Dr. Emily Ryalls: Reimagining how we consume media

16 minute read


Epsa: [00:05:07] To kind of start off, Dr. Ryalls, could you give us a background on yourself and your career thus far as well as your teaching experience at Cal Poly? [00:05:15][8.0]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:05:16] My particular research area is feminist media studies, so I study popular culture with an aim toward understanding how issues of oppression and marginalization are normalized and just seem to be made to appear mundane. I’m particularly interested in representations of adolescence and popular culture, so I published on TV shows like Gossip Girl and Thirteen Reasons Why films like The Hunger Games. And I also look at the ways in which real adolescents are talked about in journalism and news media. [00:05:56][39.3]

Anjana: [00:05:56] That’s amazing. Can you touch on how you got interested in this work? [00:05:59][2.9]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:06:00] Yeah, so all of my degrees are in communication studies, but what I looked at kind of changed over time. And it was when I was in my master’s program that I took my first cultural studies class and it was a game changer for me. I went to the University of South Florida and I worked with my advisor, Dr. Richard Borowski, who had had literally written a book on The Bachelor franchise. And so really kind of she had done incredibly powerful work. She was very well sighted. She was very well known. And so it gave me the confidence that you can study not just popular culture, but what people consider to be guilty pleasures and don’t take seriously. And you could still draw very important conclusions about gender and race from that light, fluffy popular culture, reality television. [00:06:53][53.2]

Epsa: [00:06:54] Because I feel like those guilty pleasures shows I always keep on, like they’re always background. They’re just always there because it’s just like people chattering and it’s just calming. [00:07:03][9.3]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:07:04] Well, listen, let me be clear so first of all, I do not ever use the term guilty pleasure. There’s no shame in my game. I enjoy what I enjoy. And I think more often than not, the term guilty pleasure is really used to shame women. So when you talk about guilty pleasures, it’s often reality television. It’s The Real Housewives. It’s shows that are gendered feminine. Right. We never talk about The Sopranos or Breaking Bad as guilty pleasures. Those are prime, that’s excellent television. Right. And there’s a clear gender divide there. So I do want to be clear about that. The other thing I think it’s important to say is that I study pop culture because I love it, right, so I always try to be very clear with my students that we’re going to talk about ways to be critical of the media that you’re consuming. And we’re going to talk about ways to kind of not just be a passive consumer, but it’s also OK to shut off your critic brain and to just go ahead and enjoy whatever it is that you’re watching, whatever it is that’s in the background. Right. I’m an avid consumer of all of the Real Housewives, all of Bravo TV, really. And I’m able to do that because I shut off my critic’s brain and I just enjoy the the nonsense that I’m watching. And not kind of critiquing it and judging it at all times. [00:08:33][89.2]

Anjana: [00:08:35] It is hard to shut off, though, once I took that class, but I want to talk actually about some of the things we discussed in that class and specifically the common tropes and themes we see in media, especially in these feel good, very beloved American movies like The Blindside, The Help, Hidden Figures. When we were watching them, we were like, wow, look at this representation in media, but that’s not really the case I found out. So I’d love for you to talk about these themes like white savior complex, post racism, tokenism. Can you explain what they are and how to recognize them in some of these movies? [00:09:15][40.0]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:09:15] Yeah, so we’ll start with post racism. Post racism is the myth that we as a culture in the United States are past racism. Right. That we have moved beyond that, that there is equality among all the races and that that race, no matter, no longer matters. [00:09:35][19.5]

