Television: An Important Forum for Social Commentary

  • April 16, 2019

Recently, more television producers have started including social commentary in their shows. Some have taken the comedic route to discuss political matters, while others offer a serious, startlingly realistic portrayal of issues that are impacting the world. In any case, people are questioning whether television should be allowed to address these issues at all, and many viewers have criticized Hollywood for inaccuracies or biased commentary. But based on how television has progressed, especially in the past decade, I believe that there is potential for positive social change if the media treats these issues as more than a trope to gain higher ratings.

For example, diversifying television casts has gone from the idea of having a “token” minority character, especially with shows like “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off The Boat,” “The Good Doctor,” and “Speechless.” The first two focus on the modern struggles African and Asian-Americans face, such as balancing familial heritage with American culture and battling socially ignorant stereotypes (ex. Asians only being good at academics, African Americans only being skilled in athletics). The last two feature protagonists with disabilities, one being a teenage boy with cerebral palsy, and the other a doctor with autism and savant syndrome. Despite having challenges that are different from those of their peers, both characters refuse to allow their disabilities to stop them from living normal lives. Most of these programs are in the comedic genre, but they’ve proven to be capable at spreading awareness on the diverse cultural issues impacting their audiences in real life.

Other shows have a more dramatic approach to exemplifying social issues. “13 Reasons Why” is a notable example for its non-barred, painfully realistic portrayal of teenage bullying, social pressures, and suicide. It has been heavily criticized for moments where teenage suicide seems “glorified” or over-exaggerated, but the show has definitely succeeded in sparking a well-needed discussion on mental health amongst its target demographic of teens and young adults. “The Fosters” often discusses the injustices of the foster care system, and the unsuitable households many foster children are placed in. The show has also highlighted the difficulties of the adoption process, and the psychological struggles kids endure when they’re constantly changing homes. As difficult as it may be for people to watch these situations on screen, it’s still an important step toward encouraging viewers to learn about these issues and lessening the negative stigmas surrounding them.

It’s unrealistic to claim that every television show tackling social commentary will do it correctly, or that it won’t cause some viewers to condemn their attempts at addressing hard-hitting concepts. But if the progress we’ve made so far proves anything, it’s that media is changing society’s standards; television could be a key factor in spreading awareness about these issues and changing our perspective on them for the better.

Photo from Creative Commons

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