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Depiction of Systemic Oppression in Pop Culture: Analysis of Movies

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Modern literature, cinematography, music industry, graphic novels or any other major component of pop culture is in one way or another reflection of the society in which it is created and formed as a part of the mainstream culture. For years, popular culture has been indeed the tool of expressing and shedding light on the problems and issues that are predominant in the cultures and societies they are created. Race, gender, social inequality, drug issues, sexuality, and other key issues that are the concerns of the society as a whole are often found to be the principal problems in the plotlines of various pop culture works.

Reasons why social issues are essential parts of modern popular culture, might vary but one thing can be stated that people like to watch, read, listen to the stories that they can relate and be familiar with. On the other hand, exhibiting social issues through the medium of novels, movies, music, and etc. help the society to analyze the problem and look at it from a different perspective.

Judging problems from an outsider’s point of view is crucial when it comes to the social problems that are so deeply set in the society that it is hardly perceived as a problem from the members of the society itself. Such an approach is especially necessary in the case of systemic oppression because the essence of systemic oppression is that, to some extent, it is a normalized set of behavior in a certain society. It is not perceived as an oppressive behavior from the specific person or authority but it’s rather a part of the society’s behavior in general and no specific guilty party can be found in many cases.

The fact that systemic oppression is often a semi-normalized behavior of society, makes it especially important to express it in the pop culture in order to show that institutionalized oppression is so deep problem for the society. In this essay, I would like to discuss the way systemic oppression is displayed in two prominent pieces of works of modern popular culture. Both movies, Dangerous Minds and Higher Learning are based on the issues of social inequality and also on the way those inequalities are the result of systemic oppression which is often hard to identify, yet it’s a very evident and essential component of the problem of inequality.

In the case of Higher learning, the movie flashlights a lot of issues of the society as a whole and the reality of campus life in particular. John Singleton, the director of the movie is famous for speaking up about the racial inequalities in his movies. This particular film is a kind of a projection of the society represented by a kind of sanctuary – the college campus of young students in the post-racist America where the laws do not particularly support racial inequality, however, that does not eliminate and vanish systemic oppression all together. The movie shows the way oppressive behavior is a part of the people’s mindset which is much harder to change than the official laws of the country. The college campus is an ideal place to assess society and their attitudes towards issues such as racism. Higher learning depicts the situation of Columbus University, a fictional campus in which freshman students are trying to fit the new life of adulthood in a way people adjust to life in America in general. The combination of African American Malik, feeble and scared white guy Remi and white girl Kristen creates a kind of a simulation of real-life in which the people of different social standings, different histories, and different insecurities are trying to find themselves and at the same time trying to protect themselves from each other.

The main problem is the way of protecting oneself and the way of oppressing others in the process. Singleton’s movie offers several angles of discussion and several angles of systemic oppression that is projected in the mindset of the society, even in the mindset of the oppressed members themselves. African American boy, Malik has set as his goal to become a successful athlete and in a way, he reckons that it’s all that’s asked from him. At some point, he even asks from his deeply conservative black professor to be easier on him about academic performance. The professor, Maurice Phipps might be the only person in this fictional society of American university, who opposes to the oppressive society and its fixed mindset. He refuses Malik’s wish to be treated less strictly and to be asked less in terms of academic performance. Indeed, Phipps makes him set the same standards as anyone else and work for achieving a decent level of academic excellence. While even Malik himself regarded that his only aspiration was perfection in sports and didn’t even consider to be academically equal to his peers, Phipps stood up for this kind of mindset and make him become equal to other students. Malik’s attitude to his goals and purposes show that even when the official laws cannot be blamed directly, systemic oppression still influences people’s lives and their thinking as well as the way they perceive themselves as a part of the society.

Malik’s perception of the self and his own role is not the only instance when systemic oppression reveals its influence on the life of a young black student. Each of the three freshman students is somehow ‘adopted’ and guided by the older students of similar standpoints and similar social backgrounds. Similarly, Remy, a week white boy with puzzled eyes is befriended by Nazi skinheads who guide his racist behavior against Malik and eventually to his violent and fatal attack on the students. Remy’s racist behavior against Malik is not adequately reacted by the authorities and they even helped him to escape more than once when he attacked the black students. Systemic oppression might not be a part of official rules but the problem with it is that it always finds the way in people’s minds and influences their behavior. People who let Remy escape, certainly wouldn’t do the same if he was not a white guy attacking the black students.

