This is the English version of an originally German post which I was able to publish on https://www.postwachstum.de/ as part of my job. I got the approval to share it here with you as well. For everyone who prefers to read the German original, look here: https://www.postwachstum.de/postwachstum-in-der-unterhaltungsbranche-20200706
Influence of the screens on the viewers
How films and other media influence (political) attitudes and behaviour of people has long been investigated in the social sciences (see e.g. Fearing, 1947; Cooper, 2003 and Adkins & Castle, 2014). In particular, research on the influence of the portrayal of erotic scenes (see e.g. O’Hara et al., 2012) and tobacco consumption (see e.g. Arora et al., 2012) has been and is present in various countries. Films, series and other media show exemplary living environments and the characters influence the audience as planned or unplanned role models. To a certain extent, people orient themselves by what they see on the screen. As long as the idols in the entertainment world are, for example, nouveau riche and unscrupulous investment bankers or young rich company heirs in racing cars, we need not wonder why so many people are striving for more and more consumption and status symbols.
Moreover, many of these (questionable) role models are still male. Even in Disney films with female main characters, male characters often have the greater share of speech (Geisler, 2019). It has been analysed multiple times which role models and behaviours are conveyed to children in these films, and these are not only good ones (Geisler, 2019).
Negative role models, not only for consumption
In the post-growth and degrowth literature, problems with and of consumption are frequently reported (for an overview see e.g. Petschow et al., 2018). Various treadmills are described, such as the ‘positional treadmill’, in which people try to improve their social position through consumption (Binswanger, 2006). It is obvious that such wishes and aspirations are reinforced by such visual models. Through representations from the entertainment industry, not only can certain consumption patterns be evoked or reinforced, but also other, e.g. anti-social and discriminatory, behaviours can be given a platform.
Lack of alternative heroes/stories
In the movements of socio-ecological transformation, alternatives to the current living worlds are often formulated, but this is not yet – to my knowledge – translated into visual images/role models for the general public. Why can’t the hero of the next Hollywood film be an indigenous environmentalist who stands up for the protection of his homeland? Or the next Netflix series could be about an inspiring female permaculture farmer? Admittedly, the big players in the industry are unlikely to be the first to show new socio-ecological, democratic narratives. But progressive filmmakers and actors can bring new role models to the screen, independent or supported by film funds. Sustainability and post-growth actors can and should therefore approach the industry to jointly launch such stories.
First steps in the right direction
So far, there are several documentaries that show stories of alternative, sustainable behaviour, such as “TOMORROW – The world is full of solutions” or “Living the Change“. These make an important contribution to the inspiration and (re)orientation of many people. Other exciting (documentary) films about sustainability are listed here and here, for example. However, such approaches will probably only be properly integrated into the thinking and behaviour patterns of the general public if they are (more) intensively taken up in the general entertainment industry – not only in the alternative sector.
There are a few popular feature films that take up motives of ecological behaviour. In “Into the Wild”, however, the protagonist ends up dying in the wilderness, which can be interpreted either as a romanticization of death (Decker, 2018) or as a frightening example of life in the wilderness. A better ending is found in “Captain Fantastic“, where the family moves from the forest to a house in the countryside at the end and continues to live close to nature with organic farming. The blogbuster “Avatar” also held up a mirror to the imperialist and destructive humanity; in the real behaviour of most people this probably has not changed anything. Not all of the millions of viewers will have understood the parable and the events in an imaginative other world are not directly transferable to their own lives. There is still plenty of room for real new role models.
It’s not only how much electricity is consumed by online videos and streaming that counts, but also what flickers across the screen. Movies and streaming will not disappear so quickly from most people’s everyday lives – especially in Corona times. Reduced consumption in order to save electricity and resources is not to be expected among the broad masses. For this reason it is all the more relevant to use this consumption at least in terms of content and to fill the time in front of the screen with more positive sustainability and post-growth narratives. Images of better living conditions and ways to get there will probably fall on fertile ground in acute times of crisis and beyond. Then, in the long run, the online and digital world will perhaps become less relevant than the analogue world again. Let the cooperation with the entertainment industry begin!
Research on the socio-ecological transformation can and should accompany this process and evaluate the impact of various role models as it has been done with tobacco consumption, among others.
Adkins, T., & Castle, J. (2014). “Moving” Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 95(5), 1230-1244. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44072746
Arora, M., Mathur, N., Gupta, V., Nazar, G., Reddy, K., & Sargent, J. (2012). Tobacco use in Bollywood movies, tobacco promotional activities and their association with tobacco use among Indian adolescents. Tobacco Control, 21(5), 482-487. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43289250
Binswanger, M. (2006). Why does income growth fail to make us happier? The Journal of Socio-Economics, 35(2), 366-381. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053535705001721
Cooper, M. (2003). The Influence Industry. In Love Rules: Silent Hollywood and the Rise of the Managerial Class (pp. 119-158). Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsxc1.7
Decker, D. (2018). Die meistüberschätzten Filme aller Zeiten: Into The Wild. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://www.rollingstone.de/die-meistueberschaetzten-filme-aller-zeiten-into-the-wild-377098/
Fearing, F. (1947). Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 254, 70-79. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1026142
Geisler, C. (2019). Welche Auswirkungen Disney-Filme auf die Psyche von Kindern haben. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://www.nw.de/lokal/kreis_guetersloh/verl/22351709_Welche-Auswirkungen-Disney-Filme-auf-die-Psyche-von-Kindern-haben.html
O’Hara, R., Gibbons, F., Gerrard, M., Li, Z., & Sargent, J. (2012). Greater Exposure to Sexual Content in Popular Movies Predicts Earlier Sexual Debut and Increased Sexual Risk Taking. Psychological Science, 23(9), 984-993. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23260357
Petschow, U., aus dem Moore, N., Pissarskoi, E., Korfhage, T., Lange, S., Schoofs, A., Hofmann, D., mit Beiträgen von Hermann E. Ott (2018). Gesellschaftliches Wohlergehen innerhalb planetarer Grenzen: Der Ansatz einer vorsorgeorientierten Postwachstumsposition. UBA-Texte 89/2018, Umweltbundesamt, Dessau-Roßlau. Retrieved from https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/publikationen/vorsorgeorientierte-postwachstumsposition