By Alice Sachrajda and Marzena Zukowska , co-authors of New Brave World, produced with the support of Unbound Philanthropy. With thanks to Shaun Campbell at Studio Scamps for the fantastic design of the New Brave World report and the stunning illustrations!

We all know the feeling: You’re part way through a riveting television series completely captivated by the characters as the story unfolds. Or, controller at the ready, you’re all set to immerse yourself in a fantasy gaming world, which you alone have the ability to direct. Or, popcorn in hand, you’re getting stuck into a recently released film that everyone has been talking about. 

All of these experiences lead us into a captivating lull, an absorbing state of mind that we love to experience. There is tremendous power encapsulated in these moments. Instead of feeling like we’re being directly communicated to through a megaphone, we feel like we’re unwrapping a gift. We experience a heady curiosity that appeals to our imagination and intelligence. Clever creatives weave their storytelling magic in powerful, even addictive ways. They give you two plus two, not four, and we simply cannot get enough of it. 

There is a collective power too. We become part of a community – or a fandom – who are all experiencing the same narrative. Together our minds open up to new scenarios and ideas. Aficionados of Game of Thrones (described as the biggest and most popular show in the world) will be familiar with Tyrion Lannister’s perceptive words in the series finale, which capture this sentiment exactly: 

“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

So, what does this mean to those of us who are striving for social justice? How can we tap into this tremendous source of collective narrative energy and use it to scale social change? 

The first step is to understand why pop culture is such a powerful force for change. It’s a question that we grappled with in our recent report: New Brave World: The power, opportunities and potential of pop culture for social change in the UK

We know that there are challenges in measuring how culture influences social change; it can be complicated to untangle cause and effect. But we also know that it is possible to demonstrate the impact that pop culture can have on our collective psyche. There are numerous examples that show how and why pop culture has a catalytic effect in shifting beliefs and understanding. Below we share four standout areas from our research:

1. The culture we consume influences our attitudes and can drive policy change – for good or ill

Culture moves issues into the mainstream and provokes us to think about how we view the world. In this way, cultural moments can become the precursor to political and policy change. 

Take the example of The Archers – a UK BBC Radio 4 drama series that featured a long-running domestic violence storyline (between 2013 and 2016) based on the relationship between a couple, Helen Archer and Rob Titchener. The writers worked closely with violence against women activists from the charities Refuge and Women’s Aid to develop the story. The editor of The Archers, Sean O’Connor has spoken about the power of popular fiction to inform and even change the law. The show received unprecedented media and public attention and is largely credited with creating awareness amongst millions of people about the offence of ‘coercive control’ (which was enacted into the law of England and Wales in the Serious Crime Act 2015, and carries a maximum term of five years’ imprisonment). 

But the flip side is that harmful stereotypes can feed into hostile attitudes and damaging policies. Actor, Riz Ahmed, has recently called for an urgent change in the toxic portrayal of Muslims on screen. In his words: 

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded. The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.” 

Riz Ahmed

His speech accompanied the launch of The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, co-published by his production company Left Handed Films, with the Pillars Fund, and a research study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, entitled Missing & Maligned: The reality of Muslims in popular, global movies

Naturally creatives want to retain their artistic integrity; they do not want to feel beholden to a single campaign or politicised by a cause. Yet, culture does not exist in a vacuum free from our social and political context. As Ella Saltmarshe describes in her article, Using Story to Change Systems, there is tremendous power and emotion inherent in cultural narratives. Creatives can actively shape and impact the social and political reality for audiences, often in unintended ways.

As such, there is exciting innovation underway to broker and connect the creative industries and social and environmental sectors. OKRE is a new global charity advancing collaboration across the entertainment, social impact and research sectors. With a mission to “expand people’s understanding of the world” it seeks to achieve impact at scale through the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas. And Albert is uniting the screen industries to make a positive environmental impact and inspiring audiences to act for a sustainable future. It carries out research, has introduced a sustainability certification, provides support to editorial teams and offers guidance to film and TV production. 