Anjana: [00:09:36] So Obama is President, everything is good now. [00:09:38][2.4]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:09:39] That’s right and right. And people scholars trace that to the election of Barack Obama. Right. Once you have a Black man in the most powerful position in the United States, therefore racism no longer exists. And it’s dangerous for a lot of reasons, but a very dangerous component of post racism is to suggest that those of us who keep insisting about talking about race and racism are the ones who are perpetuating racism. If we would all just stop talking about it and that means that somehow racism would go away. Right. And I think we’re seeing that very much today in response to Black Lives Matter. Just shut up and let’s go back to the way it used to be, like that somehow is going to solve the problem. Of course, it doesn’t solve the problem. It just means we can go back to when white people were comfortable because they weren’t having to face the systemic and structural nature of racism. Right. Because what post racism suggests is that if racism does exist, it’s on the bodies of these super overt racists. And not that we’re dealing with a structural or systemic problem with racism. So when, for example, the San Luis Obispo police chief says that racism doesn’t exist in the police force, that’s a complete falsehood. And to insist that there is no structural racism in the police force and that it’s just a few bad apples is never going to solve the problem, right, because then the solution becomes we just need to get rid of these few people who are the problem and not that policing as an institution has been set up in these structural and systemic racist kind of ways. One of the other ways that post racism operates is through so you mentioned the film, The Help, is through films like The Help that suggest that racism is this thing that was in the past. So we’ve moved beyond it. Look at what racism used to look like. They used to make Black women use bathroom use outhouses. They wouldn’t even let Black women use the restrooms in their house. We don’t do that anymore. Therefore, we are not racists. So sticking with The Help, then we get the the very clear representation of the white savior and the white savior in many ways really is one of the easiest kind of tropes to spot in movies, I’m sure both of you would be able to come up with a huge list. But the white savior often operates in a film that is seemingly about race or racism. So it’s a film that is supposedly about a person of color or people of color overcoming racism, but only being able to do that through this white person who saves them, because for some reason they are shown to be incapable of saving themselves. So, of course, it’s Skeeter in The Help. It’s Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blindside. But key to the White Savior film is that it really makes white people feel good. Right. Look at how these people were able — it acknowledges race and racism in ways that we as an audience feel horrible about. But then we see that good white people are able to save them and then we can align with that idea of good white people. Right. Because most of these films do still showcase racism. But again, in that way of like the overt bad racist, which means — so in The Help, of course, it’s Hilly, right — which means as audience members, we can all say, well, I’m not like that. So therefore I’m not racist. And again, it individualizes racism. It becomes about individual racists and not structural and systemic racism. And then lastly, we have the token and the token is in terms of race, generally a person of color who is able to succeed and then that somehow stands in as proof that racism doesn’t exist. So I think you could easily make an argument that President Obama is a token, right, that he becomes this token president who then stands in as proof that the US is no longer racist. But similarly, in The Blind Side, the Michael Moore character is very much kind of a token. Right. So you get this token Black man put into this white society, he is then able to achieve. So the proof is it’s not that white culture is racist, it’s just that these people need to be given a handout. [00:14:38][299.7]

Anjana: [00:14:40] Or that they just need to fit the American dream, pull themselves up by the bootstraps, try harder right. If they just put the effort in, they too could become Obama or Oprah Winfrey. [00:14:51][10.4]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:14:52] That’s right. And of course this then again negates all sense of structural racism and of course, then places the blame on people of color who do not succeed because all you need to do is point to Oprah or Obama and say these people succeeded despite all their odds. Despite all the odds that have working against them. And therefore, if you’re not doing it, it’s because you’re lazy. And particularly in The Blind Side, one of the things that happens with Michael Moore’s character is that he has to be removed from his own culture, his own society, his own neighborhood. And that representation is actually in stark contrast to his own words in his biography, where it wasn’t just that the Tuohys were the white folks who came along and saved him, but that, in fact, he had he had a lot of Black mentors as well from his own community. Those are erased entirely from the film. And the only representation that you get from his community is that it’s full of drugs, that it’s dangerous, that it’s violent, and he has to be removed from there in order to succeed. So it becomes a critique of Black culture as opposed to a critique of a racist country. [00:16:09][77.3]

Epsa: [00:16:10] Wow. The Blind Side actually is one of my favorite movies and I’ve never really thought about it with a critical lens like that before, with everything you’ve just shared. [00:16:19][9.7]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:16:20] I cannot tell you how often in written responses I’ll hear from students ‘When I saw the Blind Side, when I saw The Help, I loved it, thought it was this very powerful film. And now I’m having to go back and kind of review it.’ And I think also it’s important to keep in mind that we are primed to love these films, like I showed The Pursuit of Happiness often in my class. And, yeah, it gets me every time. [00:16:49][29.0]

