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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Media Representations Alone Don't Change the World, Our Actions Matter Too

Pretty much every time I watch TV or mainstream movies, I notice some scripted jab at people who don't drive. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, the filmmakers indicate the main character's incompetence at being an adult, along with his virginity and penchant for collecting toys, through the fact that he rides a bike to get around. Last week I watched an episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" where one character tells another that any adult who does not drive must be "retarded." Jokes built on the subtle or blatant assertion that only driving counts, that people who bike, ride transit, and walk are weirdos, seem to be stock material for writers.

These jokes hinge on the idea that people who can pay to drive everywhere should know better than to choose to associate with the dregs of society outside of cars. To me, this comes across as pretty racist and classist. The continuing contempt for the poor is a huge problem for sustainable transportation because so many Americans think of the stuff we promote as symbolic of poverty and disempowerment. Whether it's intentional or not, imagining that people can be tainted by the mode of transport they use is pretty dehumanizing. I've felt the shame of standing at a bus stop, waiting and waiting, while cars flow past. You're not supposed to have to wait; you're an American, the cultural conditioning says in the back of my mind. Well eff that.

For-profit entertainment media hasn't caught up with the reality I inhabit, where lots of people get around outside of cars. Grown ups of different socioeconomic strata are commuting to work, toting kids, hauling goods, all on bikes, despite these continued assertions that only people who do not matter get around this way. I don't have any interest in perpetuating the idea that I should stay in a car so that I can stay away from the undesirables who can't afford to drive.

This is what came to mind when I started reading about the controversy over the TV show "Girls." The cast does not reflect New York's diversity, and people have a lot to say about that. I get that media representations are influential, and impact larger shared ideas, but why are we giving it so much power? I hope that lots of the people who are critical of "Girls"'s depiction of a homogenous community have awesome friend groups that cross lines of race and class. Unfortunately, many many Americans are not living like this. Shouldn't we be pissed about that?

Recently I was watching Ghostbusters, another media representation of New York, but one where there is a black character, Winston. However, he shows up late in the film, after the other characters have already been developed. He's not friends with the three main characters, he's a co-worker. He acts strangely in the mayor's office, providing some stereotypical race humor. Token characters are an option Hollywood has visited before. Did it make things better in society? The central problem is how segregated we've allowed ourselves to remain, not whether we're pretending onscreen to be more comfortable with diversity than we actually are. It'll be really cool when, one day, someone from each sitcom is carfree (seriously, "Parks and Recreation" is in a small town and nobody ever bikes?). But a lot of us are living this way now and you're not seeing it on TV.

5 comments:

  1. Regarding considering that any adult who does not drive is "retarded": This sounds like my first wife. As a teenager in the 1950's (only child of a widowed mother) she rode the local bus in Monrovia and Pasadena CA only until she was able to scrape up enough money for a third-hand Kaiser. When this car failed, she bought a 1948 Buick from a schoolteacher colleague of my mother. As far as I know, she never set foot in a bus after that. Although she wasn't the world's greatest driver, she held non-drivers in contempt. At one point in the 1960's, we were driving through Monrovia and she pointed out a rather ordinary-looking man sitting on a bus bench. She told me he was the weirdo who used to harass her and other teenage girls on the bus--one of the reasons why she never used public transit anymore.

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    1. I think a lot of people have very valid reasons for avoiding riding the bus, the fascinating stories are endless! What I haven't figured out (has anybody?) is why some people decide to become activists so they can change bad situations while others stop worrying about it once they get out of the situations themselves.

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  2. Cyclists do get relegated to weirdo status in the media, but we have to accept that we are weirdos to the rest of society. We represent a tiny percentage of people who don't drive. That's a fact. The way to get people to start taking biking more seriously is that it has to be seen as cool.

    The chips are stacked against cyclists/bus riders from the jump, but what I've noticed is that it's only weird initially, but once people see that you're comfortable with it, they can't say much. A lot of the jokes and perceptions come from the fact that people are scared of being unique and many people's entire world is centered around their car. I don't down a car anymore, and in the year I've had my bike I've gotten more compliments on it than when I drove a BMW in my early 20's. I carry myself with confidence, and that carries over into people's perceptions of me not having a car. I'm not some square, creepy guy, but rather a guy that's in shape, fashionable, personable,and comfortable being myself. Compare that to a stereotypical image of the khaki wearing, middle aged guy with his awkward helmet that women haven't given a double take to in a decade or two. I'm not tooting my horn or suggesting everyone has to be some sort of hipster/cool cyclist, but we have to realize how people really view things and not how we wished they would.

    It's going to take time, but cycling will become more accepted. It may never be seen as "normal" in our lifetime, but hopefully we can stop folks from snickering at us, get more folks to join us, and reshape how society views cycling as a whole.

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  3. I definitely get weirdo status where I cycle in South Africa. Here cyclists fall into two categories SPORT cyclists (or recreational sport cyclists) and very poor commuting cyclists - who can't generally afford public transport. There is a huge amount off elitism in the sport cycling group, and the majority of the bikes are worth more the average salary. Cars are seen as the ultimate status symbol and people would rather use public transport than cycle. It is also deemed ridiculous to take public transport - or make someone else take it - if there is a car option. As a white, middle class, woman I fall so far outside the boundaries of even normal cycling behavior - as i do not race and i ride a fixed up commuting bike - let alone socially acceptable behavior. But people are getting used to it, three of my colleagues have expressed a desire to get a bike and start riding for fun or function, and the comments about when i am getting a drivers licence/car are shrinking to once a week, so there is hope yet!

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    1. I'm excited to learn more about your work, Thalia, I'm glad you joined Bicicultures!

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