Speak truth to power. Many films and TV shows present hard data and statistics in a compelling way. For example, in a recent episode of “House of Cards,” one character tells another, in a particularly charged exchange: “50% more. That’s how many more black women die of breast cancer than white women. In our district, it’s higher than the murder rate.” Moments like these are primed to extend their influence beyond the television program itself. Does the story bring to life the suffering caused by a bad policy or showcase the individual struggles resulting from a social attitude? Translate the empathy that your audience will experience into motivation to speak truth to power. Finding a story on TV or in film that echoes the story told by data and research is a great way to bring another dimension to your work and make it more accessible my broader audiences.
Create a social norm. In her 1997 sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres’ character came out on national TV and changed the face of homosexuality in America. Around the same time, “Will & Grace” also helped humanize gay people (if not wealthy socialites like Karen Walker). These stories opened the minds of millions of Americans who otherwise had no personal experience with an openly gay person. All of a sudden, the perception that homophobia was reasonable began to crumble, and mainstream America started to build a new social norm of love and acceptance. Stories can break down barriers and help drive shifts in public perceptions. They won’t all be Ellen moments, but finding and highlighting stories that normalize (or stigmatize) an issue relevant to your work can be an effective way to create change.
Challenge stereotypes. Stereotypes can be destructive: they can drive bad policy, negatively impact individuals’ ability to compete in the jobs marketplace and chip away at our sense of community. Using stories to crack prevailing stereotypes can expose broad audiences to new perceptions. “Jane the Virgin,” for example, took aim at stereotypes of Latinos in America showcasing a wide variety of job types (not just service sector roles), displaying the complexity of immigration and its impact on life decisions, and spotlighting a variety of smart and strong Latina woman who are working hard to build the lives they want. Raising up a story that features characters or plotlines that take aim at relevant stereotypes can be a powerful way to help your issue breakthrough to broader audiences.
Challenge the status quo. Fictional stories have an advantage when it comes to getting people to think about what is really going on. Highlighting a stark contrast between our ideals and our greatest fears can sometimes show that, well, we are closer to the dystopia than we’d like. Spotlighting and analyzing stories that show the best or worst versions of ourselves and our society is just one way that changemakers can challenge the status. Stories can show who has to gain by maintaining the status quo – and who loses out. They can highlight the levers you can push to change the standard operating procedures of our society.
Spotlight a problem. Change often comes slowly since audiences aren’t fully aware about issues or don’t know how to address them in the context of their daily lives. Pop culture stories can change this and build broad awareness. Case in point: “Law & Order: SVU” helped drive awareness and, the, political will, for testing the backlog of rape kits throughout the country. Their episode on the topic, “Behave,” introduced this problem to a wide audience and gave advocates an opportunity to make the most of this newfound awareness and address the backlog. Look for an episode or film that shines a light on your issue, use it to build awareness about your work and identify how it can help you drive positive change.
Create a community. There are few groups more dedicated than a fanbase. Whether they love “Dr. Who,” “Battlestar Galactica” or “50 Shades of Gray,” avid fans plaster social media, overrun events and generally convey their enthusiasm for their favorite characters and stories in every possible venue. When people share a common love for a story, it often means that they share similar values. Consider the Harry Potter Alliance, which brings people together over a shared love of fantasy and young adult fiction, and harnesses that passion to donate books, send supplies to disaster zones and fight for net neutrality. If you create a space for fans to convene and discuss important issues raised in their favorite shows and movies, you can begin to build a passionate community that will be ready to act to advance your cause.
Combat stigmas with stories. When television and film address topics such as reproductive rights, learning disabilities, sexual health, mental health, incarceration and addiction, more people write, think and talk about those issues. When a viewer’s beloved television character undergoes an abortion, for example, the next time someone mentions the topic, that viewer is more likely to think about their favorite character and her experience. Many films and television shows inaccurately represent these difficult topics, and those representations can intensify the attached stigmas. Use these opportunities to conversations about the reality of these issues. And when writers and producers present the stories accurately, celebrate these TV episodes and films and share them to introduce your issue to new audiences and break down barriers.
Demonstrate model behavior with stories. People are more likely to emulate behavior they have seen rather than behavior they have heard. Film and television protagonists who are rewarded for their virtue motivate audiences to copy them. Bad behavior has the opposite result. Antagonists usually are not attractive role models to viewers. MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, which showed teens the consequences of unprotected sex and the challenges of life with a baby, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. After the show premiered, searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion rose significantly. There also was a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following the show’s introduction.
Increase empathy with stories. Drama and comedy can soften bias and foster inclusiveness, and they cultivate the awareness that we have more in common that we often think. For example, viewers who related to characters in the film A Day Without a Mexican exhibited increased empathy towards immigrants. When viewers can relate to a film or television character, they often see themselves in that character’s shoes. This concept is important for organizations that want to improve attitudes and promote empathy towards a stigmatized group. Highlighting stories with relatable characters that have the ability to change an audience’s views on an issue can be an effective way to redirect hearts and minds.