George Romero’s zombies will make Americans reflect on racial violence long after his death

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Annual 2010 zombie march in Madrid, an homage to George A. Romero.
AP Photo/Paul White

Erin C. Cassese, West Virginia University

“What’s your zombie apocalypse survival plan?”

The question invites the liveliest discussions of the semester. I teach a course on social movements in fiction and film at West Virginia University, where I also conduct research on race and gender politics in the United States.

George Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is on the syllabus. The film was groundbreaking in its use of horror as political critique. Half a century later, Romero’s films are still in conversation with racial politics in the United States, and Romero’s recent death calls for reflection on his legacy as a filmmaker.

Disquieted times

Newark, N.J. Rioting erupted in the predominantly black area of Newark’s central ward in July 1967.
AP Photo

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor and monster theorist at George Washington University, notes that “Like all monsters, zombies are metaphors for that which disquiets their generative times.”

Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, when Americans’ attention was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were new to broadcast news. Romero reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma, as the zombie hoard. He filtered public anger and anxieties through the hoard, reflecting what many viewed as liberals’ rage and disappointment over a lack of real social change and others saw as conservatives’ fear over disruptions in race relations and traditional family structures. This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor – it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.

In “Night of the Living Dead,” an unlikely cross-section of people are cornered in a farmhouse by a zombie hoard. They struggle with each other and against the zombies to survive the night. At the end of the film, black protagonist Ben Huss is the sole survivor. He emerges from the basement at daybreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by an all-white militia. The militiamen congratulate each other and remark that Huss is “another one for the fire.” They never realize their terrible error. Perhaps they are inclined to see Huss as a threat to begin with, because he is black.

At the start of Romero’s next film, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which another unlikely bunch faces off against zombies in a shopping mall, police surround a public housing building. One officer remarks on the unfairness of putting blacks and Hispanics in these “big-ass fancy hotels” and proceeds to shoot residents indiscriminately, not distinguishing between the living and the undead.

The officers are shooting to restore the “natural order” in which the dead stay dead. But their actions also restore the prevailing social order and the institutions that create and reinforce racial inequality.

Zombie revival

In my class, I connect these scenes of dehumanization to contemporary racial politics, using them as a springboard for conversations about racially motivated police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. These discussions focus on the zombie as a dehumanized creature.

In returning from the dead, zombies lose their human essence – their agency, critical reasoning capacities, empathy and language. As Cohen writes, “Zombies are a collective, a swarm. They do not own individualizing stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble. They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking, and poorly dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay.” Zombies retain a human form, but lose their individuality and are dehumanized in their reanimation.

Film director George A. Romero in Mexico City in 2011.
AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Minority victims of police shootings are often portrayed in the media as dangerous, animalistic and even monstrous – meaning they too are stripped of their basic humanity. Social psychologists argue that perceptions of humanity are a critical part of social cognition – the way we process or think about other people and social settings. When we see people or groups as less than human, predictable consequences arise. Romero’s films tune us in to our own potential for dehumanization.

Zombie psychology

Dehumanization relaxes our moral restrictions on doing harm to others and ultimately facilitates violence against them. When people see members of a group as an undifferentiated “hoard,” they’re susceptible to the same error as the militiamen in “Night of the Living Dead.” When they couple dehumanization with hatred, resentment or fear, they become like the resentful police officer in “Dawn of the Dead.” Dehumanization of black Americans underpins the violence perpetrated against them in Romero’s films and in America today.

Dehumanization isn’t confined to police violence. New research shows that dehumanization of Muslims and Hispanics underlies support for restrictive immigration policies and a border wall. It also undercuts support for aid to refugees.

In my own research, I show that political candidates are often dehumanized in political discourse and campaign imagery. This work suggests that monsters plague our elections and governance processes more broadly.

The ConversationRomero will be best remembered for giving the zombie a place in mainstream American culture, but he also gave us a warning about human psychology and critical insights into racial politics in the U.S. For this reason, his work will continue to have a revered place on my syllabus.

Erin C. Cassese, Associate Professor of Political Science, West Virginia University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s not just O’Reilly and Weinstein: Sexual violence is a ‘global pandemic’

(l) Bill O’Reilly at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, CC BY 3.0, (r)Harvey Weinstein at the 2011 Time 100 Gala. (Photo credit: David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0)

Valerie Dobiesz, Harvard University and Julia Brooks, Harvard University

The recent exposure of widespread sexual predation in the American media industry, from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, has elicited shock and sparked debate on violence against women in the United States.

Sexual harassment isn’t the exclusive domain of show biz big shots. It remains alarmingly prevalent nationwide, even as other crimes are generally decreasing nationwide.

In the U.S., a 2006 study found that 27 percent of college women reported some form of forced sexual contact – ranging from kissing to anal intercourse – after enrolling in school. This sexual violence is heavily underreported, with just 20 percent of female student victims reporting the crime to law enforcement.

Nor is sexual harassment limited to the United States. The U.N. has called gender-based violence a “global pandemic.” As experts in emergency medicine and legal research at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, we believe it’s important to acknowledge that this issue transcends national borders and class boundaries to touch the lives of roughly 33 percent of all women worldwide.