Epsa: [00:16:50] Me too, I’ll cry. [00:16:51][0.8]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:16:52] I cry even while I understand how problematic of a narrative it is. [00:16:57][5.5]

Anjana: [00:16:58] Right. Do you ever feel like, I think a lot of conversations these days are like: Ugh you can’t watch anything these days without the leftist snowflakes critiquing it, you know, if a show like The Office were filmed now, the left would have a meltdown. Like what would what do you say to that and those critiques? [00:17:20][21.8]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:17:21] I think this idea that, like, you couldn’t make things now and that’s somehow a critique of now is is silly. I think we should want to be better. So in fact, you could make The Office now, but you would have to change some things because there are aspects of The Office that are no longer considered appropriate. So Netflix, I know they’ve removed footage when Dwight, for example, is in Blackface. Right. That doesn’t massively change nine seasons or whatever of the show. The other thing I think is important to mention is that what The Office does well is function as a critique of racism and sexism in the workforce. The problem is that in many ways is that racism and sexism is expressed through the character of Michael, who we’re also supposed to love. And so his racism and sexism become sort of laughable. And that’s really problematic. Right, as viewers, again, we’re sitting at home and we’re laughing at the things he says and we’re laughing at racism. But we’re also saying, what an idiot, that’s what a racist is. I recognize that. So I’m not racist. Right. [00:18:38][76.9]

Anjana: [00:18:39] So then to follow up on that, do you feel like there’s anything that we subconsciously consume that shows up in the way that we think and act? It’s only up until recently we’ve seen more representation in the media, but growing up, there’s so much that I saw that I feel like has subconsciously been ingrained in my mind. Like I remember taking the implicit bias test in high school and thinking, wow, I’m racist, which obviously isn’t true, but I did have bias. But there is an argument that news media only shows Black people in a certain light, and that makes us think a certain way or like, when I was visiting India as a kid, seeing fairness creams ads on TV, and I know so many young Indian women whose moms would be like, don’t go outside, you’ll get darker. So do you think what we consume in media then causes the way we act? [00:19:37][57.3]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:19:38] I shy away from the idea that media causes behavior. After the Columbine massacre, for example, and people were blaming violent video games or the music of Marilyn Manson. Like it’s never that simple, right? But instead, media is reflective of these damaging ideologies that circulate throughout institutions. So you gave the example of thin skin lightening cream. We see it in our beauty marketing and magazines. Right. But also your mother telling you not to go outside. So it’s happening in the home, in the family. We learn these things in school, right? There’s all of these these messages are perpetrated in and through so many different areas that they become take it for granted. They seem as though they’re fact. And that’s why it’s so damaging. Right. So it’s not like media is doing it. It’s on its own. But certainly media continues to reflect it over and over again. And that’s where it becomes so dangerous and so damning. Right. My own sort of personal awakening to how this all worked is that when I took my first cultural studies class, something that sort of occurred to me is that I had very much grown up on soap operas. I watched soap operas. I would come home from school every day and watch soap operas. And this was during a time when it was an incredibly common and popular storyline that men would rape women and women would fall in love with them. And so I had realized that I had developed a rape fantasy as a result, that this became this very normative idea of how I would meet my future partner. Right. That there would be this violent act of aggression and then I would make him better and then we would fall in love. Right. So that was sort of a very personal thing for me. But I think the idea of fixing damaged men is something that a lot of heterosexual girls and women do internalize… I’m seeing some faces. [00:21:44][126.0]

Anjana: [00:21:44] Us feeling attacked. [00:21:45][0.6]

Epsa: [00:21:46] Woah, you didn’t have to come at us like that Dr. Ryalls. [00:21:48][1.9]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:21:51] But over and over and over again, perhaps it’s no longer acceptable to show him to be a rapist, but to show that he has these violent tendencies or that he’s got these problematic behaviors and that the love of a good woman can fix it, is something that I think a lot of us do sort of internalize. [00:22:08][16.8]

Anjana: [00:22:09] Oh a hundred percent. [00:22:10][0.4]

Epsa: [00:22:11] That’s like a whole other podcast episode. [00:22:12][1.3]

