Viola Davis, Cultivation Theory, and the 2015 #Emmy Awards

I won’t pretend I didn’t cry this morning. I didn’t watch the Emmys live last night, so waking up to the news that not only did Viola Davis win herself an Emmy (as I predicted back when she de-wigged on primetime), but two other black women, (Regina King for American Crime and Uzo Aduba for Orange is the New Black) had also left with trophies, has left me floating on a cloud of #blackgirlmagic that has lasted the entire day.

But it has also left me thinking long and hard about why these victories matter on a sociopolitical level.

Viola Davis accepts her Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama at the 2015 Emmy Awards.
Viola Davis accepts her Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama at the 2015 Emmy Awards.

I’m currently working on my dissertation for my MA in Mass Communications and I came across a theory recently that I plan to explore in depth. My dissertation focuses on portrayals of rape and sexual assault in American primetime television, but it struck me how relevant the theory is to discussions of racial diversity.

The theory is “cultivation theory” and in layman’s terms, it means that over time, people begin to believe that the television universe reflects real life. Essentially, people who watch lots of TV begin to see the social reality of fiction as an accurate account of real life.

“The primary proposition of cultivation theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe the social reality portrayed on television. Cultivation leaves people with a misperception of what is true in our world.” -Cohen, J.; Weimann, G. (2000). “Cultivation Revisited: Some Genres Have Some Effects on Some Viewers”. Communication Reports 13 (2): 99–114.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this…

If people think the television world is a reflection of real life, and the television world continues to either demonize people of colour and LGBTQ folk or omit them altogether, then what kinds of conclusions are people going to draw about those groups of people in the real world? If women of colour are always being portrayed as the supportive best friend to the white female lead; if the Arab guy is always a terrorist; if the Latina woman is always a maid, then is it really so surprising then that women of colour aren’t being offered leading roles? That Kelly Osbourne thinks the sum total of the Latina contribution to the workforce of the United States is as maids? That an inquisitive little boy with brown skin and a Muslim name would be accused of building a bomb?

It’s why I get so annoyed when people say that pop culture doesn’t matter. It matters. Representation matters.

“Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum. It is a feedback loop that is both sustained by and contributes to the way the we see ourselves as a culture, and in relation to each other. To say that pop culture doesn’t matter is to say that society doesn’t matter, because it’s our attitudes and preferences that determine what is and isn’t allowed to flourish on the entertainment market.”

I wrote that, back in 2013 when Miley Cyrus stepped onto the MTV VMA stage and stuck her face in Amazon Ashley’s ass on international television. It’s a quote I love coming back to because it remains as true as ever. When we’re in 2015 and still at “first black woman” status on anything? And the winner of the award has the point out that you can’t win an award for a role that doesn’t exist yet? Yeah. It matters. It matters because over time we have “cultivated” a specific image of what a leading lady looks like. Of what desirability looks like. Of what talent and beauty and “class” look like.

And these women? These beautiful dark-skinned women with broad noses and big lips and kinky hair? It wasn’t them. It was strategically not meant to be them. They were purposefully removed from the definition of womanhood much less anything else. So these wins? These statues? This acknowledgement of talent? It matters. It shows that when you even the playing field just a little bit; when you actually allow people of colour to compete with whiteness by creating opportunities for them to show what they can do? They win.

Regina King (Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie), Viola Davis (Outstanding Actress in a Drama) and Uzo Aduba (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama), accept their awards at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards
Regina King (Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie), Viola Davis (Outstanding Actress in a Drama) and Uzo Aduba (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama), accept their awards at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards

And now we’re moving into fall television season with some of the most diverse casts in ages. All because a tiny Shondaland show with a 7-episode debut season blew up on social media, and network heads took notice.

So when people are upset that Lena Dunham’s Girls is so white, it’s not because we just felt like picking on a random white girl for shits and giggles. It’s because she is a white woman who is actively erasing people of colour from their own reality with a show set in a city that is currently being aggressively gentrified.

I truly believe that pop culture is the truest reflection of the politics of any given time period in a society. It encapsulates what we tolerate socially, what we accept and what we celebrate. So when people of colour, LGBTQ people, disabled people and neurodiverse people are erased from the world that most of us eventually come to see as real, it validates negative attitudes about those people, and it normalizes mistreatment against us.

“Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” (Gerbner & Gross, 1976, p. 182)

Is it any wonder then that teenaged Ahmed Mohammed was accused of building a bomb when we’ve been subjected to a decade and a half of movies and television shows that assert this as a reality of our world?

And that brings us round to the white feminist responses.

When Nancy Lee Grahn, who is employed by the same network as Viola Davis can go on a tweet-rant about her distaste that Viola “made it about race” because she called out the industry’s anti-blackness and thanked the other black women currently starring in primetime by name for “taking us over that line,” we see why whiteness needs to be challenged. Because Taraji P. Henson was nominated in the same category as Viola Davis, lost and still jumped right up to congratulate and encourage her. That’s what solidarity looks like. Knowing that a step forward for one of us is a step forward for all of us.

But any acknowledgement of the inherent disparity created by our current racial hierarchy is an attack on whiteness, precisely because it destroys the illusion of meritocracy. And whiteness protects itself. Even the way we talk about “women and minorities” belies the assumption that “woman” means “white woman.” Which is how we end up with a white actress claiming that the woman who has been open about growing up poor and hungry was “has never been discriminated against.” That’s how we end up with one of the most influential sites in Hollywood positing that there’s too much diversity in Hollywood.

White feminists love to claim girl power and then attack when their shortcomings and anti-intersectionality are pointed out. Viola Davis implicated white women by name when she quoted Harriet Tubman, and several white women were in their feels about it. (I mean, did you look at those faces?)

But now we have options. We have our Gina Rodriguezes and our Kerry Washingtons and our Nicole Beharies and our Constance Wus and our Viola Davises and our Tracee Ellis Rosses and our Ming Nas and our Taraji P. Hensons, and even more diversity coming in the 2015/16 fall season. We have faces that reflect us and our experiences. We had validation for our existence. We have an acknowledgement that our stories, our lives are worthy of exploration; that they contain multitudes.

I hope it never changes.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog BattyMamzelle. Republished with permission. 

One thought on “Viola Davis, Cultivation Theory, and the 2015 #Emmy Awards”

  1. Amen. Pop culture dictates so_many_things. When I say I write stories (romance, fantasies, whatever, as long as it has not-straight people and poc) to educate and inform, people scratch heads because “isn’t it just fiction”. No. It’s millions of lenses, and for centuries we’ve only had the offer of white ones.

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