Friday, July 29, 2016

Pop and Pain

By its nature, pop music is upbeat. This is entertaining and makes for easy listening, especially during summer road trips. If one looks below the surface of amusement, however, there are often important social messages hidden below.

A recent and poignant example of this is the song “In the Night” by The Weeknd. In the song, the narrator tells the story of a woman he knows – his girlfriend or at least lover – who is apparently a stripper with a wild side, two traits that could be condemned by society despite their formal legality. Beneath this, however, is a far more complex and sympathetic personality, as the narrator reveals.

The woman, who is never named, was the victim of sexual abuse when she was young. The lyrics explain that the abuser – who is not given any explained relationship to the victim – was “cold” and “unforgiving” during the abuse, trivializing his acts by singing while committing them. Rather than moving on chronologically from the abuse to the present, the song intersperses the abuse with the woman’s current actions and mental state, in effect creating flashbacks during the song.

After setting out the abuse, the song details the woman’s current life and seeming inability to remove herself from it due to the hold that the acts of abuse have on her. For example, the song states “in the night she hears him calling” and “when you wake up she’s always gone,” suggesting that she suffers from nightmares of her past and an inability to form a romantic relationship in which she is comfortable staying the night with her lover.

The song also explains that the woman is a stripper but that she is trapped in this occupation, noting that “In the night she’s dancing to relieve the pain/ She’ll never walk away (I don’t think you’d understand)/In the night when she comes crawling/ Dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face/ She’ll never walk away (I don’t think you’d understand).” In these ways, she is portrayed as engaging in acts that are overtly sexual and flaunt her sexuality however she does them with a sense of shame rather than empowerment. The shame and the flashbacks during dancing to music – as she did when she was abused – cause her emotion to become visible in the form of tears but these are apparently hidden sufficiently that she still receives tips from her customers.

The commentary about the listener not understanding further highlights the ways in which sex abuse victims often experience feelings of shame and guilt about their abuse. It also highlights the difficulties that those who care for sex abuse victims experience in trying to explain the actions of their loved ones and protect them, even from themselves. This is not an indictment of the sex industry or those who have suffered from sexual abuse – instead it is an attempt to demonstrate the complexity of sexual abuse and the stigmas that surround it.

“In the Night” is a searing explanation of the ways in which sexual abuse victims experience abuse when committed and for the remainder of their lives. It explains the residual feelings of shame and guilt that can exist for years and the ways in which the victims can abuse themselves as a result. It also explains the ways in which those who care for the victims of sexual abuse can be impacted by the effects of the abuse and the difficulties they face in explaining the issue to society.

At the larger level, “In the Night” is also a statement about the ways in which society at large views those in the sex industry and those who engage in behaviors that are seen as wild or unrestrained. There are many aspects to stripping, including those that are related to empowerment and agency. “In the Night” highlights one of these aspects and points out that society should not be quick to judge or convict those who are involved in such occupations. As catchy as it might be, this is far more than an upbeat pop song.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Society of Tragedy

As new forms of media emerge and older forms of media find different capacities with technology growth, the standard saying is that the global society as a whole is brought closer together. Indeed, those who advocate for and against globalization tend to recognize the veracity of this saying, although they might disagree over the virtues globalization itself.

Generally, the idea of bringing global society together is viewed as positive. It is now possible for families separated by vast expanses of space and time to see each other on a regular basis online, strengthening the bonds of family and identity. Businesses can connect with each other to expand their market shares and help spur growth in multiple countries and regions, creating new coalitions of interests and benefits. Sports fans may now watch a match and cheer on their favourite soccer team from a different continent, creating a sense of identity with a club or team that transcends borders. Students who once might not have had access to university studies or to courses in certain professions can now access them through online teaching mechanisms, creating a global community of knowledge. These are some of the ways that advances in and the globalization of media have created unofficial societies that transcend borders.

Events through the years have shown that another form of society has been and continues to be created and recreated through advancements in and globalization of media – that of society joined by tragedy. With the increase in connectivity throughout the past century, the way that global society has been constructed has been altered and this has directly impacted the construction of tragedy.

What once might have been a small item in a newspaper about an event far away is now the lead story for media outlets and social media. This allows us to better understand the world in which we live and to feel that we are impacted by it. It also creates a society that reacts to and feels the effects of tragedy in a place far away more closely than ever before. Through the 24-hour news cycle and social media we are able to see images of a tragedy as it unfolds – be it natural or manmade – and are able to perceive the immediate impacts of it on victims and on bystanders.

As audiences, we hear the cries of the wounded and the tales of survival and of loss. We are able to see that such tragedy cuts across stereotypes. We visualize the event and the destruction it causes as it occurs. In this way, through advances in media, we, as a viewing public, become witnesses. We are also able to feel sympathy for those who have suffered from tragedy and in many instances display empathy as well because we are able to understand the events from a more intimate perspective. We are able to glimpse inside the reality of a tragedy.

