Stacy Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII) at the University of Southern California, said Wednesday that election-cycle issues like reproductive rights, gun violence and gerrymandering are “not part of typical storytelling” in movies in TV – “because women and people of color aren’t behind the camera.”
Smith was speaking with TheWrap Editor-in-Chief and founder Sharon Waxman at the WrapPRO’s Grill event series about the role of Hollywood in the upcoming election year 2024. Waxman kicked off the conversation with a reminder that midterms are three weeks away, giving Smith a segue into how her research demonstrates the influence Hollywood can have.
AII analyzes stories and their inclusion or exclusion of topics and themes like reproductive rights, marriage equality, interracial relationships, voting behavior, gun violence and more.
“When do we see gerrymandering discussed, right?” Smith said. “When do we see things that are really important and the freedom that we should have? When are those actually part of the DNA of stories? And this is really thinking about entertainment as education, but with the best storytellers in the world. How can they tell those stories in really powerful ways?”
Smith dove into obstacles facing stories about reproductive rights. She and Waxman discussed the need for more abortion stories, those involving contraceptives, etc., on screens.
“It’s not normalized,” Smith said. “It’s not part of typical storytelling largely because women and people of color aren’t behind the camera. … If we had fixed this 20 years ago, we would be in a different situation today, because we would have more normal stories that people have experienced.”
Not that there haven’t been opportunities in movies and TV to talk about sex: “We’re looking at sexual scenarios on screen and talk about sex and all the places where reproductive justice could have been mentioned – where was it?”
Smith then used an episode of “Friends” – the one where Rachel tells Ross that she’s pregnant, including the statistic that condoms only work 97% of the time – as an example of great informational storytelling.
Gun violence is also a priority in AII’s research. Waxman questioned the need for storytelling – explicitly when the argument can be made that public opinion calls for some form of abortion rights and gun control laws.
“It’s imperative, and the reason why is what group doesn’t go to the polls? Young people,” Smith said. “College students aren’t [voting] in the numbers that they need to right because they have completely different views on all of these topics than other generations. They’re far more progressive. Inclusion is just a way of life. … And one of the best ways to get them motivated and going is through storytelling. Data doesn’t do it by itself, but tell a compelling story about why they need to show up.”
The AII is giving $100,000 in scholarships to directors in film school that want to tell stories about reproductive justice. Smith also mentioned the direct correlation between exposure to media violence and aggression in those consuming such content.
“We have a huge problem in entertainment we know, from 60 years of research, is not debatable,” she said. “You might think exposure to media violence contributes to aggression, fear and desensitization. Story closed.”
Following further discussion of gun violence, and then the inclusion of LGBTQ+ and marriage equality stories, Smith wrapped up her presentation with a call for better numbers behind the camera after the year of 2022.
“We’re also looking at interracial relationships, which you don’t see a lot of research on that either, and we’re seeing some progress, but I’m going to tell you right now, 2022 is bad for behind the camera, particularly for women and people of color,” she said. “They really are not good this year. Last year, they were fantastic. They held strong, but now we’re seeing a dipping down effect. And so for us, it’s bringing all this work intersectionally and why I wanted to talk about the study before it came out is we need your help. We want to work with content creators in the industry.”
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