Anjana: [00:22:13] So true. Would you say then, Dr. Ryalls, media is a reflection of society, but then also continue to perpetuate things in society that aren’t necessarily good? [00:22:25][11.3]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:22:25] I think that’s exactly right. Yes. That media doesn’t invent ideology. It’s not responsible for creating these ideas, but it is part of a system in which it’s perpetuating those ideas. And that’s what makes them so dangerous, because we see and hear them over and over and over again. So they seem like they’re fact. So an example related to race is that we have since slavery and prior to that this ongoing insistence that people of color, that Black men and women, are not as smart as white people. And that message, that lie, that myth starts and then it’s recreated and repurposed and used over and over and over and over again. And sort of the most recent example that we see of that is you may have read the NFL is finally sort of coming to terms with CTE and the brain damage that it’s dealing with. And in their settlement, they used an algorithm that somehow it was supposed to determine how intelligent these men were to begin with and and then grant them money based on that. And the algorithm said the black players were not as smart as the white players. And as a result, the white players were being given more money. [00:23:53][87.6]

Epsa: [00:23:55] Wow. And that brings up addressing a whole other area like biases in data and biases in algorithms which streamlines all of these things, like everything is backed up by that. With that, I kind of wanted to have a throwback question — growing up, [I was a] huge fan of Full House, Modern Family, How I Met Your mother, all those shows. But growing up and assimilating to American culture, I would always compare my family and lifestyle to those shows because that was all I saw. That was all that was on TV, was entertaining, was popular. But one main difference, stark difference, was that they were all white and I was not, obviously. So the first time that I saw a cast that really reflected who I am was this past summer. And it was the show Never Have I Ever on Netflix that was produced by Mindy Kaling, an absolute queen. Yeah, but it took so long for me as a 22 year-old to see a show where I see myself but it’s about a 16 year- old. So here I am like, OK, let me watch what my high school experience was like, finally, you know. Why do you believe it’s taken so long for TV shows and movies to have like a nonwhite family cast have gained a platform that’s as popular as like Friends or Full House and all of that? [00:25:07][71.8]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:25:08] Well, so there have been shows about Black families, right? The Cosby Show, Family Matters. So there have been those. The fact that in particular, what you’re bringing up, right, is Indian American representation, Southeast Asia representation in some way speaks to how we tend to, in this country, really when we talk about race, tend to talk about it as black and white. Right. And kind of everything else gets either lost or gets homogenized. Right. For instance, if you see LatinX representation, it’s often just homogenized as all the same. [00:25:55][46.7]

Anjana: [00:25:56] Same thing with Asian for sure. [00:25:57][0.9]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:25:57] For sure. For sure. I mean, an easy answer to why it’s taken so long is that Hollywood is white, is largely white. So the people making the shows, the people creating the shows, the people in power at the studios, they’re all white. And that has given them the the leeway for forever to say myths, to say lies like people of color will consume white media, but white people won’t consume media featuring people of color. And then. Right. And I hear it at least once a quarter, once a semester from a student. Well, doesn’t this kind of stuff just make more money? And so then it becomes now we have to talk about the problems with capitalism. We won’t get into that today, but if money is the only thing that talks, it’s the only thing that matters. And then we’ve built this lie that the thing that makes the most money is white people. I think that can play a huge role in it for sure. But I don’t want to dismiss how important that representation is behind the scenes right now. There needs to be opportunities for people of color as producers, as directors, as camera people, as executives, as casting agents. Like there has to be a true kind of paradigm shift in all of these positions before I think we’ll see any kind of meaningful changes. I mean, as you pointed out, right, that show was created by Mindy Kaling, who started on The Office, and so is one of the very few people — perhaps we might go back to the idea that she’s a token — who has been granted access to these spaces to be able to, after, what, 20 years maybe in the business? To finally create a show in which a family that looks like herself features. [00:28:02][124.3]