A world of trouble

According to World Health Organization estimates, one in three women worldwide will experience either physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, many of them before the age of 15.

In fact, for many rural women, their first sexual encounter will be a forced one. Some 17 percent of women in rural Tanzania, 21 percent in Ghana, 24 percent in Peru, 30 percent in Bangladesh and 40 percent in South Africa report that their first sexual experience was nonconsensual.

Intimate partner violence is also pervasive globally. In one World Health Organization study, 22 to 25 percent of women surveyed in cities in England, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Zimbabwe reported that a boyfriend or husband had committed some form of sexual violence against them. Globally, up to 55 percent of women murdered are killed by their partners.

Violence against women takes many forms, ranging from psychological abuse to the kind of sexual predation, sexual assault and rape allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein. Honor killings, physical attacks, female infanticide, genital cutting, trafficking, forced marriages and sexual harassment at work and school are also considered gender-based violence.

Rates range from country to country – from 15 percent in Japan to 71 percent in Ethiopia – but violence is, in effect, a ubiquitous female experience.

Sexual violence is committed at particularly high rates in crisis settings like war zones, refugee camps and disaster zones.

In these places, even humanitarian workers are not immune. Dyan Mazurana and her colleagues at Tufts University found that many female development-aid staffers in places such as South Sudan, Afghanistan and Haiti had experienced disturbing rates of sexual assault, often perpetrated by their own colleagues.

Explaining sexual violence

So what’s driving this pervasive phenomenon? Research reveals that there are multiple causes of sexual violence, among them gender inequality and power differentials between men and women.

For example, sexual violence occurs more frequently in cultures where violence is widely accepted and where beliefs about family honor, sexual purity and male sexual entitlement are strongly held.

Even in many countries that rank well on gender equality, including in the United States, weak legal sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence can encourage and effectively condone such behavior.

So can cultural acceptance. Weinstein’s sexual predatory behavior was longstanding and well-known within the film industry, yet he was allowed to continue his abuse with impunity – until women began speaking up.

Likewise, Fox News renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract even after he and the company had made at least six multi-million-dollar settlements with women who filed sexual harassment claims against him. Awareness of a problem is one thing; taking action is quite another.

Men with lower educational levels, or who have been exposed to maltreatment or family violence as children, are more likely to commit sexual violence themselves.

That’s because violence begets violence, a relationship that’s abundantly clear in the kinds of conflict zones where we work. Mass rape has long been used as a weapon of war, and has been well-documented during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia and South Sudan.

Among the most salient cases are the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. According to the U.N.‘s High Commissioner for Refugees, up to 500,000 Rwandan women were systematically raped in 1994 as part of an ethnic cleansing strategy, while tens of thousands of Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped between 1992 and 1995.

Psychological trauma

Wherever and however it happens, violence against women and girls poses a major public health problem for women and their communities.

Some 42 percent of women who experience intimate partner violence reported an injury
– including bruises, abrasions, cuts, punctures, broken bones and injuries to the ears and eyes – as a consequence of that abuse. Women who suffer violence are also 1.5 times more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, twice as likely to experience depression and drinking problems and twice as likely to have an abortion.

Violence against women is also closely associated with suicide and self-harm.

If there’s any silver lining to the Weinstein and O’Reilly scandals, it’s that in coming out against these high-profile men, dozens of women have helped to highlight not just the prevalence of sexual violence in the United States but also the societal norms that silence women and allow abusers to go unchecked.

Humanitarian organizations from the World Health Organization to the U.N. to the U.S. Agency for International Development have recognized that gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue. Addressing it requires working with men and boys, too, to counter the cultures of toxic masculinity that encourage or tolerate sexual violence.

After all, women’s rights are human rights, so sexual violence is everyone’s problem to solve.

The ConversationThe fact is, societies with high rates of sexual violence are also more likely to be violent and unstable. Research shows that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.

Valerie Dobiesz, Emergency Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Director of External Programs STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation, Core Faculty Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University and Julia Brooks, Researcher in international law and humanitarian response, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can transgender TV characters help bridge an ideological divide?

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Erica L. Rosenthal, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

In 2014, Time magazine declared American culture had reached a “transgender tipping point,” with transgender people achieving unprecedented media visibility.

However, in light of recent policy shifts – such as the White House’s rollback of federal guidelines that supported transgender students and Trump’s July 26 Twitter pronouncement that the U.S. military will no longer allow transgender service members – some have questioned whether this visibility has actually meant greater acceptance of trans people.

Studies have shown that entertainment has the power to shape attitudes on health and social issues, from organ donation to the death penalty. But little research has explored the impact of portrayals of transgender people.

For this reason, we wanted to see how transgender TV characters might influence the attitudes of viewers. Specifically, we tested whether political ideology plays a role in how audiences respond to these potentially polarizing depictions.

