Reformative Radical or Radical Reformist? Approaches in Media Activism

As we have mentioned in class discussion, media representation of People of Color is an extremely important issue that must be recognized in the discourse of social justice. Media representation can be used by different people to discern the dominant sets of ideas surrounding certain groups, support hegemonic stereotyping of marginalized identities, and/or alter traditional ideas that our society has regarding certain groups of people. Of course, each of these tasks is usually undertaken by individuals who are at various points on the spectrum of social awareness, and audiences who are even relatively aware of this notice when creators of media are not. We, as members of society who have some amount of social awareness, are called to react, even if only in commentary, to inconsiderate representations of marginalized groups in media.

In order to offer such commentary,  Henry Jenkins, a University of Southern California Professor and media scholar, conducted an interview on Asian-American media activism and cultural citizenship with Lori Kido Lopez. Lopez, an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes many strong points that we are familiar with through class discussion. She references cultural citizenship, use of alternative or less mainstream media, and influence of fan culture, among other topics. I believe Lopez makes some great points that I support as well as some that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I agree with her conclusion that positive change will only be attained when people from all groups involved (writers, producers, actors, fans, policy makers, etc.) aim to reach a understanding and amplify marginalized voices.

Image result for henry jenkins (Jenkins)

Part 1

Image result for lori kido lopez (Lopez)

Part 2

Regarding the grand scheme of large scale media activism, Lopez, like many other scholars, believes that both “’good cop’ activism” and “’bad cop’ activism” are essential to bringing about actual change. Thanks to Rosalind Chou’s chapter 7 in Asian American Sexual Politics, our class knows these two types of activism by different terms: “reformative movement” and “revolutionary/radical movement.” According to Chou, the reformative movement approach “primarily focuses on altering the norms of the existing systems” and the revolutionary/radical movement approach “focuses on fundamentally changing value systems,” (178). Lopez offers a few examples of good cop activism, but only compares bad cop activism to it rather than offering new examples.

When discussing good cop activism, she first introduces the idea of a conscious consumer, stressing the fact that Asian American consumers (and other marginalized members of capitalist society) can utilize their collective buying power to affect companies. Her main focus for good cop activism, however, is Asian American advertising agencies. Lopez focuses on these agencies because she believes they are in a favorable position to affect change. She states, “First, as you mention, we have to recognize the neoliberal logics that (unfortunately) govern media industries, and advertising agencies are in the perfect position to speak that language.” Lopez goes on to explain that the financial support that these agencies have, as well as their access to demographic data for research, are extremely helpful tools to “push representation forward.”

Regarding bad cop activism, Lopez simply points to “traditional media advocacy organizations.”

After concluding that both reformative and radical approaches to social change are necessary, Lopez begins to discuss the slightly more alternative media platform of YouTube. First, she addresses the success of Asian Americans on YouTube, attributing this to the platform’s “eagerness and passion for creating stories that couldn’t be found in the mainstream.” She then introduces a point that many activists know far too well: individuals with marginalized identities don’t always use their public voice to discuss these very identities. This is an important point to remember because it shows how we can grow complacent with our positions in systems of inequality. Although YouTube isn’t emphasized as a platform for radical approaches, Lopez stresses the network of celebrities that has been created through interactions that YouTubers have (with one another as well as mainstream media). She argues that this network can be used as a tool to mobilize large audiences across platforms and increase visibility (another argument focusing on working from within created systems).

Lastly, Lopez discusses the impact that fans can have in the media representation discussion. She draws connections between fandom and activism, claiming that “connecting with digital communities, participating in online debates, creating original artwork and videos, staying current through research and scouring the internet for information” are all central activities for both. She references the activism of The Last Airbender fans who were upset about the poor casting of the live action movie, some for social reasons, others simply because they originally understood certain characters as People of Color rather than white people. In many ways, I believe Lopez likens loyal fans to activists which is difficult for me to digest because of the huge discrepancy between loyal fans to random shows/movies and activists.

In all, I agree with the main idea that Lopez gets across, summarized by her statement, “Rather than worrying about radical critique becoming totally subsumed by neoliberal logics, it’s important to recognize that varying and even contradictory activist strategies actually depend upon one another for overall success.” In detail, however, I believe that she is far too focused on achieving social change by working from within our current social systems. I gathered that she prioritizes this at least slightly over working outside of our current systems because she dedicates far more speaking time to reformative approaches. I feel that the power dynamic in many of our current systems prevents members with more agency from wanting to contribute to change, fearing that change would mean losing some power. This is why I think her ideas on both advertising agencies and alternative media platforms are possible but not likely. I find it hard to believe that powerful people in advertising agencies would risk investments/profits by making direct comments on media representation. Also, I believe that creating a new platform for art can only be effective for social change if both the platform itself and the art within it are clear in their criticisms of society (YouTube and SoundCloud, for example, were very promising but failed to be direct; they are both becoming extremely commercialized). For reasons such as these, I agree that varying forms/approaches in activism are necessary, but I believe that we should place more focus on operating outside of or changing many of our current systems.


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