Why Diversity in Media Matters

Star Wars: The Force Awaken's John Boyega, Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), Orphan Black's Cosima

Oscar nominations are out and we’ve got THE LEAST DIVERSE group of nominees since 1998! 

The nominations are part of a larger problem with how Hollywood works, who gets hired to produce content, and who ends up starring in it. 

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn summarized it nicely: 

The thing I want to talk to you about is why diversity in media matters. Find out how diversity is good for fans, content creators, and the bottom line on this week’s THE PSYCH SHOW.

Days of Future Past Celebrates the Psychology of X-Men (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

X-Men: Days of Future Past poster

Time-travel is my favorite type of science fiction story. It lets us see dystopian futures, wander into nostalgic pasts, explore cause and effect, and visit characters at key moments in their lives – all within the same story.

That's why X-Men: Days of Future Past, a beloved X-Men comic and an awesome episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, was my most anticipated movie of the 2014 summer season. Despite stumbling in a couple of areas, the film sets a new standard for superhero films because it celebrates everything that makes the X-Men unique.

Uniting the X-Men Franchise

X-Men: Days of Future Past  brings together the X-Men film franchise.

X-Men: Days of Future Past brings together the X-Men film franchise.

The X-Men continuity is expansive. There are six X-Men films (3 good, 2 bad, 1 in between). Each is loaded with mutants. Some have been played by multiple actors. Major characters have died, only to return in subsequent films. It's all rather confusing (just like the X-Men comics).

Miraculously, Days of Future Past ties it all together. I'm not just talking about references and cameos (though there are plenty of those). It feels like everything from the original X-Men trilogy to the solo Wolverine films and the First Class prequel are converging on this story. At the same time, the movie remains accessible enough for casual fans to enjoy.

Days of Future Past pulls this off because it focuses on the essential story of the X-Men – a persecuted group of people coming together to promote understanding.

Prejudice and Empathy

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

The film is about survival. Magneto's Brotherhood wants to end mutant persecution. Dr. Bolivar Trask's Sentinel program is an attempt to protect humanity from the threat of mutants. Both groups work towards their own self-interests. Only Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men want coexistence. 

These group relationships are based on real science and highlight one of the most nefarious principals in social psychology – the ingroup/outgroup bias. People consistently prefer their own group to others. Even when psychologists randomly assign individuals to groups for no reason at all, people will like the group they are in and dislike outside groups. This finding is stronger when you believe your group is being persecuted in some way (like Magneto and Trask).

There are good reasons why mutants and humans have such a strong bias against each other. Magneto doesn't believe mutants are the same species as non-mutants (even though they are). Growing up in the Holocaust, he has seen the inhumanity of humans first hand and has no empathy for them. Trask fears that mutants could result in the extinction of humanity (kinda like what happened to the Neanderthals). By hunting mutants and experimenting on them, Trask believes humanity can build strong defenses against their threat. It's easy for Trask to justify his actions because many mutants don't look like humans and the less something looks like us the less empathy we have for it.

We don't see Magneto or Trask as villains though. We know both characters are only trying to help their own groups. Unlike the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which has failed to create any memorable villains outside of Loki, Days of Future Past gives us multiple antagonists with complex motivations.

Why don't the X-Men show the same prejudice as Magneto or Trask? The ingroup/outgroup bias is overcome when people learn about other each other, come into continuous contact, and experience empathy. Charles Xavier has dedicated his life to promoting these exact goals at his School for Gifted Youngsters. Why does Professor X care so much about mutants and humans? His telepathic powers give him the ability to see past group differences. Having read so many minds, Xavier knows that humanity and mutants are both guided by the same basic thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

It's too bad the writers of every X-Men film feel the need to depower Professor X in some way. The explanation of how this occurs in Days of Future Past just doesn't scientifically make sense given what we know about the human nervous system. 

Cooperation and Teamwork

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Another way to overcome prejudice, at least temporarily, is by finding a common goal. We see this throughout Days of Future Past. Humans consider working together to stop the mutant threat. Trask even calls stopping mutants a "common struggle" that could unite all of humanity. Meanwhile, Magneto and Xavier (in both past and future) collaborate to fight the Sentinel program.

