Portrayal of Race in the Popular Media

The theme of my final paper is how the popular media promotes consumerism and classism through its influence on our values, and how they are not in the public’s best interest.

“… this information is learned and can, therefore, be unlearned” – Holtzman & Shapre

With its base on Erica Marcuse’s liberation theory, the paper’s thesis is that it is possible for an individual to combat the external “social-conditioning” of the popular media machine (Holtzman & Shapre, 15-16). It will then present a list of feasible strategies available for an individual that do not require a macro-shift of the media industry. In other words, the goal of the paper is to present a set of solutions as well as identifying the nature of the problem.

Centered around the analysis of three successful films, the critique of the current media platform will incorporate the theories of Holtzman & Sharpe. The examples include social cognitive theory, hegemony, and the level playing field. They will be connected to the concepts of articles covered in class such as the exploitation of our subconscious (Curtis, 2005), media consolidation (McChesney), and “branding” of our lifestyle (Serazio).

Although not the central theme of the paper, the portrayal of race in the popular media will serve a notable supporting detail. The paper will point out that minorities are often antagonized in the idealized message of the media. For example, through a constant visual conditioning, the public could feel a sense of cognitive dissonance when witnessing members of a minority group in influential positions. Similarly, a minority member (youth in particular) could have a subconscious limiting belief that he or she is not “supposed” to attain a certain degree of status or occupation (Holtzman & Sharpe, 12-14).

The paper’s main idea regarding race is that minorities are alienated in the hegemonic ideals of consumerism and classism (Holtzman & Sharpe, 298-303). The portrayal of heroism in Hollywood films are almost never done by minority actors or actresses. The “lifestyle-branding” of a product seldom involves the role of minorities (how many car or cosmetic commercials have you seen that are led by minority actors?). There is an unspoken belief that the minority members are outliers beyond the middle-class population. In other words, the meta-narrative of the mass media is in alignment with the conventional idea that there is a separate place for white and colored individuals.

The purchasing decisions or media-consumption habits derived from insecure masculine and feminine ego are encouraged by the distortion of gender ideals (Newsom, 2011). Yet, such distortions are more or less based on the conventional ideology of patriarchy. One of the paper’s arguments is that in order for an ideology to reach a hegemonic status, it needs to align with some of the conventional beliefs and stereotypes. That is, in order for a curated message to sell its ideas to a wider audience, it needs to incur as few cognitive dissonance as possible. Simultaneously, it should seek to quench the sense of cognitive-dissonance that subtly frustrates its audience. This also applies to race. A narrative’s hegemonic message of masculine heroism in a film (e.g. Taken (2008)) can lose its reachability if some of its key characters are starred by minority figures. At the same time, a plot of a story that reaffirms the racial stereotype can diminish the dissonance experienced by some members of an increasingly-diverse society (e.g. London has Fallen (2016)).

The paper will also argue that the consumerist ideals promoted by the popular media attempt to refute the critiques against the idea of a level playing field (e.g. American dream). For example, in order to downplay the barriers of structural racism, the narratives surrounding “success” are often based on self-responsibility. For example, Gabriele Muccino’s celebrated film The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) portrays a black single father overcoming a myriad of struggles. Yet, there is not a hint of racial intolerance being conveyed by the recruiters and senior officials in the film, all of whom are white. It is almost as if there is a subtle message that says “We’d (white & dominant class) welcome you, we’re are just waiting for you (minorities) to perform!”. The market-oriented messages and ideals inherently target the one’s urge to improve their self-image (Curtis, 2005). When the blame is pinned on the self, the call for change will be directed to the individuals (e.g. work harder!), rather than the hegemonic ideology.

As mentioned above, there are two major segments in my paper. One is the nature of the problem, and the other is a set of feasible strategies. Under the first segment, the analysis of race in the media will be utilized to support my argument regarding the three objectives (among many) of the popular media products: alignment with conventional ideology, “quenching” of cognitive dissonance, and refutation of critiques against hegemonic ideals.


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