So: last week was a bit of a colossal trashfire. Like so many of us, I’m still shocked, scared, and angry. However much the optimist in me wants to believe that it’ll all be okay, that we’ll get through the next four years somehow, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that even in the single week since the election — even in the scant hours following the results — events have shown that we’re already entering an era of extreme hatred, ignorance, and backlash for all the social progress this nation has made in the past decade. This election wasn’t just about a woman not being elected president of the United States. It was about a man being elected on a platform of bigotry and hatred.
It’s very easy to say that, right now, playing and talking about video games isn’t going to do a damn thing to effect change. That escaping into fiction won’t fix a single one of the world’s problems. That representation and diversity in popular culture is the least of our worries right now.
I say it matters more now than it ever fucking did.
Video games — and popular culture in general — are more than just escapism or entertainment, though they are singularly valuable as both those things. Popular culture is, literally, the form of culture that is being consumed by the most people at a given time.
Linda Holmes, pop culture blogger for NPR, once wrote that pop culture might not be what people ideally should be consuming, but it is what they’re actually consuming. It doesn’t matter whether a piece of pop culture is created for love or for profit; it’s the medium through which, for better or for worse, so many of us see the world, and that can influence people in unknowable, far-reaching ways.
But what happens when pop culture shows us the world in distorted ways? When it stereotypes certain groups or identities, or erases them altogether? The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has conducted extensive research to show how the portrayal of women in movies and television has a legitimate impact on how women are viewed by others in real life — and how we view ourselves.
Organizations and movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #INeedDiverseGames have sprung up in reaction to the overwhelming lack of diversity in various mediums and the understanding that kids — and adults — “do search for themselves” in fiction.
Films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters are just a few recent works that have given us countless real-life examples of children deeply inspired by characters who look like them. Representation matters, and it affects everyone. Black children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop published a piece in 1990 in which she coined the metaphor of books being made of “windows” and “mirrors.”
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. […] When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.”
You can’t be what you can’t see. And you can’t understand what you don’t know exists. But when those mirrors and windows are there, it can be the most important thing in the world to someone.
Pop culture isn’t always perfect. Heck, I’d say it never is. But its power and its potential keeps us talking about it. We talk about what we like and don’t like in various media; we critique the problems and praise the virtues; we argue about symbolism and agency and ships and headcanons and language and character and diversity. We search for understanding and the means to make things a little better.
What’s amazing is that sometimes this has the power to actually effect change. It’s caused creators to reconsider their own biases. It’s caused them to seek out assistance from voices who can help them do things right. It’s even caused them to apologize for their mistakes and promise to do better — not often, but sometimes. It’s inspired people who were once consumers and talkers themselves to pick up a pen, or put hands to the keyboard, and start creating something new themselves.
That’s why we talk about pop culture. And that’s why we have to — have to keep on talking about it. If we are, indeed, entering a new dark era of hatred and suppression, then the way pop culture presents the world is more important now than ever. No, it’s not the only battle that needs fighting. Keep speaking up for those who need it. Attend those rallies and protests. Make those donations to people and organizations that can help. Call and write to your representatives. Take risks. Get loud and stay loud. But don’t give up on pop culture, either. If the weapons being brought against us are silencing, misrepresentation, and erasure, then the very act of consuming a piece of pop culture can be a resistance. The act of critiquing it, a declaration. The act of creating it, a revolution.
So go play, read, and watch. Go discuss. Go create. Stay strong and stay aware. Stay angry.
The game is not over.