There is a scientific basis for this type of cooperation. In Muzafer Sharif's robbers cave study, groups of boys who hated each other learned to get along when they had no choice but to cooperate. These types of superordinate goals sometimes lead to long-term cooperation (the 12 British colonies coming together to form the United States of America) while others alliances end after a goal is achieved (the US alliance with Russia to defeat Nazi Germany).

My favorite example of collaboration in this series is the X-Men team itself. Research has shown diversity makes a team stronger. Having people with different perspectives fights the dangers of groupthink and is why NASA recommends having a mixed gender crew on all of its missions. With the X-Men, the more diverse the team is in mutant powers, the greater their ability to achieve their goals.  Check out the opening battle from Days of Future Past to see what I mean. Kitty Pryde, Bishop, Iceman, and Blink do much more as a team because of their different abilities.

That brings me to my second complaint – while the future X-Men are a diverse team, the X-Men of the past are a boys only club. Sure, Mystique plays a central role in the story (and Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful in the role), but I would have liked to see more key female characters working alongside Magneto and Professor X.

A Bold New Future

While much of the time-travel doesn't add up if you do the math, I really like where Days of Future Past ends. The mistakes of past films have been corrected and the future is wide open for new stories.

The next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, has already been described as a "disaster movie, extinction level event". If the producers are able to weave in the core elements that make the X-Men stories so compelling, as they did on this film, the franchise will continue evolving beyond what we typically see in the superhero genre.

Check out my guest appearance on Out Now with Aaron and Abe where we explore all things X-Men and Days of Future Past. To learn how Days of Future Past fits into the larger superhero genre of films, check out AV Club's review. I also like what Variety has to say about the lack of wide scale destruction in Days of Future Past. io9 does a nice job discussing the important relationships in the film.

Doctor Who Taught Me How to Embrace a New Culture

Doctor Who  celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

My geek flag is firmly planted in space science fiction. I became a psychologist because of Star Trek. Firefly helped me understand myself. And I use Battlestar Galactica to teach suicide prevention. When my mind wanders, it gravitates to the final frontier.

Science fiction isn't just about space though. I've grown to love stories about dystopias, robotics, and time-travel too. That's why I was intrigued when BBC relaunched Doctor Who in 2005. I never saw the original Doctor Who series, but I knew it integrated many aspects of science fiction and was beloved around the world. 

I made it through 2 episodes of the new Doctor Who series before I quit. I didn’t understand the rules of the universe and was turned off by the cheap visual effects. I love British humor (I grew up watching Mr. Bean and Are you Being Served?) and I'm a huge fan of campy scifi (Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element are amazing movies), but Doctor Who was just too weird for me. 

This was the moment I decided to stop watching  Doctor Who .

This was the moment I decided to stop watching Doctor Who.

Even though I gave up on the Doctor, I couldn't quite escape him. My friends pestered me to give the show another chance, readers of this website kept asking me to write about the Doctor, and each time I spoke publicly about the psychology of science fiction someone in the audience ALWAYS brought him up. I read a few Wikipedia articles about Doctor Who, enough to drop references to sonic screwdrivers and the TARDIS. That got me by for a while. But when Geek Therapist Josué Cardona publicly called me out for not understanding Doctor Who on his podcast a couple of weeks ago, it become painfully clear to me that I wouldn't have any credibility as a science fiction psychologist until I understood what made Doctor Who so popular.

The more I learned about  Doctor Who , the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

The more I learned about Doctor Who, the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

I reached out to the Whovians in my life and asked them why they cared so much about the show, people like The Memoirist and The Superherologist. They told me about the Doctor's constant spirit of adventure, how he always did the right thing no matter the cost, and his imaginative intellect. That gave me a familiar context for the character – basically a mashup of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and Sherlock Holmes, which sounded awesome! After my buddy, Bill, told me about BBC's tiny budget, I felt like a jerk for judging the show based on its special effects alone. What really hit me was how another friend, Anne, described her interpretation of regeneration – "like the Doctor, we can all shed dysfunctional parts of ourselves, keep our strengths, and build towards a better future." That's the same idea behind Star Trek! The more I listened to people who loved the Doctor, the more familiar he became.

After publicly shaming me, Josué was kind enough to guide me through the best episodes of the show, like "Blink", "Father's Day", and "The 11th Hour". He gave me context and answered my questions. I initially committed to watching only 5 episodes, but now I've seen 17. Sure the order I saw episodes was a bit wibbly wobbly, and I’m still confused about the mythology, but I get the appeal now. As Craig Ferguson said, Doctor Who is about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” What’s not to love about that?!?

