News Commentary and Research

How Pop Culture Helps Normalize the “Other” in Society

by Andrés T. Tapia

times-square-1024x768Pop culture has been on my mind lately as evidenced by my recent blog posts on pop culture icons Archie Comics, Barbie, and Dora the Explorer.

Not only do I love pop culture for it’s own fun sake; but what pop culture does or doesn’t do — and how it does the doing or the not doing — tells us a lot about the state of diversity and inclusion in society. This is because pop culture — the good, the bad, and the ridiculous — is a sign of what has become, is becoming, or could soon become normal in mainstream cultural behavior and beliefs.

Why is this nerdy, unsexy concept of what is considered “normal” in mainstream society so vitally important to the work of diversity and inclusion? It’s because, ultimately, the work of diversity and inclusion entails normalizing what mainstream society considers “other.” Opponents of affirmative action or diversity often attack the work as giving unfair advantage to people due to skin color or some other otherness. In contrast, our message is that we don’t want whatever it is that makes us different to be considered a deficit, an aberration, weird, or not-of-this place. We are not seeking to make difference a super power. We just want to make it normal. Our work is to normalize the difference —to make its presence an accepted part of the social landscape.

And what does normalizing mean? For sure, it does not mean minimizing the differences. Our differences are real, and we must know how to constructively call them out and manage them. Normalizing is about the differences, and the work it requires to make them into just another part of life. They are not impositions that people can choose to ignore. Our work is to make managing diversity as normal as the hard, but important, work of raising children or managing people or having good interpersonal relationships with the people close to us.

So let’s look at my three recent pop culture Inclusion Paradox sightings examples. Not too long ago, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals were so relegated to the fringes of society as to be invisible. But then in the mid-90s there was Ellen, the first network sitcom with a lesbian main character. The show’s historic 1997 coming out episode, of the character and the actor, moved gay issues into the mainstream, like nothing else before. Pop culture with its glitz, big name advertisers, and in the case of Ellen, great comedic writing, has the power to transform the taboo or marginalized into the “this-is-how-life-is” category.

After the Ellen breakthrough, came other pop culture advances where different shows, artists, and ads rode Ellen’s coattails. So Elton John came out, as did Melissa Etheridge and Ricky Martin. Then Will and Grace arrived with a diversity of gay characters, while Ellen is now a mainstream talk show host. And finally, in the tamest of platforms, the pop culture comic book, Archie, the quintessential purveyor of American mainstream culture, introduces Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first openly gay character. This is not just a cute incident. Normalizing events, such as creating a mainstream gay character to hang out with Veronica, Betty, Jughead, and Archie, go a long way to foster a more inclusive environment on the part of the straight community and, as a result, have a positive impact on gay teens, whose current suicide rate is four times higher than that of heterosexuals.

Let’s look at another example: the black Barbie. It used to be that little black girls could only play with white dolls, because there were no black dolls. Now, when I see a little white girl carrying one of the many black or Hispanic or other ethnic dolls available in stores, I know this is progress, even on a doll-house small scale, toward acceptance of the “other” as normal and even desirable. Toy manufacturers are no longer creating such products just for the niche market that can identify with it, but are banking on it being attractive to consumers from other groups.

Finally, there’s Dora the explorer. As we watch the ugly headlines about the shifting winds against the “otherness” of immigrants and, in particular, Latino immigrants, we see Latina Dora enchanting and educating children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, while Mom sings along. As vicious as the immigration and SB1070 debates are in today’s polarized politics, and as predictable as the backlash toward the outsider becomes in tough economic times, our children will look at the Latinos around them and instead of seeing “aliens,” they will see amigos. That’s the power of Dora. And Barbie and Archie. That’s the power of pop culture.

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For the five stages of normalizing otherness, click  here.

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