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Who wants to let their taste, culture, or political views be dictated by media-influenced stereotypes?  An examination of the public’s growing dissatisfaction with mainstream representations.

For years, mainstream representations have defined the ways in which people perceive themselves and their communities.  Obviously, we live in a world where perception is largely based on stereotype.  Yet lately, a culture of dissention has arisen from the midst, and people around the world are beginning to question the mainstream representations they have allowed to shape their opinions for so long.

The music scene is a primary example of how public perceptions have been shaped around such mainstream representations.  For a very long time, whites listened to “white music” and blacks listened to “black music,” and that was where musical conformities started and ended.  Blacks who listened to “white music” were “corny,” and whites who listened to “black music” were “wiggers.”  But in the past couple of decades, these perceptions have shifted.  Michael Jackson’s 1991 hit “Black or White” started to bridge that gap.  By 1999, Eminem had opened the flood gates of social acceptance for white rap fans.  And while no definitive statistic can be proven, it is estimated that today, 70% of hip hop consumers are white suburban teens.  Socially conscious rap has grown increasingly more popular amongst a hugely diverse population.  In a 2005 interview with Village Voice journalist Bakari Kitwana, Boots Riley stated:  "My audience has gone from being over 95% black 10 years ago to over 95% white today.  We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club [a reference to the 1920s and '30s Harlem jazz spot where black musicians played to whites-only audiences.]”  So perhaps the mainstream representations in the music scene have not only been defied, but also re-defined.

Youth, in particular, seem fed up with the stereotypes in fashion and are forever eager to appear different.  The 90’s were all about being “alternative,” although no one could really define the “alternative” genre of music, style, or dress; they just knew it wasn’t mainstream!  Hence, the world of “goth” was born: black clothes, black jewelry, black lipstick and black nail polish – even on the boys!  Even the blondest kids dyed their hair black, washing out their pale complexions to give them an eerie “undead” look.  The so-called “gothic” style flourished throughout every suburban high school, and kids even went so far as to file their K-9 teeth into vampire fangs!  But even this fascination with the so-called “dark-side” and vampirism died out when Buffy The Vampire Slayer became a top-ranking prime-time television show.  Buffy was cool, but dressing or acting like a vampire wasn’t; as the kids put it, “That is SO mainstream!” So a style that was born to breed individuality had become unpopular because it had become too popular!  Such are the idiosyncrasies of youth and individualism. 

Sex appeal, too, is an area where mainstream representations have grown to frustrate many people.  While speaking with Aaron Chieu, an 18-year-old Chinese-American male, he stated, “I hate being Asian!  Girls don’t find me attractive just because I’m Asian!”  At first, I thought his words were just an expression of normal teen angst, a self-consciousness common amongst teenagers of all ethnicities.  But, after further examining his gripe, I realized that there is a great deal of truth in what he says.  He feels that girls look at him like “the cute little Asian boy.”  Naturally, at 18 years old, he wants to be seen as “boyfriend material,” not “little brother material.”  And just look at the representations of Asian men in the media!  When was the last time you saw a male Asian sex symbol?  We see white, black and Hispanic men portrayed as sex gods, with their rippling chests and bulging biceps.  Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Shemar Moore, Taye Diggs, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Chavira, and Enrique Iglesius are all just as popular for their sex appeal as they are for their talent.  Even Richard Gere and Denzel Washington are considered sex symbols, and they are both over fifty!  And let’s not forget about 78-year-old Sean Connery.  But when was the last time you saw an Asian man oozing sex in the media?  Immediately, Bruce Lee and his son Brandon come to mind; but even these muscular martial artists never garnered the sexual attention their physiques deserved, and how few and far in between are these examples?  For the most part, Asian women are portrayed in the media as nymphs while Asian men are portrayed as the racially offensive “ching chong Chinaman,” or as the more Westernized Asian nerd.  Even when Japanese-American actor Masi Oka made People Magazine’s “100 Sexiest Men Alive” in 2007, it was under the header “Geeks are chic!”  And I think people are growing tired of these stereotypes; I know Aaron is!  And rather than explore ways to feature his own unique beauty, Aaron instead chooses to mask it, distancing himself as far from his Asian-ness as possible, and hence, avoiding the mainstream representation.

Of course, the arena most heavily affected by this age of dissent is the world of politics.  The primary elections currently running in the US are a perfect example.  Since 9/11, Islamophobia in the US has been at an all-time high.  Millions of Americans quickly developed the ideology, “all them towel heads are terrorists!”  But even this horrifically inaccurate mentality, despite its perpetuation by a tragic event in American history, is growing old.  The American people are quickly developing an aversion to this senseless stereotype, and this is finally becoming evident through the current primary race.  The use of Barack Hussein Obama’s middle name has become an insult throughout e-mail forwards and sandwich-board wearers shouting him out as a “terrorist supporter.”  Since when is calling someone by his birth-given name an insult?  The “accusation” of being a Muslim has also gained momentum across the internet and amongst members of the far right.  These nay-sayers seem to think that the key to building their case against Senator Obama lies in “proving” his Islamic faith to the public; the more conservative supporters of Obama have fired back, proudly and defensively declaring their candidate a devout Christian.  What both sides of the argument fail to realize is that the educated supporter is planning on voting for him, regardless of his faith!  I believe that the majority of Americans are rolling their eyes at these tactics, not just because Obama is being “accused” of something, but because of the idiotic nature of the accusation itself.  The educated voter will not cast a ballot based on a middle name or a religious conviction.  And, while religious intolerance is far from dead, millions of Americans are sick of the mainstream representations of Muslims as terrorists and of any defender of Islam as “unpatriotic.” 

So why this sudden change now?  Perhaps because the general public’s global awareness and knowledge of international politics are currently on the rise.  Gone are the days when the only news available was through the wealthy networks of FOX, CNN, and MSNBC.  Today, the internet has enabled independent media to rise at unparalleled dimensions. Instantaneous accessibility has afforded the public more opportunity for independent investigation of truth.  Huge populations of every age, race, religion, and socio-economic status are growing more and more skeptical of what they see on the mainstream networks and, now more than ever, people are turning to the internet for more objective news sources. 

Political humor has long been a popular art form, but more recently, political humor has taken on a sharper and more insightful dimension; additionally, it has taken on a stronger presence in popular entertainment.  Animated series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad are notorious for their political bashings and thrashings, hence awakening more public awareness about the absurdities of many current political initiatives.  In the Broadway/West End musical Avenue Q, characters sing, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes!  Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes!  Ethnic jokes might be uncouth, but ya laugh because they’re based on truth!  Don’t take them as personal attacks!  Everyone enjoys them… so relax!”    Is not humor a sign that people are understanding these implications on a deeper level?  Isn’t the ability to laugh at these stereotypes living proof that the stereotype itself is acknowledged as absurd?

Perhaps it is in part due to the increasing levels of cynicism amongst people around the globe.   Or perhaps it is just that the mainstream representations we’ve grown accustomed to are tired and played-out.  The internet is largely responsible; offering free and accessible alternatives in art, music, fashion, and political thought has certainly opened the eyes and minds of the public to a world beyond what is represented in the mainstream.  Whatever the case, the time has come where public dissatisfaction with mainstream representations is on the rise, and this age of dissent is lending itself to both individual and collective independence on every front.

1st March 2008
The Age of Dissent
By Jill Bolstridge