Social Justice

We can use critical theory to critique works of art through the lens of social justice. Fiction constructs a social space—a space for socialization and discussion of social justice issues—where the characters’ and audiences’ universes intersect. All works have the potential to be interpreted from the perspective of social reparation.

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Take, for instance, film and popular culture. Many screen adaptations of the classics are informed by social justice concerns. Films construct a social space—a space for socialization and discussion of social justice issues—where the characters’ and audiences’ universes intersect. Some films imagine the classics to have a remedial effect on our society. Others illustrate the questions of inequities raised by the familiar, canonical story. These works use their literary sources to host social reparation.

While, in the U.S., “reparation” often refers to remediation of historical injustices, such as efforts to restore land rights to indigenous people, I use the notion of social reparation here to theorize remedial uses of Shakespeare in adaptations that give artists and audiences more moral agency. Inspirational narratives, in particular, have instrumentalized the canon to serve socially reparative purposes.

Films That Address Social Justice Issues

     Socially progressive film adaptations remedy injustices in our times and power asymmetries that inform Shakespeare’s play. In this sense of reparation, we might say artists have “rescued” Shakespeare from a patriarchal tradition of interpretation. The ills these works seek to mend include misogyny and attitudinal biases against homosexuality.

     The recent social justice turn in the arts has given relevance and purpose to art. Emotional investment in a story spurs people into action, and it is validating and encouraging for audiences to see themselves represented on screen.

     Since 2009, the Social Justice Film Institute in Seattle has supported activist filmmakers through its Social Justice Film Festivals, and the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York has sponsored the Justice Film Festivals since 2015 to inspire justice seekers by presenting films of unexpected courage and redemption.”

Analyzing Films through a Social Justice Lens

    While analyzing films, we can also bring social justice concerns to bear on “imperfect” specimen. Here are some examples and themes to consider:

  • Point-of-View (POV) shots may turn a female character into a sexualized object through the leery eyes of an observer or the camera-eye.
  • Framing that fragments female body parts singles them out for consumption disconnect the characters from their environment.
  • Such camera movements as slow motion and tilt disassociate characters from real time in the narrative. These techniques make the characters more sensual and take away their control of the space they inhabit. Slow pan or slow tilt also prolongs the amount of the time. 
  • Lighting can flatten female characters’ features, making them attractive but less three-dimensional. 
  • Intentioned and inclusive casting practices can contribute to films’ social justice causes. Since diverse casts disrupt the status quo, detractors of Rob Marshall’s 2023 The Little MermaidNetflix’s Queen Cleopatra, and of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series claim that casting Black and Asian actors undermines these stories. Casting choices involve real-life individuals in a fictional world, and (self) representation can be socially reparative. Of course, there are pitfalls. Diverse casts alone is not enough. We need inclusive filmmaking techniques (such as lighting and framing, see above). As Aja Romano writes, “diverse casting can be a shortcut to appearing progressive without actually being progressive.” Alexa Alice Joubin has researched this phenomenon, writing that “advertising trends sometimes give false impressions of the works’ inclusiveness.”
  • A combination of these and other techniques, such as a fuzzy focus and an extreme close-up with no discernible background position the characters outside the narrative time and space. Due to the ways in which audiences are invited to view them, these sexualized characters become “inconsequential” to the story. When characters are disconnected from their environments, they are disempowered. They are not able to influence their surroundings and appear more abstract and less of a real person.

Promoting Social Justice Causes through Parody

     Another tool at filmmakers’ disposal is parody. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) satirizes both the goofy and equestrian patriarchy of the human world and the matriarchy of Barbieland by alluding to several films and by flipping well-known tropes without launching into explicit expositions of feminism.

     For example, Barbie’s opening sequence, with voice-over narration by Helen Mirren, depicts how Barbie rescues girls from prehistoric ideologies. The scene pays homage to, and features the same musical soundtrack and the same sunrise as, Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

  • As shown by the side-by-side comparison in the video below, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of hominins smash bones to create new tools. The appearance of a mysterious, futuristic black monolith speeds up the evolution as the sun rises over the horizon. Accompanying the epic scene of evolution is Richard Strauss’s “Sunrise,” the opening fanfare of his 1896 symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra (learn more about the music in the Gramaphone Newsletter). 
  • In Barbie, a group of girls are playing with nondescript baby dolls. Suddenly, a supersized Barbie (based on the original 1959 doll) appears on the scene wearing a black and white striped swimsuit. Little girls used to play with baby dolls to rehearse motherhood. After Barbie appears, little girls smash the baby dolls in favor of diversified roles for women that range from the astronaut and surgeon to the CEO. The girls’ awakening is accompanied by the rising sun over the horizon.

Developing an Inclusive Vocabulary

The first rule of thumb is that we should always use people-based language, by which we mean words that put people first and humanize people. Some examples include wording such as people with disabilities. Instead of saying the insane, we should say people with mental health conditions.

So that we do not unconsciously assume one group is more normal or more valuable than others, we should also pay attention to able-bodiedness. Someone may be socially disabled in one context, but able-bodied in another context.

Gender-neutral (or better: gender inclusive), identity affirmative language is also very important, such as queer people. In general, it is preferable to defer to terms that a community prefers rather than labeling them on our own.

Even flawed films can serve as a productive specimen, in the anthropological sense, for discussion of social justice. Consider, for instance, the politics of gender behind film trailers. Trailers often feature low, masculine voices in their voice-over narration. Lake Bell parodies and critiques this tradition in In a World (2013):

Film trailers in each era have their own conventions and different “social justice quotient.” Read more about theories to analyze film trailers in the Lesson Unit here

You may also wish to reference Keith Johnston’s Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009).