2. Representation and cultural power

The stories, images, films, games and media we produce and interact with are embedded with power. They define whose voices are worth listening to, whose lives matter and what we imagine is possible for society. Progressive social movements are instrumental in organising this cultural power. Art and culture raise awareness about social issues among mass audiences, and they stretch our imagination to what is collectively possible. They make, as Black feminist filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara said, “the revolution irresistible”. 

Creatives, filmmakers and game developers are increasingly looking to social movements for inspiration. Steve McQueen has announced the production of a new BBC documentary about the Black Power movement, using archival footage from both the US and the UK. This follows the acclaim of his recent landmark anthology, the Small Axe series. And, notably, in the superhero adventure game Spider-Man: Miles Morales, released by Insomniac, players find a Black Lives Matter mural after finishing all of their side quests and missions. While the New York City-set game has been critiqued for not addressing police violence head-on (instead, opting to almost erase police presence), it is possibly the first public recognition of Black Lives Matter in a video game. 

Michaela Coel’s series I May Destroy You, broadcast on BBC One and HBO, has been lauded by critics as a groundbreaking exploration of consent and depiction of Black British life in London. Her approach is informed and intersectional, refusing to shy away from questions of race, gender, sexuality and class. This shift in gaze has an immense impact on audience perception. GQ writer Reggie Yates, articulated this during a recent interview about the programme: 

“I May Destroy You is probably the first time in forever that I see a London I recognise. To see white working‑class kids playing side by side with the children of immigrants, all using the same slang, dancing to the same Afrobeat record.”

Reggie Yates, GQ writer

Exciting initiatives are springing up to galvanise the expertise and energy of people of colour working in the creative industries. Pocc is a new creative network that is driving cultural impact with an ever-growing network of people of colour creatives. And Skin Deep is making space for Black creatives and creatives of colour to work towards justice through cultural production. These sorts of organisations, much like Color of Change Hollywood, are changing the written, and unwritten rules, that shape content creation, production and distribution and are building momentum for large-scale industry change. 

3. Pop culture can provide a safe place for us to reassess our beliefs and normalise progressive ideas

Over time pop culture can normalise ideas, actions, identities and behaviours. In 1994 UK TV soap opera, Brookside, made waves by broadcasting the first female same-sex kiss before the 9pm watershed. Despite the complaints and the furore at the time, it paved the way for greater LGBTQ+ equality on-screen. Fast-forward to 2020 and the BBC was quick to dismiss a flurry of complaints about a children’s programme featuring a same-sex kiss on the Canadian drama, The Next Step. The consternation was short-lived and it barely made the news; times have evidently changed. The broadcaster categorically stated that it was “proud to reflect all areas of children’s lives” across its output.  

Likewise, the award‑winning Schitt’s Creek, and its queer relationship storyline, is testament to the power of normalisation. Dan Levy, the show’s creator, reminds us that it is sometimes important to provide a safe space for us to learn and to change our minds at our own pace, rather than be forcibly challenged. In his words: “I never learn when I feel like I’m being taught a lesson.” The show has remained popular, making history in 2020 for the most Emmy wins by a comedy in a single series.

The disarming power of comedy is an area that opens us up to new ways of thinking and feeling. This is beautifully articulated by Suchandrika Chakrabarti, a freelance journalist, podcaster and stand-up comedian, whose article: ‘Performing comedy is an expression of power’ is featured in the New Brave World report: 

“There is a surrender to the moment of laughter, when the audience is lost in reacting, rather than thinking. Then there is the afterglow, in which the ones who laughed feel as though the comic ‘gets’ them. In this locked‑down moment, when news avoidance is sky‑high, comedy provides community, uplift, a microsecond of feeling more powerful than the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti

British comedy has undergone a transformation in recent years. Emerging creators — young people of colour, women and working‑class individuals — are reimagining the power of humour and comedy to inventively tackle a range of social issues. Take Lady Parts, for example, a Channel 4 comedy series created by Nida Manzoor which chronicles the trials and tribulations of an all‑women Muslim punk band. Riding this wave is No Direction Home, a unique programme from Counterpoints Arts to support aspiring comedians from refugee and migrant backgrounds. 

There is a growing awareness of centring lived experience in the entertainment industry to advise and guide the portrayal of sensitive or controversial issues. UK-based organisations such as On Road Media (which supports people who have lived experience to share their stories in the media and on-screen) and We Are Bridge (a collective of film and TV professionals supporting new and emerging talent in the creative industries) are providing valuable professional support and direction. 

4. Pop culture can set a vision for the future 

Science fiction and other speculative genres expand our imaginations, whether that is through alternative histories, technologically advanced worlds or societies on the brink of apocalyptic disaster. 

As a genre, afrofuturism has not shied away from social justice issues. In the film Fast Color, Black women protagonists tackle the climate crisis and save the earth from an eight‑year drought by building on generational power. Implicitly, the film responds to long‑standing critiques of the climate justice movement’s failure to recognise the leadership of activists of colour. The series Noughts + Crosses, adapted from the popular young adult series by Black British writer Malorie Blackman, explores entrenched racial bias by creating what critic Amanda‑Rae Prescott calls a “distinctly Afrofuturist dystopian society.” By imagining an alternative history in which African people colonised European society, the series creates space to reflect on systemic racism in the present.

Likewise, Simon Amstell’s Carnage (a ‘mockumentary’ set in the year 2067 where the world is vegan and suffering the guilt of its carnivorous past) and Russell T Davies’ Years and Years (described as 2019’s ‘most terrifying TV show’ offering up a chilling forecast of where the UK might be heading) are programmes that push us beyond the present and challenge us to consider the impact of our actions as a society. 

Science fiction, as adrienne maree brown writes in the book Emergent Strategy, is “‘simply a way to practice the future together.” In this way pop culture can help us to imagine a future more inclusive and multidimensional than our present. 

And where better to do this than through gaming – where we can direct the outcome and explore different scenarios unfold before our eyes. There are a growing number of organisations working with the games industry to boost representation and centre lived experience. POC in Play, for example, is working to increase the visibility of people of colour in the games industry. Black Girl Gamers is a global multi‑platform online community dedicated to supporting Black women and Black LGBTQIA+ identified gamers of all ages. Code Coven serves as an online accelerator for marginalised communities, including people of colour and gender‑nonconforming individuals, in the gaming industry. And Queerly Represent Me is a not for profit helping marginalised communities through resources, training and support, specialising in working with the games industry.

So, where do we go from here? 

The vast rise in popularity of streaming platforms and the global growth of gaming are indications of the direction and speed we are travelling. Gaming and accessible technologies, in particular, are areas of emergent, untapped potential, worthy of research and philanthropic investment. 

Organisations such as the Pop Culture Collaborative, Define American, Norman Lear Center, Caring Across Generations, Harness, Color of Change, Break the Room (and countless others) are powerfully catalysing the pop culture for social change field in the US. But there is also a growing pop culture for social change ecosystem in the UK, as the organisations and examples above demonstrate. There is also a growing interest from UK funders to understand more about this intersection and to explore opportunities to fund in this space.

As well as growing and strengthening the pop culture for social change ecosystem, encouraging investment and supporting innovation, we also need to foster greater transatlantic learning. The UK has much to learn from the US, but likewise, the US can also look to the UK as an emerging player in this exciting field.

If you’re interested in this space, then do look out for a series of salons on pop culture and social change in autumn 2021 by Pop Change produced by Counterpoints Arts. Their upcoming event: Stand up comedy and the critical conversation is taking place on Tuesday 28th September 2021, in collaboration with the new But is it Funny? podcast.