How will the pandemic be portrayed on television and in movies in the future?
When the project was first announced, the pandemic had been raging for months, even though vaccinations were still a distant dream. The story of a relationship tested through a mandatory stay-at-home order might have seemed, from a studio’s point of view, like the obvious: of course, people could relate to it.
But for audiences who may have been part of the problem, according to Karen Dill-Shackleford, a social psychologist at Fielding Graduate University and editor of the journal Psychology of Popular Media.
Anne Hathaway in a photo from “Locked Down”, a romantic heist film set during the pandemic. Credit: Susie Allnutt / HBO Max
âThere are two ways to deal with trauma: active and passive management,â said Dill-Shackleford. âSome people like to get more involved in the news surrounding the pandemic, because it gives them the impression that they have some control over it. Others face avoiding, and for them, escape is the key.”
Most importantly, there isn’t a single type of story that audiences want to watch, she added. “We have different needs based on our lived experiences, and those needs also change as we deal with our trauma.”
Inundated with daily updates on the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, some people may have found comfort in re-viewing the shows as they did not need to pay close attention to what was going on. screen, added Dill-Shackleford. When reality demands our constant preoccupation, it can be heartwarming to disengage from the outside world and let our minds wander through a story about maskless teens finding a date for the ball.
A photo from “Outbreak” from 1995, starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. Credit: TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy
Erase or kiss?
This forked approach to media consumption may have left storytellers unsure of whether – or to what extent – they should address the social, financial and physical issues surrounding the pandemic. Should they address the trauma by offering comfort and solidarity to viewers, or should they ignore the pandemic altogether by describing an alternate reality in which the terms “social distancing”, “containment” and “essential worker” were never entered into the traditional lexicon?
The answer, according to Dill-Shackleford, is “it depends”.
âThe decisions to portray the pandemic on screen are more intense than other storytelling decisions,â she said. “Writers and directors don’t know what part of their audience they are serving and what part of their audience can’t bring themselves to watch.”
An image from season six of âSuperstore,â which explored the impact of the coronavirus on the characters in the series. Credit: Greg Gayne / NBC
This isn’t the first time that studios have faced such dilemmas in the wake of a deadly event – and their approaches have varied. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, manifested in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film “Godzilla” as a creature that wreaks havoc among defenseless citizens. Rather than fleeing fears of a nuclear holocaust, the film reflected Japanese anxiety about nuclear destruction.
Some shows have taken an approach similar to Covid-19. The new reboot of “Gossip Girl”, for example, started filming last November, although Covid-19 appears to have been wiped out (or never existed) in the fictional New York City in which the film is set. story.
But series about frontline healthcare workers and grocery store workers, like âGrey’s Anatomyâ and âSuperstore,â clearly felt more compelled to portray their experiences onscreen. One of the most prominent examples of pandemic storytelling came from season seven of ABC’s comedy “Black-ish,” which explored the ways in which Covid-19 affected members of the Johnson family as they work, go to school (via Zoom) and live nearby to one another.
At one point, father Dre (Anthony Anderson) collapses on the couch and admits he’s feeling irritable and anxious, complaining that “nothing seems normal”. His wife anesthetist, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), shakes her head sympathetically and replies, “Nothing is normal, Dr. We are disinfecting the boxes … I microwaved our mail yesterday. So it is. understandable that you’re stressed, honey. We don’t have any of our normal coping mechanismsâ¦ We’re used to living life with certainty and we don’t. “
Dill-Shackleford said this type of on-screen exchange demonstrates the therapeutic potential of media. âIn many ways – and especially as we struggle right now – we rely on these stories to make us feel like we are not alone,â she said.
Benefit of hindsight
At this point in the pandemic, Dill-Shackleford said, describing Covid-19 remains a double-edged sword. Even among viewers who are comfortable talking about the events of the past 18 months, there is “a certain level of exhaustion” with the topic.
“With some people (who are) getting their shots and slowly starting to create a new normal, the last thing they want to do now is remember the headspace they were in ago. a year, âDill-Shackleford said.
Tracee Ellis Ross portraying her character Bow, who is a first responder, in the “black-ish” season seven premiere. Credit: ABC
Wright believes future renderings of the coronavirus pandemic should flesh out the nuances in how it has affected different segments of our societies.
“When enough time has passed for us to reflect on that time, I would really love to see movies and TV shows that take these experiences into account,” she said, adding that the impact of Covid -19 varies according to the origins of people. “For example, show how the pandemic has disproportionately affected black Americans; discuss the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans.”
Those who have had particularly traumatic experiences, such as the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, or mental health issues, may naturally shy away from content that compels them to relive their ordeal. But, Wright said, the general public will benefit from the production of these stories for mass consumption.
âEven if you can’t stand watching these movies or TV shows, it is essential that other people can understand the profound impact of the public health crisis from other perspectives,â she added. “Seeing different experiences portrayed on screen helps build empathy between people from different backgrounds.”
Another single from “Locked Down”, released in January. Credit: Susie Allnutt / HBO Max
As countries around the world attempt to restore some semblance of normalcy, the public may also seek out accounts that feature early experiences of the pandemic as a way to achieve the shutdown, Wright said.
âIf we see a character losing their job, struggling to work from home or navigate distance learning, that validates us,â she explained. “If we haven’t done it perfectly, it’s good because nobody has done it perfectly.”
Regardless of viewers’ current media consumption habits, Dill-Shackleford and Wright hope future portrayals of the pandemic will inspire discourse on individual and collective experiences.
âIf a show or movie chooses to tackle the pandemic, hopefully they will do so in a way that helps their audience reflect on the events they’ve been through,â Dill-Shackleford said.
âThere is a two-way experience between ourselves and the media we consume,â Wright added. “The media reflect our experiences and, at the same time, they influence our behaviors and future experiences.”
Top image: Jude Law in the 2011 movie âContagionâ.