The Portrayal of ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’ in the Media
Print Science Editor, Scarlett Parr-Reid, discusses whether the media should be allowed to typecast superheroes and cartoon villains in their narratives.
From the portrayal of heroes such as Harry Potter, Matilda Wormwood and Jo March, to villains like Cruella de Vil, Bill Sikes and Count Olaf, the narratives of storybooks guide our viewpoints. Is this same bipolarity of “goodies” and “baddies” seen in the media? Take, for example, coverage of climate change. Can we really say that Greta Thunberg is a hero and politicians are villains? Reality is far less simple and is inherently nuanced. Case in point, Channel 4’s Climate Debate last November.
Five of seven party leaders stood poised at their podiums, two replaced with ice statues melting as the show continued. Boris Johnson was absent, but in his words afterwards he stated he ‘can’t do absolutely everything… the media process demands’, and maintained it was achievable to ‘reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050’. The same media process led to “more people…talking about [the ice statues] than any of the substance that came out of the debate..[which is] a shame”, as Johnson put it. Perhaps in its perceived narrative of mockery and trivialisation, Channel 4 is no less of a baddie than a Prime Minister who, as LBC stated, “didn’t show up”.
Perhaps in its perceived narrative of mockery and trivialisation, Channel 4 is no less of a baddie than a Prime Minister who, as LBC stated, “didn’t show up”.
Rewind to 5 December 2016: the word’s first declaration of a climate emergency was signed by Australian Greens Councillor, Trent McCarthy in Darebin, Melbourne. A historic move. But, fast forward to September 2019, the beginning of the worst bushfire season in Australia since 1974: soaring temperatures peaked at 40.9 degrees and persistent droughts ravaged the land.
Since the fires began, 18.6 million hectares of land have been scorched, 29 people are deceased and nearly one billion animals are dead, some species perhaps driven to extinction. All the while, Australian President Scott Morrison holidayed in Hawaii, saying on return that the emergency response to the bushfires was “the best in the world”. Morrison went on to say that associating the bushfires and climate change was “not a credible link”.
This new form of denialism, akin to Trump’s relaxation of restrictions on power plant emissions, is obstructive and represents power politics over morality. Moreover, Morrison describes “the urge to panic [as] politically motivated” – a nod to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s words “I want you to panic” at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
In essence, typecast superheroes and cartoon villains are an easy narrative for the media. But it’s not with ease that the world emerges from a climate crisis.
Thunberg aligns panic with moral duty and responsibility. To what extent does anger achieve action? To play the devil’s advocate? If your teenager said “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood”, how might you respond? There are ways of saying things without a tone of resentment and vexation. However, her anger signals the need for decision. It’s the boiling over of frustration, and we should be frustrated about inaction. When a contributor to Fox news referred to Thunberg as “exploited by her parents and the international left”, they really meant that she is not a climate-change denier and does not subscribe to “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”.
After her speech at the 2019 UN Summit, Thunberg called for action on the climate crisis from five countries – Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey – but stopped short of China. China is not a democracy. But she emphasised that “the real power belongs to the people”, offering hope that there will be a knock-on effect in China if the democracies take action first. The reality, as Sir David Attenborough put it, is if the Chinese were to state that “for our own reasons we are going to take major steps to curb our carbon output because our climate is changing… everybody else would fall into line”.
In essence, typecast superheroes and cartoon villains are an easy narrative for the media. But it’s not with ease that the world emerges from a climate crisis. The should media be impartial, to show not to tell. Right now, we have the option to sit back and let the “heroes” and “villains” struggle and occasionally check devices to see who is winning. Australian opposition Labour leader, Anthony Albanese, made a pertinent comment on the Climate issue: “Here’s the contradiction in the Government’s position – they say [they’re] just 1.3% of emissions therefore [they] don’t have a responsibility to act, it really won’t make a difference”. The reality, he said, is that “if everyone says that, of course, no-one will act”. The portrayal of heroes and villains by the media only seeks to perpetuate this inaction through the disenchantment of the public with politicians.