Image: Courtesy of Paul Booth
DePaul professor, Paul Booth, specializes in media reception and how audiences feel emotionally about media. Echo spoke to Booth to hear his thoughts on representation in television and how that affects viewers.
Can you speak to the effect television has on people and their behaviors?
There is a common misconception that television or any kind of media causes people to do things or think things; that certainly can happen, but it doesn’t always happen on a large scale. Television is really good at shaping the way people think about particular issues and making mainstream audiences aware of cultural norms. For instance, when we start[ed] seeing gay characters on sitcoms in the 1990’s, that caused a rapid acceptance of alternative queer lifestyles in mainstream culture. We are encouraged to think about the world differently when we see things on television. I think one of the most powerful tools that we have in our culture is to shape the way people think about particular issues is through television. If we start seeing people with differently abled abilities, different skin colors [and] different lifestyles, then we start thinking that we suddenly live in the interesting and diverse world that we do.
Do you think this effect is different between male and females?
The major difference between men and women watching television is that for the longest time, television was mainly designed by men for a male audience. So the types of images and representations that we saw on television were male generated and were from a male perspective, so by default the male audience would not necessarily have to think outside the paradigm that they have been given, whereas a female audience from the get-go on television will always be thinking outside the norms that she is watching. Recently, there has been a major push for more diversity and representation, so while there are male creators that are very good at creating diverse representation and there are some women creators that are not very good, I think that by in large because women have been on the outside and have not been integrated into the media’s ecosystem, when a female creator creates media content she wants to articulate a different more diverse point of view.
What do you think it means for someone to see diverse body types on television that are similar to him or her?
It makes people feel like they are listened to and like they are part of a culture. If we never saw ourselves represented, we wouldn’t feel like we are part of a culture. We would feel like a constant outsider. Just being able to see a character that looks like us feels good. It makes us feel like we are part of the community that we live in.
What are your thoughts on including television characters with disabilities; physical and mental?
It is a double-edged sword, on the one hand we want to start seeing more representations of mental illness, people with disabilities, people of different races and ethnicities and sexualities, but on the other hand we don’t want to resort to stereotypes or misinformation, which I think we see a lot in today’s media. The question is, how do you tell that story? Do you tell it with care and attention to detail or do you resort to the most generic stereotypes. The hope is that as more people become aware of the issues with these sorts of representations, that they are at least making an effort to represent these differences in a realistic way, they are bringing some sort of lived experience to it.
What has been the most influential character in your lifetime?
I have been watching Doctor Who since I was a kid and now I study Doctor Who and its fandom. I didn’t realize how as a kid I was influenced by a male character on television who didn’t resort to violence, whose first instinct is to talk to people and to try and fix problems and bring people together.