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Does the Media Tell Us Who We Are?

Grehan Building

Does the Media Tell Us Who We Are?

Last Thursday evening, I went to a talk being presented on campus titled, “Does The Media Tell Us Who We Are?” expecting the usual, educational lecture one would expect to listen to when attending a presentation on a college campus. However, what I got was actually an incredibly eye-opening and entertaining analysis and discussion of a topic near and dear to pretty much every college student’s heart: Netflix.  

Dr. Naeemah Clark, a well-known professor and author from Elon University, came to UK’s campus last week to give a talk she once gave at a TED Talk conference in 2015. Being a big TED Talk fan myself (I listen to the podcasts on every road trip I take), I expected Dr. Clark to be an animated and intriguing speaker. She not only met but also exceeded those expectations, keeping the audience laughing and interested throughout her entire presentation. From where I was sitting in the rafters of Gatton’s Kincaid Auditorium, I could see everyone in the audience below me (even those attending mostly to meet a class requirement) completely invested in Dr. Clark’s conversational story-telling. She spoke WITH the audience rather than AT them, which allowed for a very personable discussion to ensue after Dr. Clark finished her talk.

While Dr. Clark’s public speaking skills alone were rather impressive, what I believe really stood out about her presentation was her timely application of every point she made to current entertainment media. As I mentioned already, she focused a lot on Netflix, but this was not the only medium she referenced; she emphasized the various ways diversity is presented in all forms of entertainment media, from Hulu, to blockbuster films, to cable and public television. Every member of the audience – college students, professors, faculty, etc. – was sure to relate in some way to some part of Dr. Clark’s talk. At the end of the discussion, audience members asked questions that were broad and applicable to entertainment media as a whole as well as questions regarding very specific channels, series, films, and more, some of which I had never even heard of before. Dr. Clark was familiar with and had an explanation for practically every scenario presented to her by the audience members’ questions and concerns.

Now here’s where the eye-opening part comes in: Dr. Clark highlighted how diversity is celebrated – or sometimes, not even present – in many of the shows I watch regularly in ways I had never before realized. Dr. Clark explained the lack of diversity in the media she experienced as a young girl by telling a story of how she, as a woman of color, once believed the only way to be “pretty, accepted, and validated” was for her to idolize and aspire to look like the glamorous stars presented in the shows she watched at the time… Stars like Cher and Marie Osborne. After beginning with this anecdote, she went on to apply the same circumstances to modern media, explaining how much of the reason behind the media not being as diverse as it perhaps should be is most likely caused by advertisers. As a media economics professor, she has studied how “advertisers like vanilla”, meaning network shows feel obligated to avoid being too diverse so that they do not lose advertisers’ money. However, she brought up interesting points regarding how Netflix, Hulu, and cable television have a rare freedom that network shows do not have in highlighting diversity. Why? Because these media are not bound to advertiser support the way network stations are. Dr. Clark highlighted how some of my personal Netflix favorites (i.e., House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black) display much more diversity than any network show would, a comparison I had never actively made before.

In making modern connections, Dr. Clark did say that the media seems to be evolving and presenting more diversity than it has in the past, especially since her childhood. For example, even some network shows, like Empire, seem to be on their way to being more ethnically and culturally diverse. However, Dr. Clark reiterated that we still have a long way to go before all media celebrated diversity the way it probably should. Her suggestion for encouraging the media to diversify its viewing content lies in the power of social media. Dr. Clark insisted that while it may seem like just one tweet alone may not make a difference, networks and even advertisers do pay attention to social media. If viewers take to social media their opinions on the diversity (or lack thereof) presented in the media in today’s day and age, we have the potential power to make a difference and help the media toward completely evolving to be an accurate representation of the diverse world we live in.

All of that information (and so much more that I could go into if I didn’t want to give every interesting detail away), was all presented in a 15-minute talk, and I think I speak for almost everyone in the audience that day when I say we could have listened to Dr. Clark for even longer. This was evident in the fact that the discussion following the talk took up the remaining 45 minutes of Dr. Clark’s time, with some students even lingering after time was up to ask further questions.

Overall, Dr. Clark’s talk taught me not only to be more aware of the social implications of the media I view on a daily basis, but also to take advantage of attending free presentations this college has to offer when I get the chance. What I expected to be just another lecture on top of the classes I already take turned out to be an entertaining and relevant presentation that took just one hour of my time, and even served as a nice break from every other responsibility I had that day. I hope I can make it to more guest speaker talks before the end of my time here at UK.