Society Magazine

Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Posted on the 06 February 2013 by Brute Reason @sondosia

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.


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