Epsa: [00:28:03] If she didn’t have the platform that she did or if she didn’t have honestly, if she was not on The Office, the show probably wouldn’t have been able to have so easily been on Netflix or wouldn’t have reached the caliber of success that it did. And it’s what we were talking about, making sure the directors are involved, making sure there is room for others at the table so they can produce content for a wider group of people. [00:28:26][22.4]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:28:27] Somebody much smarter than I has said that diversity is letting people sit at the table, but inclusion is letting them participate in the conversation. Right. And so while I think we’re seeing moves toward diversity, we’re not necessarily seeing inclusion. And the inclusion is when things I think will really start to change. But I think it’s a long battle. We’re making strides, there’s so far to go. And I think we’re also, as a culture, seeing more of these discussions happening. And to me, that’s a part of the pandemic. Right. So for months, we’ve all been stuck at home. I mean, I’ve always considered a lot of media, but most people, I think, are consuming more media than ever before. And so we’re talking on social media about these representations. So in some ways, this kind of mass consumption of media is leading to these sorts of issues right at the same moment in which Black Lives Matter is being reinvigorated. [00:29:31][64.2]

Anjana: [00:29:33] Yeah, definitely. Being in your class has for sure taught me to be more conscious about the way that I consume media. But obviously not everyone has the privilege of being in your class, so in your opinion, what can we as young adults do to be more critical about what we’re seeing and reading and hearing, or at the very least, just be more aware of it? [00:30:00][27.1]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:30:01] Yeah, it’s a tough question and it’s one I get often. I mean, I think first and foremost it has to be that you want to do this kind of work. That you are interested in and are willing to recognize the power of media, right. Because it seems like every time there’s some sort of overtly racist incident at Cal Poly and my students and I will be talking about it and students will say they just need to take a class like this with you. And I say, I don’t want them in my class because the students need to be willing to come to the class and do the work. You can’t fix racism if racism doesn’t want to be fixed. But if you are interested in doing this work, there’s so many good resources out there. There are really powerfully written, well written books that are written for popular audiences, meaning it doesn’t have to feel academic. There are fantastic journalists at BuzzFeed and at Slate who are doing this kind of cultural criticism that you can read. And then it becomes an issue, too, of like having these conversations with your friends if you’re having these conversations with each other, bringing other people in on those. Right. I mean, during all of this, I’ve been doing a lot of book groups, book clubs, with especially family members who maybe in the past I wouldn’t have had time to do that with, so kind of having those conversations. But then it also becomes a question of like, once your bell has been rung and you start to see these things, what do you want to do about it? So for me, I try to speak with my dollars. If I know a film is potentially problematic or getting a lot of critique for being problematic, I won’t see it in the theaters if the theater ever opens up again or I won’t pay money to download it. Because I don’t think necessarily just not watching things is a solution either, but thinking about where you’re sending your money. [00:32:09][127.9]

Epsa: [00:32:11] I like that tip. I mean, they always say money talks. So being conscious of where we’re spending is a really easy action item for all of us. So on top of those action items, to kind of wrap everything up, in your opinion, Dr. Ryalls, how can we radically reimagine the media industry and when do you think we’ll see some radical change? [00:32:32][21.2]

Dr. Emily Ryalls: [00:32:33] I don’t know when we’ll see radical change, to be honest with you. And I think part of the problem is that we get — if we go back to tokenism again — we get a minor change, a minor success, and then it feels like we don’t have to do it again. Thinking like Black Panther as this incredibly powerful film featuring Black actors, featuring a Black superhero. Everybody got super excited. And then it was like, OK, we did it. We checked that box. I think it’s going to be a long time before we see radical change. I also worry, as we’ve been talking about, that once things go back to normal and we are all back to work and we are commuting and life seem normal again, these massive kind of conversations that we’re having now, do they go away? And if we haven’t made significant changes before that time, then that means we won’t. But I think also the Oscars, still very problematic, but have started to make some pretty massive changes. And the reason for that is largely because of a hashtag campaign. So a few years ago, #Oscarssowhite happened. All of the acting categories were filled only with white actors, and that has since happened again. So it’s not perfect. But as an organization, the Oscars have started to make some changes. It used to be that you only became a member if you had been nominated. But recognizing that incredibly talented people of color were not going to get nominated unless the face of the nomination committee also changed. So when we see a film like Moonlight win the best picture Oscar, like that to me feels radical. Is it a paradigm shift? Is it an overwhelming radical change? No. But in that moment, it felt very radical. [00:32:33][0.0]