Some believe the media played a role in the massacre in Charleston, and while we mourn those nine lives, there are also things we can do, today, to rectify.
I started thinking about this while mourning the nine African-Americans who were massacred during Bible study at the Emmanuel A.M.E church in Charleston, South Carolina. Racism was central to the motive of the young white man who murdered them, and I was disturbed that someone would feel so angry and entitled that they would consider it their duty to kill others who are not like them.
While a mistaken racial entitlement was clearly a motive in Charleston, I believe that a delusional sense of male entitlement was also a key factor in this terrorist attack, (as it probably is in others). Thoughts about male entitlement first came to me came at the tail of a recent incident referred to as Gamergate. Gamergate involved a slew of violent rhetoric directed at female critics who challenged the sexism in the gaming world. This level of violent outrage was shocking to me.
Now here is the problem: this dangerous combination of racial and gender-based entitlement is constructed and perpetuated by popular media and consumed on a daily basis by children and young adults.
The Young White Male Hero
What do Frodo, Harry Potter, Iron Man, and Finn from Adventure Time all have in common? Aside from being fictional creations aimed largely at young people, they are wildly popular fantasies that celebrate the young white male hero.
I'm a fan of these fictions, but how does this fictional white male stereotype -- the "hero who will save us all" -- affect our children and our society as a whole?
The problem is the stereotype of the young white male hero. It creates stories, myths, and compelling imagery depicting and justifying violence.
This brand of stereotyping leads to delusional gaps between media roles and reality for young white males, and can leave them feeling defensive when women and people of color fight stereotypes and social roles that keep them subordinate.
Most crucially, this type of stereotyping can leave misinformed and miseducated young white men feeling confused and outraged when they are not granted the privileges that media and society implies are rightfully theirs through these media tropes. And far too often, this frustration leads to violence or the threat of violence to correct these perceived wrongs.
What Can We Do?
1. Identify and name the stereotypes.
While we love our Harry Potters and Iron Men, we should show our young people that these fictional stereotypes exist and can be potentially as harmful as other stereotypes because they exaggerate the expectations we have of young white males, marginalize the potential of everyone else, and far too often create an atmosphere of entitlement that leads to violence and the threat of violence.
2. We don't need an abundance of fictional white male heroes.
Not being a leader or not wanting to lead when society and the media expect you to lead can make any kid feel like a failure, and can lead to frustration and resentment. We should teach our kids -- specifically our young white males who are exposed to these stereotypes -- that doing your best can also mean participating well in a group situation and letting others take the lead.
3. Expose our kids to fictional female heroes and heroes of color.
Largely thanks to The Hunger Games and other popular media, we are entering a relatively positive period for fictional female heroes. Unfortunately, despite these exceptions, the landscape is still largely devoid of fictional roles that feature females and people of color as protagonists, especially in the gaming world (and the gaming world is the most popular medium for young white males). It is also an industry that is largely dominated by white males and in desperate need of diversification.
We should go out of our way to get to know our kids' taste in media and find games, TV shows, and books that feature fewer stereotypes of females and people of color.
4. Celebrate non-violent ways of being heroic.
Unfortunately, fictional heroes who are not white and not male are expected to exhibit the same violent characteristics as the fictional young white male hero stereotypes. Whenever possible, we should highlight the instances when fictional heroes of any persuasion show courage and wisdom that does not lead to violence.
5. Empower kids to create their own stories.
Right now, the new authors and movie directors might be in the sandbox and in front of their iPads, but those stories are already there in their imaginations, games, playground activities, and daydreams. Ask the kids what it would be like if they were the hero, how might they save a helpless victim, their hometown, or the entire world if given super-heroic powers. Ask questions about the tough decisions and the necessary wisdom involved to solve problems that weapons can't.
We can't immediately change the current media landscape as it is, but we can do our best to help all of our kids to discover the way that fiction help kids feel both empowered and empathetic toward others.