Throughout the past couple of decades, the film industry and social media have had a growing influence on pop culture and the perspectives of younger generations. Youth and adults alike are constantly influenced by what they watch online, subconsciously mimicking the behaviors of the characters they see while idolizing actors, influencers, and celebrities. This puts a unique pressure on the film industry when it comes to how they portray serious issues and their advocates. In the case of the environmental movement, the active stereotypes and single-story tropes within the industry can be harmful.
Environmental activists’ job, educating and empowering society on climate issues, is often jeopardized by the film industry. The industry’s priority is to be entertaining, focusing on gaining profit and popularity from its audience rather than spreading truth. Unintentionally, its messaging about environmentalism and the climate crisis undermines environmental advocacy. Through the film industry’s entertaining tropes of the “silly environmentalist” and the “inevitable climate apocalypse”, the industry trivializes the issue of climate change and creates an unrealistic narrative for its audience.
Trope 1: the “Silly Environmentalist”
One of the many environmental tropes present in television is when characters do minor things to help the environment: picking up trash, carpooling, or mentioning a minimal impact on the climate. Often in TV shows or movies, there is a quirky, sweet character that will make comments or do something small that relates to environmentalism, deemed the “silly environmentalist”. Often for teen sitcoms where environmental issues are unrelated to the main plot, producers will create characters who care for the environment as a way to emphasize the characters’ annoying or silly personalities and encourage the audience to make fun of them. This trope, though seemingly harmless, trivializes the climate movement.
The trope of the “silly environmentalist” is most often embodied by a sweet, quirky character in sitcom TV shows for young audiences, such as New Girl, FRIENDS, and The Good Place.
New Girl is about an artistic, immature woman in her early thirties named Jessica Day (Jess). Jess often makes environmentally-friendly comments, like driving in one car instead of two, “just like for the environment” (S2E14 of New Girl). Through her comments and actions, Jess is viewed as an environmentalist, though her actions are not incredibly impactful. Another example is brought to an extreme with Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. He is chronically unable to make decisions and is hyper-fixated on morality, making his character come across as annoying and easy to make fun of. Throughout the show, he constantly reflects on his consumption of almond milk and its negative environmental impacts, which emphasizes his fixation on insignificant problems. A third example of the “silly environmentalist” is Phoebe Buffay, a kind, quirky, musical character from the well-known show Friends. In one episode, Phoebe yells at a passing pedestrian who had put her cigarette out on a tree. Phoebe instructs her to “apologize to the tree”, which would have no impact on the environment at all. Phoebe is often described as quirky or silly, and this scene works to confirm those personality traits.
However, these characters’ personality traits are rubbing off on the climate movement— the stereotype of the “silly” environmentalist impacts how the audience views environmental activism and advocacy. Though these characters are loved, they were created as entertainment for the audience, characters that they see as childish, immature, or “adorable”. The audience members don’t respect these characters and do not feel like they morally need to, because the characters are fictional. Still, the audience is influenced by them as though they were real people, tying them to their ideas of who environmental activists are.
All of these examples distract from necessary work in the climate movement because they undermine the serious message of environmental activists. Using this “silly environmentalist” character trope as entertainment for audience members, the film industry makes it seem that environmentalism is based on small actions with little systemic impact while poking fun at the activists that are trying to dismantle this idea.
Trope 2: The Inevitable Climate Apocalypse
Another main environmental trope present in the television industry is the “inevitable climate apocalypse” trope, where the main characters fight to survive in an almost uninhabitable world. This form of science fiction is inspired by the climate doomsday narrative, drastically blowing climate change out of proportion to fit the movie’s genre and keep the audience entertained. However, as the real-world effects of climate change are growing more serious, these entertaining movies create a distance between viewers and the climate crisis.
The genre of environmental disaster blockbuster movies is represented in the works of Roland Emmerich, the director of 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, and in other movies. The movie 2012 depicts a world that is literally falling apart due to earthquakes, floods, megatsunamis, and other natural disasters. Through extreme special effects and action, entire cities crumble into canyons. By the end of the movie, the entire globe is engulfed in either flames or water. In the movie The Day After Tomorrow, the melting of polar ice caps alters the North Atlantic current, triggering simultaneous record floods, hurricanes, and freezing temperatures. Just like in 2012, the world descends into an extreme and exaggerated chaos filled with constant action and gore.
There is a serious problem with these depictions of climate disasters because the television industry is not focused on realistic portrayals. In an interview with SYFY WIRE, The Day After Tomorrow screenwriter Nachmanoff admits, "[The movie] was undertaken in the spirit of both entertainment and a little bit of a cautionary tale. We thought we were taking a wild, dramatic license to create these weather and other climate disasters that we portrayed in [The Day After Tomorrow]." Instead of conveying a serious message and falling into the genre of social commentary, the makers of the film took a huge “dramatic license” to create a world that they thought of as completely unrealistic. The fantastical execution of the movie causes viewers to feel detached from the world they see on screen and associate the climate crisis with the fiction they watch, discouraging real-life action or reflection. The main takeaway from these movies is lots of explosions, destruction, and impressive cinematography, but no serious warnings related to real life.
Although there are similarities between the real world and these films that could spark important conversations, they are buried under action and gore so the audience dismisses their relevance. For example, there is a repeating character trope in both movies of someone who predicted the chaos and advocated for change but was ignored and silenced. Within the movies, the Paris Prime Minister in 2012 is killed to keep the disaster a secret, and climatologist Jack Hall in The Day After Tomorrow is largely ignored by U.N. officials when presenting his environmental concerns. This holds a chilling parallel to the real world, where climate advocates are brushed off by leaders who silence their messages of warning. Nonetheless, the realistic scenes of the silenced activists are immediately ignored due to the movie’s action-filled scenes. These engrossing scenes do not give the audience time to reflect on the real-world implications of the serious premise the movie was built upon because of the fast-paced and fictional nature of the genre.
Overall, the portrayal of the climate crisis in the television industry is similarly counterproductive to the “silly environmentalist” trope. Environmental movies’ fantasy elements encourage the audience to categorize the real climate crisis as fantasy, while the fast-paced action parts of movies centered around a climate disaster distract audiences from the similarities to our reality.
The goal of modern television is fast-paced entertainment, keeping viewers enticed for as long as possible. To achieve this goal, the television industry takes a serious topic like climate change and turns it into one of many harmful stereotypes, like a trivial character trope or the premise for a dramatic action movie. These portrayals subtly discourage serious conversation about the climate crisis and are reflected in the broader culture, especially in younger audiences who are particularly influenced by television and the media. Television consumers should be cognisant of these tropes so that they don’t build up a tolerance for them, which could lead to off-screen dismissal of climate-related issues. The first step in tearing down bias is realizing the harmful stereotypes in the media, so audience members are encouraged to recognize the bias they gain from consuming media without reflection.
In contrast, the film industry’s unique power of influence can be a way to encourage open discussions about climate change and further environmental advocacy. According to University of Dayton Political Science Associate Professor Michelle C. Pautz in an interview with the New York Times, “[movies] can be a great mechanism for conversation and reflection, [and can] help us understand societal opinions…and even demystify aspects of society.” Hopefully, the film industry can utilize their influence to open its audience’s eyes to the world’s problems, while working towards greater valuing education.