A parent's guide to pop culture diversity

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I still remember the moment during the Ninja Storm season of Power Rangers, when I looked at my son's face and sensed, in that wispy way that mothers sense things, what it meant for the geeky offsider, Cam Watanabe (pictured), to turn into the Green Samurai.

Green Samurai Cam WatanabeIt was an unexpected arc. My kid had, as usual, gravitated toward the character who resembled him in some way, even if not the strongest or fastest one. It must have blown his mind.

Maybe it is nothing more than vanity: pop culture as mirror. But then imagine what it is like for those who are used to seeing other faces in that mirror, to suddenly recognise their own.

Some of this potency is captured by the maxim, 'you can't be what you don't see'. Perhaps more accurately, it is much harder to imagine what else we can become when what we are is all we know.

This can be heavy stuff, especially when accounting for the sort of jobs that get stratified by class and gender, and the way members of certain families end up in similar jobs through generations.

The drama series LA Law, which was associated with a boom in law school applications in the late 1980s, had an attorney named Victor Sifuentes, played by Jimmy Smits. It goes without saying that a multidimensional Puerto Rican professional was a novelty on American television at the time. For years afterward, Latinx lawyers and politicians would tell Smits that his character had inspired their career.

From memories of my own childhood, and having once been a high school teacher, I know that pop culture provides both a language and a map for figuring out who we are and what we want to be, at a time when limited life experience leaves us inarticulate about such things.

 

"Girl-power pop culture is good for boys, too, because it configures a mental world where women are fully realised beings, who can think and act on their own."

 

There are reasons why black American music, specifically rap and hip-hop, is popular among Aboriginal, Maori and Sudanese teenagers. It resonates with their inner and outer worlds: frustration and defiance suddenly materialising in lyric and beat.

Sometimes it is about recognition of value. At pre-release screenings in Samoa for the Disney animated feature Moana, tears were shed at a vision of Pacific culture that spoke for itself. Coco was similarly distinct in its approach to Dia de los Muertos and was embraced by Mexicans for it.

Neither of these films escaped critique entirely, but they are noteworthy for centring traditions that are usually taken as peripheral or even downright strange. It was great to take my son to see them, not just as entertainment, but because they made unfamiliar things recognisably human.

He has also benefited from recent pop culture output in which women get to be badass (to borrow his description): films like Wonder Woman, cartoons like Wakfu, comics like Lumberjanes.

The primary audiences for such material are women and girls, and it is only right that complex narratives about them are taking hold. There is still some catching up to do in this area, in which men and boys have long been the standard heroes and geniuses.

But girl-power pop culture is good for boys, too, because it configures a mental world where women are fully realised beings, who can think and act on their own. I felt something fall into place for my son, just as it had with Cam Watanabe, when a fully pregnant Eva in Wakfu took an arrow to an impostor and engaged in combat.

With Lumberjanes, which has girls of every shape, colour and personality, he gets to follow characters who solve mysteries and fight monsters while being distinctly themselves. (These were initially comics that I would buy for myself, which he now beats me to reading when a new trade edition comes out.)

Pop culture validates or marginalises, depending on who is in the frame. Who gets to be seen and heard, and the circumstances in which they are seen and heard — these decisions are inherently political, whether they are made consciously or not.

It can be hard to tell whether pop culture thus reflects societal shifts, or whether such shifts push the boundaries of culture. It is probably more organic and unpredictable than that. All I can tell is that my son seems to thrive on stories where the full spectrum of humanity and relationships, including his own, is made manifest.

 

 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Power Rangers, Moana, Coco, Disney, representation

 

 

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Existing comments

“You can't be what you don't see”…Caption once seen in every comic and magazine, wondrous tale Charles Atlas is my name. Comic strip; a seven stone weakling a girl he was seeking. A picture show we all do know, sunshine any summer time, beach with distant sea, beach cuties, bikini clad, beach ball playful call. Muscle bound pouncing proud Starfish catching wish. Beach towel skinny Sam hoping he’s the man. Big mussel, here comes trouble, bulging biceps, stamping steps, Biffo man, kicking sand he makes his stand. Laugh and sneer for all to hear, curling lip, smiling cutie is his booty. Dusty Sam doe’s scram, disgrace towel close to face. A seven stone weakling help he is seeking. A wondrous tale Charles Atlas is my name, full smile, good hair line. Kind face read this space the world’s strongest man is who I am. ‘A weakling’ I knew that feeling, but no more, bullies now I show the door. Dear friend, my intention, to teach you Dynamic Tension. My secret art, write to me and we will make a start, no dumbbell this I will tell. Nothing is for free, but in three months, you will be like me, and for the rest of your life, friends we shall be. Beech in three months’ time, New Caption; shows the action. Skinny Sam is the man, muscle bound, not so proud. Sleek Sam rippling muscle, athletic form, beech ball, cuties call. Sulking muscle bound, slinks away he has had his day. ‘Friend don’t delay write today’ five foot two, ‘I could do with an inch or two’ I wrote, but I was broke. But down the line, a gift, his course was mine. Even today a little flab can be sent on its way, his promise held true; his friendship I knew.
Kevin Walters | 26 April 2018


Yes I agree that seeing or hearing ourselves reflected back helps form connection. It reminds me of a story circulating at the Hume Library when they first introduced bilingual storytelling. Recognising his home language a pre-schooler ran to his mother calling, “Mummy, Mummy! They’re using my words!”
Julie Perrin | 27 April 2018


Thank you for this article. I think it is interesting to see the emergence of the strong and formidable women coming through in pop culture. There are many examples of movies and television series' that fit this idea. It is also interesting to see what other concepts are being challenged, such as 'true love'. I've been loving the recent Disney movies, 'Maleficent', 'Brave' and 'Frozen', where traditional ideas of what warrants a 'happy ever after' and what love actually is or can be are given a new perspective. Again, women get a wonderful boost. Whereas we don't actually need a prince in our lives to be truly loved by someone. That's not to say that it may happen but I love the message that in terms of true love, it exists between all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons and we shouldn't be defined by our relationships - they should be a part of who we are.
Lyndel | 27 April 2018


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