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.