For a kid who grew up being judged for looking different and having geeky interests, it was stupid for me to reject Doctor Who just because it was unfamiliar. But that’s how our psychology works – we like things we’re used to. The Doctor taught me that the only way to boldly go is by immersing ourselves in the unfamiliar and listening to people who see things differently than we do.

Cultural Change Goes Both Ways, Just Like on Joss Whedon's Firefly


Many people have never heard of Firefly. The TV show premiered in 2002, but was cancelled after 11 episodes (Fox set it up for failure by showing episodes out of order). Developed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avengers), Firefly stars some familiar faces including Nathan Fillion (Castle, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Desperate Housewives), Morena Baccarin (Homeland, V), and Summer Glau (Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). While the premise is familiar (a crew of renegades fight for survival on the outskirts of civilization), what makes Firefly truly a gem is its unique depiction of cultural change.

Firefly is a blend of American & Chinese culture

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

Firefly takes place in a future where the U.S. and China have merged into one diverse superpower called the Alliance, resulting in a combined Chinese and American culture. Everyone is bilingual in Mandarin and English, but each is used in different situations. For example, people swear exclusively in Mandarin, which conveniently let Joss Whedon get away some very colorful metaphors including 笨天生的一堆肉 (stupid inbred stack of meat), 真沒耐性的佛祖 (extraordinarily impatient buddha), and 羔羊中的孤羊 (motherless goats of all motherless goats). The Alliance government, values, and beliefs borrow from both the U.S. and the People's Republic of China. Dress, food, and entertainment are influenced by Eastern and Western tastes. This fusion results in a nation that has traces of both America and China, yet remains unique. This is exactly how cultural change happens in real life.

Cultural change has many outcomes

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Most people think assimilation (individuals accept a new culture, reject the old) is the only outcome of cultural change. But that's just one possibility in acculturation – the process of change that results when two or more cultures come into contact with each other. Acculturation can also result in in separation (original culture is completely maintained), marginalization (original culture is lost and there is no contact with the new culture), or integration (elements of both the original and new culture are maintained). Acculturation changes individuals entering a culture as well as that society’s culture. The development of jazz, everyday use of the Yiddish “klutz”, and the global popularity of pizza all occurred because individuals from different cultures influenced society through acculturation.

Circumstances often influence the course of one’s acculturation. Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds fought (unsuccessfully) against the imperialism of the Alliance and was forced into its rule. He separated from many parts of Alliance culture (Mal refuses to dress like the Alliance, gets into fights with those celebrating Alliance holidays, and stays away from the geographical center of the Alliance), has integrated other aspects (he speaks both English and Mandarin and eats Alliance cuisine), and has become marginalized in one key area (after the Alliance took over his home, Mal lost faith in his religion). Mal shows us that acculturation doesn’t lead to uniformed change in a person. Instead, people change differently across many parts of culture depending upon their circumstances. Dr. Simon Tam, a man who grew up in the center of Alliance civilization, presents with a very different acculturative experience than Mal (one that is far more assimilated with the Alliance). Neither experience is right nor wrong, they’re just different.

Acculturation & Firefly helped me understand myself

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Learning about acculturation as an undergrad had a big impact on me. As a child born and raised in California to immigrant parents, the experience of “culture clash” was a big part of my life. I dressed in jeans and t-shirts but my face didn’t look like most Americans. That juxtaposition didn't make me feel like I fit in. I remember being told to "go back where you come from" (the guy didn’t realize I was born in the neighboring suburb) while others criticized me for being too "white-washed" (which usually meant they wanted me to listen to more Tupac and less Nirvana). My psychology professor, Dr. Anna Lau, helped me realize that my identity wasn't exclusively one thing, but a mixture of many things. I spoke English and Urdu, adopted Western and Eastern values, craved kabobs and burgers. Pigeonholing me into just one category and judging me only on my appearance, as I did to myself and others did to me, ignored the richness of my experience. 

Maybe that's why I love Firefly so much. The show can't be classified into one category. It's a combination of science fiction, western, and horror genres. Seeing a show that celebrates the diversity of acculturation and is itself a blend of multiple influences helped me feel a little less strange and a little more unique.  

How has Firefly and/or acculturation influenced you? Sound off in the comments below. Haven't seen Firefly? Watch it instantly on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes.