
It’s not just about where you come from
Our roots aren’t defined by our DNA or where our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors came from. They are also shaped by the communities that we find ourselves members of, whether by choice or out of kinship with those like us, such as the LGBT community. That one, in particular, has seen an increasing amount of hostility in terms of both lawmaking and media erasure as of late, and it’s the work of sites like Beyond the Rainbow to help highlight and promote the stories of those who are often marginalized communities. This plays an especially important role in helping young people see the validity of their own identity through the stories that they engage with.
If you ever wonder why attempts at inclusion and diversity are so widely lauded, even when it can seem cynical and driven by market forces, it’s because of the examples above. We all benefit from the wider range of stories and cultures brought into the zeitgeist.