Transgender media visibility

Time’s “transgender tipping point” from a few years ago was attributed to fictional trans characters in shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black” and news coverage of controversial policy issues, such as discrimination lawsuits about school bathrooms. In April 2015, nearly 17 million people watched Caitlyn Jenner come out as transgender on “20/20.”

It was in this context that the USA Network drama “Royal Pains” included a storyline about a fictional transgender teen named Anna who experiences complications while transitioning from male to female. Although Anna’s subplot lasted only 11 minutes, it grappled with numerous issues: the medical profession’s historical treatment of transgender individuals as mentally ill, parental rights regarding adolescent transitions and the risks of hormone replacement therapy.

We first learned of the upcoming “Royal Pains” storyline in early 2015, when the show’s writers contacted Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a USC Annenberg-affiliated program that gives entertainment industry professionals accurate and timely information for storylines on health, safety and national security. (Erica is a researcher at HH&S.)

HH&S facilitated conversations between the writers and an expert in the medical treatment of transgender youth. The resulting June 23, 2015 episode, “The Prince of Nucleotides,” received a 2016 GLAAD Media Award, with transgender activist Nicole Maines making her acting debut as Anna.

Media bubbles

Before we could study the impact of Anna’s storyline, we wanted to make sure that the audience was mixed in its views on transgender rights – in other words, that the show wouldn’t simply be preaching to the choir.

Since the 2016 U.S. election, countless stories have explored the “media bubbles” in which Americans live. This trend toward fragmentation permeates news, social media and entertainment. TV shows with broad audience appeal tend to address hot-button social issues relatively infrequently and superficially. Regular viewers of boundary-pushing series, on the other hand, may already be left-leaning.

Research by GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) indicates that transgender characters have appeared primarily on streaming platforms and premium cable channels, while broadcast network shows – which have larger audiences – tend to feature transgender characters only in brief storylines, if at all.

This means viewers disinclined to watch a show like “Transparent,” which features several trans characters, might still encounter such characters in minor storylines in mainstream programs.

“Royal Pains” (2009-2016) was about as mainstream as TV gets today. The show had no real history of addressing LGBTQ issues, so Anna’s episode was unlikely to attract a particularly trans-supportive audience. For us, this made it the ideal show to study transgender portrayals and how they might influence viewers across the ideological spectrum.

Do minor subplots make a difference?

Because HH&S had consulted on the storyline, the members of USA Network’s social media team were open to helping us with our study. They posted links to our survey on the show’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts following the episode. We supplemented this sample by recruiting “Royal Pains” viewers from market research panels. Only those who had seen the episode or one of the two prior episodes were eligible. Of the 488 viewers in our study, 391 had seen Anna’s episode.

A scene from the ‘Royal Pains’ episode featuring Anna, a transgender teen.

Because there were several different shows at the time featuring transgender characters, we asked viewers which of these they had seen. We also measured their exposure to transgender issues in the news, including the unfolding Caitlyn Jenner story.

Finally, we examined several important variables that are known to impact viewers. These include identification with main characters, a sense of being drawn into the world of the story (what media scholars call “transportation”) and the emotions evoked by the storyline.

We found that “Royal Pains” viewers who saw Anna’s story had more supportive attitudes toward transgender people and policies, and we found a cumulative effect of exposure to transgender entertainment narratives. The more portrayals viewers saw, the more supportive their attitudes. Neither exposure to such issues in the news nor Caitlyn Jenner’s story had any effect on attitudes. In other words, the fictional stories we examined were more influential than events in the news.

Consistent with previous research, in our data, political conservatism strongly predicted negative attitudes toward transgender people and lower support for policies that benefit transgender people. However, exposure to two or more transgender storylines cut the strength of this link in half. That is, politically conservative viewers who saw multiple shows featuring transgender characters had more positive attitudes toward trans people than those who saw just one.

Political ideology also shaped viewers’ responses to the “Royal Pains” narrative. Those who were politically liberal were more likely to feel hope or identify with Anna, whereas those who were politically conservative were more likely to react with disgust.

Beyond the bubble

Hollywood is not a panacea for healing our nation’s deep partisan and ideological divisions. To influence attitudes on a broad scale, entertainment storylines must first reach audiences outside cloistered media bubbles.

However, our research suggests nuanced portrayals of transgender individuals – particularly in mainstream forms of entertainment – can break down ideological barriers in a way that news stories may not. Cumulative exposure across multiple shows had the greatest impact on attitudes, but even a relatively brief storyline had a powerful effect too. While politically conservative viewers were more likely to react with disgust, such reactions were tempered by seeing trans characters on a variety of shows.

At a recent GLAAD-sponsored panel, trans actress and activist Laverne Cox noted:

“We’ve got to tell these stories better because lives are on the line. Trans people are being murdered, are being denied health care, access to bathrooms and employment and housing because of all of these…misconceptions that people have about who we really are.”

The ConversationAs the future of thousands of active duty service members hangs in the balance, it’s more imperative than ever to understand how the public responds to media representations of transgender people.

Erica L. Rosenthal, Senior Research Associate, Hollywood, Health & Society, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, PhD Candidate in Communication, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.