I like series. No, wait. I love series. I love how they snuggled into our day-to-day lives silently through the years. I love how they brought to us stories that were never told before: a lesbian diarist and scientist living in the Nineteenth century (Gentleman Jack), young gay people facing the AIDS outbreak in London (It’s a Sin), an influencer dealing with the consequences of sexual abuse (I May Destroy You), a queer person dealing with clinical depression (Work In Progress), or a white cisgender man deconstructing toxic masculinity through kindness (Ted Lasso). Television series created a new way to consume entertainment and, step by step, a new way to approach life and social issues – ultimately, a new way to bring change. Many people would argue that change happens when people start thinking differently. But is this really true? Aren’t our thoughts ultimately influenced by that gut feeling that dictates when to act and when to ignore? Any message, image, text or video comes with a set of potential reactions it could cause in a viewer: excitement, compassion, anger, disgust – apathy. The links between messages, emotional response, and social impact led me to investigate the nature and characteristics of those platforms that better serve social purposes and how they impact the general public’s beliefs. By “general public” I refer to the population that is not actively involved in discourses regarding equality, human rights and anti-discrimination, but that massively consumes entertainment and media content in various forms. In this blog post, I will first outline why certain platforms are functional for promoting equality. Secondly, I will delve into two case studies brought by the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner of Estonia. Ultimately, I will conclude the very first question – among the many – that this article raises: is it possible to make equality entertaining?
Social media and streaming platforms are far from being new to our lives. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic further enhanced the role that entertainment and media products have in shaping public opinion. Several streaming platforms registered an average of +36% subscriptions in Europe in 2020Similarly, social media platforms also observed growth trends. As of January 2022, an average of over 98% of the European population who has access to mobile phones has been registered as active on social media. One of the leading platforms of the past few years is undoubtedly TikTok, which counts over 98 million users across Europe, with 66% of the audience under 30 years old and global growth of +8 users each second. Just like streaming platforms, TikTok is solely based on video content, which, unlike photos, can generate a strong emotional reaction in the viewer by featuring people talking, sharing and exposing their worlds to the camera. Finally, these trends highlight one key aspect of contemporary viewership: the need to see what’s behind the facade, the urgency discover new worlds and to bring something back to enrich their own realities. Is it possible to build on these behavioural tendencies to share messages of equality in an entertaining way? Is it possible to tell a story that promotes social change? How can we tell stories that truly represent the audience without becoming excessively didactic?
People often believe that serious matters must be communicated through serious means, leaving no space for creativity, fun or laughter. However, the fastest way to impact an audience is to cause an emotional reaction in the viewer – that is, to tell a story that makes them feel involved, seen, or responsible. Human beings have been communicating the most important questions regarding their existence through storytelling since the beginning of time. Why shouldn’t we use the same means to share the stories we want to shape our understanding of reality today? Ultimately – stories of equality. In 2018, the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner of Estonia was involved in the production of a 10-episode television series called Miks Mitte?! (eng. Why Not?!) . The series was intentionally created as part of a wider cross-media project which aimed to address gender stereotypes and stigma in young generations, still including the experience of adult and elderly people facing similar challenges. Miks Mitte?! follows an Estonian family with every member struggling to find their place in the world: a teenage daughter who dreams of becoming a rapper, a son who just abandoned his university degree, parents struggling with maternity leave and career changes, and a grandparent going through a personal crisis. At the end of the very first episode the main question of the series is clear: how can they achieve their goals and stay true to themselves while living in a highly gendered and biased society?
Liisa Pakosta, the Estonian Commissioner for Gender Equality and Equal Treatment, explains that Miks Mitte?! had to function as part of a wider communication campaign to ensure that the message reached the target audience and provoked meaningful conversations. The results of the research led by the Crossmedia department of Tallinn University (BFM) highlighted that adding a comedy trait to the narrative was crucial to make the series easily approachable while still introducing key concepts of gender equality. In order to ensure that the script represented gender issues fairly without falling into harmful tropes and misconceptions, the team introduced the screenwriter Martin Algus to the work of the Commissioner and the main issues presented at their desk. This way, the series becomes a source of inspiration for younger generations rooting for Anna, the teenage daughter, to achieve her dream, while still introducing them to the main issues of gender discrimination within Estonian society.
