Storytelling has been a part of many human cultures for centuries! Stories play a huge role in how we understand ourselves and the world around us. They affect how we connect to other people’s perspectives, and they often shape our values.
Media, especially social media, can be an excellent tool for sharing stories that challenge social norms and highlight issues with power. People all over the world can connect and have their voices heard, and young people are leading the way with this method of storytelling.
Why should we be critical when looking at media?
Unlike traditional oral storytelling, behind all social and general media platforms, there is a lot of money being made. Algorithms influence whose stories we hear, and whose stories we don’t. Media creators aim to get an emotional reaction from viewers because this means more time spent looking at their content. More engagement means more $$ for the creator – even angry comments and hate-watching pay, as long as people are reacting.
Sexual and violent content, and controversial opinions are easy ways to provoke emotions. Complex messages don’t trigger our emotions as quickly, so many creators use very simple concepts that play into stereotypes. These stereotypes don’t reflect the realities of topics like gender, sexuality, race, and power, but they easily become a part of our social understanding when we see them again and again.
How can we take back our power and avoid being influenced?
Young people experience a lot of pressure to fit into harmful stereotypes. A great way to think critically when engaging with media is by asking questions and getting curious about the stereotypes we see.
What message is this sending, and what does it assume is true about the world?
Think about gender roles – are people being put into specific boxes based on their gender? How often are men shown as sensitive and compassionate? How often are women valued for their skills and intelligence without being conventionally attractive? Are non-binary people being shown only as androgynous? How often are variations of experience for people outside the gender binary being shown?
Are people regularly asking for consent in tv shows? How about in porn? Are safer sex products being talked about and used? Does the lack of regular consent inclusion lead us to assume that it isn’t “normal” or common?
Who benefits from this message?
Not all media exists to sell us something, but a ton of it does, even if a platform is just tracking what types of media you engage with to get better (read: more profitable) data from you. Even when you’re sure that no one is profiting financially from content, it might be useful to consider how else someone might be benefiting from this message. If content adds support to systems of power like White supremacy or ableism, someone is benefiting and it’s important to think of the consequences of that.
Is this the most authentic way to tell this story, or the quickest?
Stereotypes make storytelling faster because they rely on characters and discriminatory ideas that are already being fed to us: queer stories end in tragedy, young black women are angry or “sassy”, villains have a physical disabilities or disfigurations, or fat people are lazy. As viewers, we can tell when a story has been written by someone with no actual life experience of the narrative they are telling, as they often lean heavily on stereotypes. These shortcuts make it harder for real diverse voices to be heard, limit the different stories that are told, and continue to centre dominant cis, White, straight stories as the only ones with any variety or power.