Historians devote their lives to predicting the past. So when called upon to predict the future of cultural expression, as the editor did for this issue, I had to distance myself from my disciplinary comfort zone.
Not for the first time. Two decades ago I had to do this when completing my book, The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (Teachers College Press, 2000). In that book I focused on the traditional mass media: magazines; newspapers; film; television; and radio. It was the first book (and maybe still only) to examine how the media have treated the theme of diversity, not the depiction of specific diverse groups. In other words, how have media provided an informal public multicultural education, for better and for worse?
But in 1999, as I was preparing my book for the publisher, something else was happening: the advent of what we now call the new social media. For context, Mark Zuckerberg was only fifteen years old (Facebook would not appear until 2004). Twitter did not begin until 2006.
Yet change was afoot, so I decided to devote my final chapter to this media upstart. In line with the book’s theme, I titled the final chapter “Multicultural Education in the Cyberspace Era.” Since the new social media were in their infancy, I could predict to my heart’s content.
But what about my current challenge. What does the future look like from a 2021 vantage point? What trends might we see in diversity-related media expression? Here’s a possibility.
Following the police killing of George Floyd one year ago, there has been a surge of dishonoring. That is, the eruption of public challenges to the tainted records of those whose accomplishments had previously been celebrated in statuary, building names, and public commemorations. This has resulted in the renaming of buildings, the removal of statues, and the reconceptualization of public celebrations (for example, Columbus Day becoming Indigenous People’s Day in many communities). .
This rethinking and dishonoring of the past has also infiltrated cultural expression. Previously-lauded books, films, and television shows have come under increased scrutiny for their treatment of diversity. Could this revisionist surge lead to the mass expulsion of important media stalwarts because of their treatment of diversity topics in ways that today might make us shudder? Could this process deny future generations the opportunity of reading and seeing these older, unwoke classics? In truth, some of that has already occurred, but there is another possibility.
Turner Classic Movies has given us a different model to consider. In February of this year, TCM ran a series called Reframed. It consisted of classic movies that, in retrospect, seem chilling for their treatment of such topics as race, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Cancel culture warriors might say remove them from the airways, hide them in containers, and never let them be shown publicly again. They are too offensive to be viewed by contemporary eyes.
Fortunately, TCM took a different tack. It showed the films: from “The Jazz Singer” and “Gone with the Wind” to “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” However, TCM bracketed each showing with a context-setting introduction combined with a post-film panel discussion of the film’s social failings. While the quality of the bracketing varied, by and large the experiment worked. It kept film classics alive for other generations to see. But it also repurposed them as contemporary educational tools, which can help younger viewers develop a better understanding of changing norms about what is and what is not acceptable. The times, they are a changing . . . and they always will.
Maybe this is one way that we can continue to appreciate the artistry of the past, while at the same time reassessing such forms of expression for their blind spots. By giving viewers the opportunity to assess them as documents of their historical eras, maybe we can provoke critical conversations that lead us toward a better future. Predicting the future is far more treacherous than predicting the past, but the historian in me lauds TCM for its efforts, maybe to envisioning bracketed cultural expression as an art form for the woke future.
Graphic by Jacob Owens courtesy of unsplash
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- Diversity and Speech Part 21:Predicting the Future of Cultural Expression – by Carlos E. Cortés - May 9, 2021
- Diversity and SpeechPart 20: Communicating across Generations – by Carlos E. Cortés - April 7, 2021