In this way, advances in and the globalization of media have combined to create a society of tragedy as well as of benefit. There are concrete results to this – moments of silence observed across the world, official declarations of solidarity and, depending on the event, outrage, as well as personal statements by millions around the world on social media. There are also more private, deeply personal moments that result from watching tragedy unfold, even if it impacts those one has never met.

During a tragic event there are often legal responses by the affected country – such as declarations of emergency – and in the aftermath there are often new laws created or efforts to strengthen existing laws to prevent the tragedy from happening again. The families of the victims grieve and mourn, as do friends and colleagues. These are the traditional methods of mourning and progressing. Through advances in and the globalization of media, there is a larger global society that also feels the impacts of tragedy and marks the tragedy and the victims of it in myriad smaller yet still meaningful ways. In this way, a larger, global society of tragedy is created through a combination of media and humanity.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Biting into Stereotypes

During the past week, the US-based Discovery Channel has again broadcast Shark Week, a series of television programs that has become a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, since it began, audience interest in Shark Week has spawned an increase in the amount of programming offered and has allowed “Shark Week” as a term to enter the popular lexicon. All this, and yet the stars of the show are not human but rather are creatures that have been largely demonized throughout society.

Shark Week itself is an umbrella for myriad programs that address sharks and topics related to them. The exact contents of Shark Week’s programs varies from year to year but a general theme is to expose viewers to the wide swath of creatures that exists under the rubric of “sharks” and to allow viewers to understand scientific and behavioural aspects of them.

Society generally construes sharks as dangerous, vicious, man-eating villains of the sea that typically look like the Great White featured in Jaws or, for younger viewers, the campy cult movie Sharknado. Along with this, there tends to be an underestimate of the intellect possessed by sharks outside of the motivation to kill and the willingness to eat anything in their paths.

While movies have perpetuated these stereotypes, news stories have been and continue to be instrumental in these beliefs through reporting on shark attacks or shark sightings in areas frequented by humans. These stereotypes also tend not to place the shark in an ecosystem or in the chain of survival for creatures of the sea, with the exception of occasional portrayals of them as indiscriminate killers of species that tend to be viewed more sympathetically, such as seals and dolphins.

The programs featured during Shark Week introduce viewers to the many forms of sharks that exist by taking the audience into the habitat of the shark itself. Rather than presenting the shark in a museum or even in an aquarium setting, Shark Week programs feature researchers and scientists who have extensive knowledge of the topic and who travel to locations where various forms of shark are found. This allows viewers a glimpse into the natural habit in which sharks function rather than simply a beach full of swimmers and sunbathers. In many instances, the shark is the main predator in the eco-system, and could potentially pose a threat to a curious human, but this is explained through the scientific and behavioural process rather than through a reliance on fear alone.

Through this, the audience is able to appreciate the shark as more than the killing machine of mass media. Where the shark is a predator of more valued species, such as seals, this is explained in terms of eco-systems balance rather than indiscriminate killing. Even in programs that discuss the existence of extremely aggressive sharks or shark attacks, there is an explanation as to the behavioural aspects involved not simply a call to mass hysteria. Indeed, often the message of these programs is that the fault may fall more on human activities, decisions and attempts to encourage shark sightings or cage diving with sharks for recreation and tourism than on a fiend of the deep. Further, several Shark Week programs feature those who have survived shark attacks. These survivors do not hide the nature of their encounters but also present a balanced view and in many instances serve as advocates for sharks and their preservation.

This leads into another aspect of Shark Week – efforts to give viewers an understanding of the need to preserve and protect sharks and their habitats of sharks, and by extension other marine life. Many viewers are doubtless familiar with the need to protect the environment generally, or perhaps with the need to protect eco-systems such as rain forests, yet the importance of protecting marine resources and wildlife might not be that familiar. The scientists, researchers and citizens featured on Shark Week present the need for protection and conservation of sharks and marine wildlife in a way that breaks down stereotypes and exposes audiences to the importance of eco-system balance at sea.

Certainly, Shark Week incorporates and plays on the more stereotypical agents of shark fear that have been perpetuated in media – notably the use of music and logos that call to mind the movie Jaws. However, rather than reinforcing the fears that such forms of media have sought to create, Shark Week does the opposite by exposing viewers to the true nature of something that has been used to cause fear.

Shark Week is an innovative and successful method of using media to address and debunk stereotypes against a particular species – stereotypes that have in part been created and fed into mass media. While the goal of Shark Week is to highlight one entity, the lessons it offers for addressing stereotypes of many different forms are instructive and demonstrate the ways in which media can be used to break down stereotypes held by society as well as to create them.