I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and cultural representation recently. I grew up in Southern California as a straight, white, middle-class, male. Being Southern California there was actually a diverse mix of people with whom I interacted, but I didn’t realize what society taught as a whole that marginalized them.
Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t empathetic. I’ve always considered myself a strong supporter of minorities and the marginalized. I’m only now beginning to realize how little I did to actually contribute to reversing repression and cultural representation when I was young.
In school I learned about the white, male, American history. Even world history had an American bent — Americans were just an offshoot of the British Empire — so was pretty much about how mostly white men influenced the world. You know, people like Aristotle, Plato, Julius Caesar, Marco Polo, and Christopher Columbus. But not any of the bad parts of them, just their great deeds. There was almost no mention of raping, pillaging, slaughtering, or wholesale exploitation. Besides, whatever they might have done was against “uncivilized heathens” of non-white people so it didn’t really count as bad stuff against “people” anyway, was the logic.
The “world,” as I learned about it, was (Western) Europe from circa 500 BCE to 450 CE, and 1400 CE to present. Never mind that pesky time known as the “Dark Ages” in the West where Muslims kept Greek and Roman thought alive and thrived culturally in their own right throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Forget about anything anyone China, India, or Central or South America might have done during their long histories. Who cares about Confucius, the Buddha, Mayans, or Incans when you get to tell kids about Jesus?
Literature? That was the world of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Whitman, Dickens, and Hemingway. There might have been mention of Emily Dickinson, but god forbid we ever learned about writers with breasts and vaginas (or people who wrote about breasts and vaginas except as objects of lust). Joan Didion, Betty Friedan, Isabelle Allende? Dirty feminists. We can’t expose school children to those thoughts!
Women? People of Color? America repressed and enslaved them, and for that we’re sorry, but it’s all better now! We had a black President, so obviously America isn’t racist. But we shall never mention other blacks or women. I mean, why would anyone ever want to know about Nobel laureates like Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Gabriela Mistral, or Rosalyn Yalow? What do Americans care about Desmond Tutu, Haile Selassie, or Shaka Zulu? Women can’t do science. Black people can’t rule countries, pshaw!
Sadly, this is the school mentality I grew up in. Sadly, it’s the regular mentality a lot of people still believe in. And when I was growing up I didn’t get exposed to a lot of other ideas. Not because my parents were horrible people or didn’t want me to be exposed to such things. But because such things weren’t readily available in the pre-internet dystopia of my childhood.
Who were the heroes of the movies and TV shows I watched growing up? White males, inevitably. Women were objects to be rescued, not people with hopes, dreams, and personalities. Sure, Princess Leia shot a hole into the garbage compactor, but first she had to have Luke Skywalker rescue her. Yeah, she killed Jabba, but she was literally on a chain in a metal bikini while doing it. Buttercup, the Princess Bride, was first picked by Humperdink then rescued by the Man In Black. The movies may be modern classics, sure, but complete vehicles for female empowerment they were not. And no way do they pass the Bechdel Test.
Thankfully things are getting better (I hope); and I’m getting better in my understanding of what was wrong in the past. I couldn’t give an exact date of when it happened, but more women and people of color are getting representation in popular culture. There are more show and movies now with diverse casts (not to mention writers, producers, and directors) — hello Wonder Woman, hello Black Panther, hello Jessica Jones and Luke Cage! The sci-fi I grew up watching was decent with its female role models, and at least Trek portrayed people of color, but it’s only gotten better in the last decade.
But it’s not just pop culture that’s awakened. I have, too. I’ve participated in #BlackLivesMatter and #Women’sMarch movements. I’ve been reading people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Malcolm X, Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Nell Scovell (side note, I’m amazed she’s followed me back on Twitter, #omg #swoon), among others. I’ve read Code Girls and Hidden Figures — and watched the movie of the same name. I’ve learned about people, places, and movements that really ought to be taught in school.
Which is part of the reason I love Timeless, a show on the American network NBC. It has been doing a particularly excellent job of representation this year, inviting the viewers to learn more about Wendell Scott, Hedy Lamarr, Robert Johnson, and Alice Paul. It’s one of my favorite shows (#RenewTimeless, #Clockblockers). Week in and week out, in addition to entertaining us, it’s educating us about lesser-taught historical figures. The Smithsonian even writes a weekly recap, discussing how much of each episode was actually true. Spoiler alert, it’s the majority of the historical information, with perhaps a little creative license on occasion to keep the story going. That’s what they get for having an historian as a staff writer (though I’m happy to fill in if needed). All of this exploration has helped awaken me to this white male privilege I’ve taken for granted my entire life.
I’ve gained new viewpoints from watching and reading these things. I’ve tried to incorporate it into my own screenwriting. I’ve actively made my characters women, LGBTQ, and people of color, and contacted people in those communities to see if I’m doing them justice in my representations. I admit, I was sheltered. But I want to come out of that shell to learn more about the world around me. Because we all deserve a voice and representation, not just us white men.