Communication is much more related to emotions than data and rational explanations. However, causing a constructive emotional response within the viewer is far from being an easy task. How do you break through? How do you get to their heart? How do you promote actual change? Measuring the results of communication campaigns aimed at promoting values is much more complex than measuring campaigns aimed at marketizing products or services. Ultimately, the question is: how do you measure social change? In terms of numbers, Miks Mitte?! registered an audience of 920 000 people who followed the series on television, and 212 000 viewers then rebroadcast it. Considering that the total population of Estonia is 1.3 million, the series had massive success in terms of views. Furthermore, the in-person events in schools and the social media strategy behind the promotion of the series succeeded in engaging with young viewers, who were able to draw connections between their lived experience and the represented reality of Miks Mitte?!
Successful projects like Miks Mitte?! often raise questions regarding the sustainability of these approaches and the replicability of the strategy. In other words, can the “Miks Mitte?! formula” be replicated to introduce the audience to other social issues, or is it destined to be a one-case success? The answer to these questions came promptly from the same Estonian Equality Body, which in 2021 developed another media project to raise awareness regarding the . The expertise developed through Miks Mitte?! allowed the Commissioner to quickly design a new communication project involving a mini-series called Life is Work is Life and an interactive game called Life Tower. This time, the target audience was adults and the priority was to measure the understanding that the audience had on work-life balance issues and the Work-Life Balance Directive before and after their engagement with the project. The Equality Body created 15 three-minute clips to share on social media which were also edited together to present as a coherent short movie. Although 400 000 viewers watched the videos, the project’s results were less exciting than the ones of Miks Mitte?!. The fact that the impact of the series has been higher (+12%) within the male adult population shows, once again, the gender bias within the Estonian population, Commissioner Liisa Pakosta explains in a recent interview. She argues that the female segment has not been greatly influenced by Life is Work is Life because the project did not present any new scenario they were not aware of. Most of the female viewers already understood the main issues behind work-life balance and the changes required to improve the quality of life of workers who happen to also be caregivers. The male audience, however, has been made aware of rigid and biased gender social roles that they ignored until now.
Media and entertainment products play a pivotal role in shaping public opinion. Their creative component allows messages to be deconstructed and rebuilt in many forms. There is no creative limit to the ways in which we can tell stories, yet there is a responsibility behind the values that we want to promote. Producing a tv series to raise awareness regarding gender issues is not easier than trying to sell the latest tech product. Actually, it requires a deeper reflection about the structural beliefs on which we built our society, their consequences, the tools and language we have to dismantle them. The Estonian case studies show that these conversations can be addressed in the most creative ways by aiming at an emotional response. The right approach can be found at the intersection of the public’s behaviours with the impact that a media product aims at. The potential that entertainment has in reaching a wider public cannot be overlooked by those promoting values of equality, and the Estonian examples set us in the right direction. The stories we tell do not have to be perfect and, most importantly, they do not have to be always didactic – sometimes they just need to be entertaining. In the words of Liisa Pakosta: Choose one message and think about all the creative possibilities you have to spread it. Don’t have any boundaries. Don’t be afraid of comedy, of fun, of simplicity. Whenever we are entertained by a story, we are establishing a connection with its content and, ultimately, its core messages and values. Entertainment offers tools and language to communicate equality in ways that we have overlooked for too long, reaching new segments and experimenting with new formats. Tv series are here to stay, and it’s our responsibility to decide which stories to tell, and how to tell them. There are still too many untold stories, too many people forgotten by the mainstream media. We really do have the space, knowledge, creativity and means to bring new voices to the screen – the only question left to answer is then, why not?
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.