TV commercials showing beautiful people with windblown hair driving along the California coastline in a convertible have a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the screen that says something like, “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.” Why do they say this?
Clearly, some people do not understand the difference between fiction and reality. In his brilliant commentary-comedy (8:06), Trevor Noah demonstrates how some people develop opinions about the police through cop shows. He acknowledges that police are often portrayed as breaking the law, but rather than come away with the impression that police misconduct should be addressed, viewers see police as good people who only break rules when necessary to promote the common good. In other words, police misconduct is justified and even glorified.
Apparently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel and the Occupied Territories had similar concerns. In a series of recent tweets, they creatively showed how the Israeli TV drama series, Fauda, portrays violations of international humanitarian law in ways that the common viewer might not recognize as illegal.
But the twitterverse did not approve. There were literally hundreds of replies calling out the ICRC for reflecting on representations of Israeli behavior on a fictional show. The replies were defensive, as if the ICRC were accusing Israel of committing these crimes when they are, in fact, only fictional.
Unfortunately, Israeli violations of international humanitarian and human rights law is not fictional and police misconduct is real. The only question worth asking, then, is whether or not creators of fiction have an obligation to at least consider the social impact of their portrayals. We know, for example, that representations of women in children’s literature and television have a dramatic impact on how girls see themselves (not to mention how boys see girls).
The problem can go the other way too. Reality can be presented in ways that are problematic. Just last week, in fact, I tweeted about a fundraising commercial (ironically for the American Red Cross). In it, a woman plays “What the world needs now is love” on a piano in a demolished house. Her husband and daughter find a teddy bear in the rubble. The October 26 commercial is touching, and no doubt, many viewers pull out their check books to support the disaster relief work of the Red Cross.
But this commercial is no mere fictional scene pulled from the head of a creative advertiser. It is nearly identical to an August 5 home video taken just after the Beirut explosion and circulated by the Guardian. And this is not okay. The American Red Cross should not fictionalize reality for the sake of profit. This is exploitation and definitely (IMHO) crosses the line of acceptable humanitarian communications.
What, then, can we conclude? Viewers should consume all kinds of media with healthy skepticism. We should not assume that what we see in the media is “true.” We should definitely ask what interests benefit from a certain portrayal. In the case of police, viewers should believe what Black and other people of color share about their real experiences with police. Centering and amplifying BIPOC voices will put fictional portrayals into context and provide depth to our analysis of media coverage of the police. As for Fauda, we should respond to those like the ICRC who call on us to go beyond TV drama for information about international humanitarian law. But that’s not enough. We must center and amplify the voices of the people who experience the violations of international humanitarian law — in this case, Palestinians. Until Palestinians are heard, seen and believed, the rest of the world will be susceptible to Israel’s portrayals of them, whether in drama or the news.