Being extra helpful for the white people against the blacks, even to the extent of serious damage and crime, is indeed a result of systemic oppression, which takes place in the society as a whole and not in a particular person’s mind only. It influences the way people treat each other and even the way they treat themselves just as it was obvious in Malik’s case.

Another movie I’m going to discuss in regard to the systemic oppression and its influence on the social patterns is John N Smith’s Dangerous Minds. In this case, the movie itself is about the oppressed parts of society. The class of so-called “special kids” is made up of black and Hispanic students from poor families. The class indeed a separate society within the school, the class of cast-outs that are already doomed to follow the life of hardship with insufficient education. The children are already oppressed by the school system and separated with the label of difficulty.

The movie starts with the new teacher being hired to teach the class of social outcasts who are segregated with the reason of their difficult behavior and poor academic performance. However, the problem in the case of those children is much deeper and they belong to the poorest families of the society and at the same time, they belong to the Hispanic and Black families. The situation itself that the children of the lowest economic level are separated and mostly gave up from their children brings up lots of issues and problems. However, the main issue is that all those children are the victims of systemic oppression that has very deep roots of racism in American society.

Even though the movie is in many ways an idealized version of reality, it shows the way the system treats the poor minorities and also, it depicts the way the situation is perceived as normal from lots of people, including the school authorities and teachers. The children of this special class do not show interest in education, they are not enthusiastic about getting along with a new teacher and they are indeed the difficult children who have been used to being the outcast members of ‘white society’. The development of the movie shows how those children change their attitudes and behavior when the young teacher invests her energy devotion in the attempt to interest them. The students are showing interest in the poetry of Bob Dylan and they get invested in the studies. The situation is similar to many movies, including dead poets’ society, it’s about the heroic teacher who changes the life of the students. However, the main issue with this particular situation is that the devotion of a single teacher is not enough and it can’t defeat all the other factors of oppression that are indeed systemic and that influences the whole life of young people. They are brought up as the outcasts of society and are treated like that even by their families. Interesting as it may be, learning and analyzing Dylan’s poetry is not even remotely enough for changing their life which is already determined by the situation created by the system of oppression. It is not coincidental that the majority of the class are either black or Latino students. They come from the families of the lowest position in society and the fact that their racial belonging determines their life and their future is the result of the oppression with the deeper roots in the past. Even though in the ‘90s, when racial discrimination was not a part of the official regulations, quite evidently it still was a part of the society. Systemic oppression is created by the chain of events, history, and social formation, that determine people’s way of thinking and contribute to the fact that some members of the society are doomed to be the victims of such a mindset. The same happens in Dangerous Minds. Even though there are no particular people who can be blamed for the situation of the children, they are indeed the victims of the society that let them be sacrificed for the difficult life and as much as the well-meaning teacher tries to help them, her commitment is vain when the whole society is a part of oppression aimed against those children.

To conclude, the two movies discussed above represent lots of social issues of the society in the 90s and even today. However, the most striking similarity between them is that they both depict the way the system of society influences the life of racial minorities and the way the collective mindset of the people oppress them. In the case of Higher Learning, even the black student himself projects systemic oppression on himself when he believes that the teacher should be easy on him and ask less academic excellency compared to his peers. He perceives himself as an athlete who is not asked to study and the system perceives him as a black boy who is less worthy of protection while the white guy is involved. Though equality has been well appreciated and its necessity has been acknowledged, systemic oppression is still an issue because it is a part of people’s mindset, which is very difficult to change. The same happens in Dangerous Minds, the children of the oppressed minority are the victims of inequality even in the most equal country in the world. They are brought up in the social formation where racial oppression is a part of the system and even though there are no particular people who can be blamed for their misfortune, the society as a whole is responsible for the oppression of systemic nature. 

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