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The Role Of Narrative Disrupting Content In Mainstream Media

Black characters have been tasked with fulfilling stereotypical roles, this misrepresentation directly affects black viewers in a personal context.

28/03/2017 06:54 SAST | Updated 03/04/2017 07:02 SAST
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Ricky Camilleri (R) interviews Anthony Anderson during the Build Series at Build Studio on March 24, 2017 in New York City.

It's no secret that mainstream media does a terrible job of representing black people accurately or truthfully. From outright racist portrayals to tone deaf stereotypes and clichéd narratives, there is a distinct difference between the stories of white characters and black characters and this does little to nothing to benefit black viewers and audiences.

However, if this year is anything to go by, it's clear that the rise of black owned storytelling is beginning to carve itself a place in mainstream media and in turn, changing the dominant narrative of black characters and stories. Jordan Peele's directorial debut "Get Out", grossed $140.7 million at the box office, Donald Glover and the cast of Atlanta took home two awards at this year's Golden Globes and "Moonlight" rightfully won the top honour of Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. The common thread between these shows and movies is that they all share the trait of being narrative disrupting content that goes against the historical tradition of misrepresentation of black characters and it's about time because black people are tired of being marginalised by the media.

Black characters have historically been tasked with fulfilling stereotypical roles that are so limited and unoriginal that one doesn't have to rack their brain to name every type of character that is played by a black person in TV shows and movies. These stereotypes include but are not limited to, the downtrodden but strong willed working class character (if the story takes place in the past replace "working-class" with "slave"). The ill-tempered thug or sassy woman, the wise old oracle and the white guy's best friend. If these typecast roles aren't disempowering enough it would be remiss to not mention that most black characters are often merely crutches in the story arc of a white character, making the limited space that they occupy within media, subordinate to white characters.

This is problematic as it allows the rest of society to compartmentalise the role of black people by relegating characters to certain narratives or storylines where black people exist within the confines of someone else's lived experience. The reality of this means that society only has to care about black people when they follow the narratives that are reflected in mainstream media, their lives are only relevant when their pain is physical, their opinions and worth only matter once they've overcome hardships and their characters are only validated when a white character does the validating.

This misrepresentation goes on to directly affect black viewers and audiences in a personal context because it limits the perceptions of who they can be and what they can do. We see the media as a reflection of reality as well as a means in which to understand our own realities, a lack of representation in terms of a diverse array of characters and stories is often internalised by young black people and where one might see the omission of the role of a black character as merely an omission, a black person may see it as a way of society barring them from specific spaces and roles. The feelings derived from this process are internally conflictual because it gives young black people no outlet to work through their identities with the understanding that their feelings are valid and widely felt.

The ills of this misrepresentation mean that black owned storytelling has had to be political and racially motivated.

The ills of this misrepresentation mean that black owned storytelling has had to be politically and racially motivated and it's clear that the reason that narrative disrupting content is gaining traction in popular culture is because it reflects a true lived experience that mainstream media has failed to communicate. Most notable in this vein of storytelling is ABC's "Black-ish" and its frank discussions about the realities of being black and middle class. As Obama's term drew to a close last year, the show dedicated an episode to a reflection of his legacy. Soon after Trump was elected, Kenya Barris, the show's creator wrote a striking episode entitled 'Lemonade' that dealt with the "what now?" dilemma that faced many American minorities and in a recent episode, Tracee Ellis-Ross's character has a fight with a local doll store because of its abysmal attempt at representation.

Similarly, Issa Rae's "Insecure" is an exploration of contemporary racial issues from the perspective of black women and the 2015 feature film "Dope"and 2014 released, "Dear White People"are both stories that directly question the stereotypical tropes of black youths by depicting characters who openly question the space that they occupy in society and the role that society plays in marginalising them.

These narrative disrupting stories are important because they offer an honest discussion about the current state of being a person of colour, which is beneficial for audiences as it acts as a launch pad for young black people by breaking boundaries that were previously seen as obstacles in their personal advancement, by creating relatability and directly challenging the limiting stereotypes that all too often have real-world consequences. These shows and movies also introduce pertinent discussions surrounding race into the mainstream and act as psychological reflections for not only black viewers, but all audiences.

A recently released report published by Nielsen states that of Black-ish's 5.4 million weekly American viewers, 79 percent of them are non-black viewers. This means that more audiences are being exposed to discussions surrounding issues of race and representation, making these conversations more frequent and robust.

This global trend in a narrative shift is particularly magnified in American content because of the popularity, reach and frequency in which we consume it, but this trend is also gaining in popularity locally with web-series like Coloured Mentality, an exploration of the Coloured community in Cape Town and The Foxy- Five, a web-series that follows the journey of five womxn and their navigation of "white- supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy". This type of content follows the same path in that it disrupts the dominant narrative that we have come to expect from mainstream media. In terms of equal representation in mainstream media this is a drop in the ocean as the structures that control the media that we consume still choose to ignore or bar various groups of people from entering spaces where they can own their own narratives, but it is a much needed and long overdue move in the right direction.