Unless you grew up Amish or before the ‘80s, you grew up with a screen. Today, we are surrounded by images — from the television shows we watch once a week to the movies that engulf us in alternate worlds for a few hours to the Instagram feeds we scroll through while on the toilet (you can deny it, but we all do it).
With their universal reach, of course, these images influence how we view reality. How many people wanted to be a lawyer so they could be the next Harvey Specter? How many people wanted to go into advertising because Don Draper made it seem like the single coolest thing a man could do? How many people move to New York because it’s been romanticized in “Gossip Girl” and “Sex and the City” and essentially everything we see?
I, for one, seriously considered becoming a doctor after watching the dramatic lives of Meredith Grey and the gang in high school. One steamy network show was enough to make 10 years of extra schooling seem glamorous to me (this promptly ended when I remembered how much I hate needles, but nevertheless). Even now when I go to the doctor for my annual checkup, I keep my eye out for mid-2000s Patrick Dempsey look-alikes.
Film and television are understatedly powerful tools with the ability to normalize certain appearances and behaviors — especially since we start consuming media at such a young age. But that doesn’t mean that such normalizations are always representative of the real world. Until around first grade, I didn’t even know I was Asian; the only kids I saw on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon were white, and I just assumed I was too. Once I realized I wasn’t, I kept thinking that my childhood was weird because the culture I grew up with was so different from the ones being depicted, and idealized, on screen.
In addition to this power of emphasizing the hegemony, film and television provide some of the only portrayals we see of communities we don’t encounter in person. Think of how easily a popular movie can subvert a stereotype or reaffirm a bias just by how it portrays a culture. This goes even for mundane portrayals — to this day, “Shameless” is the only representation I have seen of the South Side of Chicago, and it has definitely given me assumptions about that area.
This influence extends beyond the fictional worlds Hollywood builds on screen: The film and television industry on its own is a monolith of power. Because the business is rooted in appealing to mass culture, it essentially dictates it and can thus standardize acceptable professional behavior. This is an industry with the influence to make Georgia reconsider its abortion bill and to get Mitch McConnell to concede to Jon Stewart. This is the same industry that brought the #MeToo movement to the cultural forefront by blacklisting Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey — but that also prioritized professional accomplishment over personal ethics by giving director Roman Polanski an Oscar after he fled the country for raping a 13-year-old.
Maybe I am just an overly susceptible person, but I can list how so many shows and movies have told me how the world should be rather than how it actually is. And I want to help change that. This is why I’m risking a stable career, and probably a solid 401(k), to go into the entertainment industry and hopefully write for television. It’s the reason I dedicated my entire college career to film and media studies — majors that are only ever mentioned by UC Berkeley students as the butt of memes.
I truly believe that, with this power, film and television have an immense potential to positively change the world. And I’m crazy enough to try.
Julie Lim writes the Thursday column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected].