Growing up, I did not have the luxuries of enjoying “mass media.” My family was poor. We were mostly concerned with making sure our business didn’t fail, or how we would eat that night. Riding the school bus in the morning with the other kids was filled with me listening to what happened that night on TV, and then regurgitating what I heard to my friends to seem like I was in the know. Every so often, I’d get to sit next to the boy who owned a CD player, and he’d graciously let me listen to a song or two if he was in the mood. I mostly consumed free books from the library (which ended up being quite costly when I forgot to return them) and the radio my mom listened to during the few years we had a car. I only watched TV when I visited my Grandmother’s house in the summer. Rarely was she watching anything but the news and soap operas, but the few times she changed, she would watch old sci-fi movies like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (science fiction still remains my favorite genre of film) or Jaws. But I cannot forget one summer we got a TV and a DVD player. Suddenly, and with thanks to the man who sold illegal copies of movies on the corner, I could see all of the movies my friends were seeing and talk about them. I could understand the weird jokes and references on the school bus.
Growing up, I was also very religious. A large portion of my family happened to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, which preach strongly about the dangers of the media. The media was filled with violence, deceit, and all other sins that would not be pleasing to God. Abstaining from politics and other worldly matters meant the news was watched sparingly. That summer when we got the TV, my brother and I would sneak and watch Saturday morning cartoons before my parents got up. Thankfully the best cartoons were on channel 5, so we didn’t need cable. I remember watching Jackie Chan Adventures and looking past the violence. I remember watching Pokemon and not realizing that it stood for pocket monsters and I’d probably be on punishment if they knew. I didn’t realize that it was changing my perspective on the world around me. Now I consume media without any thought process about how it affects me, except for the paranormal, that’s still too much for me.
It’s a slippery slope for someone once emerged in religion to figure out there’s other ways of living. One day, I’m watching Pokemon, and the next I’m checking out Harry Potter at the library. I can never forget the day my mother found the book. I was sitting on the couch, speed reading as usual, when she snatched the book from me and scolded me for what felt like hours. She placed the book on the patio and told me in the morning I needed to return it immediately. I didn’t understand why it was a big deal. I was reading fiction. It was not like I was in the living room practicing witchcraft; but to her, it was. After Harry Potter, it was a relatively peaceful life until high school. In 2006, my freshman year was the turning point of the internet. No longer was the internet a tool for typing essays, but a social gathering place for everyone. I got a MySpace, my mother found that. Xanga, she found that too. But each site exposed me to more and more things I was sheltered away from. Combine that with the sheltered things other people found too and it’s safe to call high school a cesspool of experimentation. I remember watching TV at my grandmother’s house and wanting to imitate the people on the screen, mostly to fit in with my peers. I did notice that there wasn’t a lot of people on the screen who looked like me. If there were any people of color, they were almost a caricature or if they were portrayed as normal, something was off.
I cannot recall today a show I’ve watched were the family on TV was struggling to eat or clothe themselves. I also cannot recall a show I’ve watched where a family owned a business and the anxiety of the business failing is such a heavy burden it’s hard for them to sleep at night. It could be that the average media consumer does not want to see what the lower income bracket truly lives at. I remember finding out at school that people actually had maids that come once a week to clean their house. I was sitting in 8th grade physics and a student said she needed an extension because “the maid accidentally threw out her project.” I was using free lunch tickets while the girl next to me had a maid. I was wearing the same few clothes shuffled around and others can afford to pay people to do what I slaved every night to do.
Now, I’m at a point in my life where I can consume mass media freely. I go to watch a film bi-weekly, if not weekly. My car radio station is mostly tuned into NPR. I can probably say that 90% of the TV shows I watch are produced in another country, especially countries where I feel we share the same morals and values. I don’t think the creator of Pokemon expected his show to change my stances on religion and spearhead my love and hatred of media. I do credit him fully though. The media has also given me a sense of self. I see how people of color and women are portrayed in the media and it makes me want to be a producer of media itself to give them a voice. To give people like myself, who grew up poor, black, a target, and all these other statistics a voice because the media would much rather focus their attention on middle to upper class white families, whose daily struggle includes their maids throwing out research projects. The media sent out a message, and I received it.