Imitation as an important learning process
Learning is one of the most fascinating abilities of the human brain. Psychology brought to light some of the processes by which humans, as they grow up, acquire new knowledge, behaviours and values. Some learning is immediate, some takes time, some is forgotten fast, some is reinforced by some kind of feedback, some is obtained by extensive repetition. Human learning starts at birth (some defend it starts even inside the womb) and continues throughout our entire life as a dynamic product of ongoing interactions between people and their environment.
Apart from classical conditioning (everyone has heard about Pavlov’s famous salivating dogs) and operant conditioning (stating that “an action will be repeated or abolished according to the positive or negative consequence it provoques – a reward or a punishment”), observational learning is one of the most important learning processes which, particularly during childhood, shapes our personality and our sense of identity in this world. This is a form of social learning, based on the observation, remembering and later imitation of the behaviour of a model (which can be a parent, sibling, classmate, teacher…). In 1961, Albert Bandura identified this type of learning, by demonstrating that children placed in an aggressive environment would act the same way, while a control group placed in a passive role model environment would hardly show any type of aggression.
Through observational learning, individual behaviours may spread fast across a culture and shape an entire generation.
The Media as a powerful source of role models
Of course parents and caregivers are our first role models in life. Whether they like it or not, they are our first heroes and inspirations. We crave for their cravings, we assimilate their dreams as if they were our own dreams, we fear their enemies more vehemently than they fear. We want similar clothes, accessories and mannerisms. Imitation starts at home, and as Oscar Wilde once said “it is the sincerest form of flattery”.
Apart from home and school, one of the most powerful sources of role models nowadays is mass media. We see heroes defeating evil creatures, housewives gossiping, serial killers murdering innocent victims, unrealistically happy silver linings, quiz shows promising to turn the most ordinary person into a millionaire.
Do we all feel represented?
Thanks to the widespread dissemination of computers, televisions, tablets and internet access there is an unmeasurable amount of possible role models entering our lives every second. But do we all feel well represented? Can we all connect with the images and situations presented before our eyes? As a cis white woman, I must admit that for most of my life the answer would have been yes. And you know why? Because inside my privilege bubble that question was not even a plausible question. Of course I felt represented, one way or another. Women were hardly ever the main characters in a movie, but they were there. This notion changed for me when I first met a trans boy. He was just a regular guy, claiming he had been born “in the wrong package”. His life story was a wake up call. It shook my views on what I believed was “normal” and opened my eyes to the existence of diversity. Why weren’t movies, books, series and documentaries mirroring reality in its entirety, but only a small slice of it??!
If learning provides the essential tools for us to build our personality and our sense of self, I simply cannot imagine how my friend felt as he was growing up. A ghost? A psycho (like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie with the same name presents its main character? As a mentally-disturbed cross-dressed killer?!). The list goes on and on.
This year, Netflix released “Disclosure”, an unprecedented documentary on transgender representation in the media, where trans celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono reflect about gender, its representation on screen and the way it shaped and continues shaping the lives of the under and misrepresented transgender people around the world. Through the eyes and the emotional words of well known transgender entertainment figures, this documentary takes us into an exploratory journey through the history of Hollywood’s problematic transgender stereotypes and low visibility.
This documentary helped me to become aware of how transgender actors struggled to have roles that could positively influence the trans community and that could also deconstruct transgender stereotypes and even gender stereotypes in general. It made me realize how important it is to stop giving cis-gender actors roles that intend to represent the reality of transgender people, and how the screen could (and should) reflect a broader image than the one it has been showing us all along. I strongly recommend everyone to watch it, reflect upon the issues it presents, and come back here to share your views.
Thank you Netflix for trying to blow privilege bubbles and reflect the world in a less shattered mirror. Everyone deserves to feel represented and to find role models that can if not guide, at least make them feel less confused or lost in life.