In my upcoming book on how women write the story of the wandering heroine, I make the claim that authors can change our reality by imagining a new future, a new way of being, that becomes a goal for people to achieve in real life. For example, Doris Lessing’s 1962 book The Golden Notebook had as protagonists two independent women who made their own ways in the world and who expected men to treat them as equals. Lessing said she wrote as if the Women’s Liberation movement had already come to pass, but in 1962 that movement was barely in its infancy. The role models Lessing gave women with her characters Anna and Molly helped shape the ideals of the movement. While Lessing wryly commented that these characters “came as a surprise” to most male critics, women readers recognized them immediately and wanted to be like them.
The same thing happens onscreen. Lt. Uhura of Star Trek was the first black female character in a lead role in a television series. When comedian Whoopie Goldberg, then a child, saw the show, she exclaimed to her family “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to apply to NASA and become the first black woman in space. Uhura and Lt. Sulu, a Japanese-American character, allowed us to imagine a future where race did not matter. The character of Ensign Chekov, a Russian, suggested that in this future, nationality and past political differences would not matter either. This opened the way to “colorblind” casting where the race of the actor is irrelevant to the story, as with Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan in Unforgiven.
Likewise, the show Will and Grace showed us a gay man who behaved in every way like any other man might, except in his choices of sexual partners. Ellen Degeneres dared to come out in her own sitcom Ellen and her talk show is now one of the most popular shows on television. Nowadays, race and sexual orientation, like gender, is mostly treated as no less or more important than other factors; each plays a role in how a character behaves, but the character’s individual personality is allowed to shine through.
I’m watching with approval how movies and TV shows are widening the net of “normal” to include people who differ in other ways. The show Life Goes On, which ran from 1989 to 1993, had a lead character who had Down Syndrome. The current hit show Glee also has a character with Down Syndrome who made the cheerleading team. Willow, the 1988 film by George Lucas, featured Warwick Davis, a dwarf, in the lead role. Willow and Davis broke the ground for subsequent film roles for “little people” in not just fantasy films and shows like Game of Thrones, but serious movies like The Station Agent and TV shows like Seinfeld.
We become accustomed to what we see. The more we see different sorts of people portrayed on screen, the more we get used to them and think of them as normal. Then it’s no big deal when we see them in the neighborhood, at school, or at the workplace. And thus our society is gently changed.