Live Green or Die Hard

Experts weigh in on environmentalists’ negative portrayals in scripted entertainment.

In early October I took a light-hearted look at the recent spate of green-minded comic book villains adapted for the big screen. The more I dug around, I found overwhelming evidence that environmentalist are often portrayed in scripted entertainment as the bad guy, a punchline, a scold — or all three.

For a sequel, I went looking for answers, and possible solutions. To that end, I reached out to showbiz industry insiders and experts working at the intersection of environmentalism and entertainment and posed everyone the same two questions.

First, why are environmentalists portrayed negatively in scripted entertainment?

Kate Langrall Folb is the Director of Hollywood Health and Society, a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines on health, safety and security. 

We’ve been working on getting environmental topics into the heads of screenwriters, and therefore into their narratives for over ten years with some success. But in the beginning, getting positive portrayals of environmentalists was somewhat of a hurdle. 

We first started to see negative portrayals like the hippie activist chained to a tree. Then there was the lazy trope of eco-terrorists bombing things like oil derricks off the coast of California. And there’s always the holier than thou character that’s easy to point a finger at and laugh at. I think this came from a combination of denial of the seriousness of the issue, a fear of seeming preachy, and advertiser resistance.

Daniel Hinerfeld is the Director of the National Resource Defense Council’s Rewrite the Future. The NRDC initiative helps Hollywood represent the climate crisis in film and television.

There are cliches we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, including that the character who cares about the environment is often a liberal elitist, a scold, or an eco-terrorist. Those are useful tropes for creating drama and comedy, but they don’t do justice, and they’ve gotten long in the tooth.

Anna Jane Joyner is a climate story consultant and founder and director of Good Energy. Good Energy aims to “make it as easy as possible to portray the climate emergency on-screen in entertaining and artful ways, in any storyline, across every genre. With the Media Impact Project at the USC Norman Lear Center, they just released a new report on climate change in scripted entertainment.

Fossil-fuel companies have been investing in storytelling for many decades, and they spend a lot more money on it. It started in the 60s, when the environmental movement was making real ripples in society. They found a way to dilute our strength through painting people who care about the environment as a fringe, as unreasonable hippies, and it found its way into Hollywood. That was intentional.

Definitely the scold bothers me the most. It just can’t be the only trick, right? I actually don’t have a problem with villain characters who care about climate. What I find most interesting are flawed characters who care about climate, so neither villain nor super heroes, but people you can relate to.

Katie Camosy, is a Senior Video Producer for Greenpeace, the global network of independent campaign organizations.

In some ways we get it: environmentalist characters have been easy ciphers for fiction writers. But why are environmentalists so often the antagonist or the prognosticator, but very rarely the protagonist? I think a lot of this comes down to a dated stereotype that was never actually true: a white environmentalist who wants to make you feel guilty.
 
The truth is, climate activists don’t want you to feel bad. We really don’t! We want you to feel energized and hopeful. Governments and corporations are the ones who ought to be turning their gaze inward. Even the white part of this clichéd character isn’t necessarily true: people of color in the U.S are in fact more concerned than white people are about the climate crisis. It’s no coincidence that the people most impacted are also the most concerned. 

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Second question , what can be done to alter these perceptions and integrate more positive stories about environmental work?

NRDC’s Hinerfeld:

Happily, I think Hollywood is turning a page and we’re starting to see more positive portrayals of environmentalists. Consider season two of Ted Lasso, in which Sam Obisanya leads a protest of the team’s sponsor, which he discovers is polluting his Nigerian homeland. Sam is represented as well-informed, brave, and victorious. And his campaign brings him closer with his teammates and his father.

Another recent example is Kate Dibiasky, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the climate allegory Don’t Look Up, who is a very sympathetic, if doomed, hero.

Film and television creators are starting to engage more thoughtfully with climate and environmental themes, so we’re likely to see portrayals of environmentalists that are more nuanced, interesting, and reflective of the real world than the cliches we’ve gotten used to.

Second question , what can be done to alter these perceptions and integrate more positive stories about environmental work?

NRDC’s Hinerfeld:

Happily, I think Hollywood is turning a page and we’re starting to see more positive portrayals of environmentalists. Consider season two of Ted Lasso, in which Sam Obisanya leads a protest of the team’s sponsor, which he discovers is polluting his Nigerian homeland. Sam is represented as well-informed, brave, and victorious. And his campaign brings him closer with his teammates and his father.

Another recent example is Kate Dibiasky, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the climate allegory Don’t Look Up, who is a very sympathetic, if doomed, hero.

Film and television creators are starting to engage more thoughtfully with climate and environmental themes, so we’re likely to see portrayals of environmentalists that are more nuanced, interesting, and reflective of the real world than the cliches we’ve gotten used to.

Good Energy’s Anna Jane Joyner:

I don’t think it’s the role of television and film to depict people who care about the climate in any way that isn’t authentic to the story. I do think we need to see more characters that reflect genuine and growing concern and anxiety about climate change across multiple characters.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Don’t Look Up is one I’ve seen in television or film that I could really relate to their emotional experience. With the Playbook, (Good Energy’s Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change) we asked why does the person who cares about climate always have to be mad? Why can’t they be the cool character? When you look at American opinions on climate — especially among younger people — it is the majority that are concerned about what’s happening.

Hollywood Health and Society’s Kate Langrall Folb:

When you think about broadcast television, the majority of ads these days are for fossil fuel, cars and pharmaceuticals. Advertisers wield an enormous amount of clout when it comes to what gets on the shows they sponsor. On the positive side, I recently had calls from two major studios that produce both television and film. They are interested in looking at all their content to get a good sense of what they’ve done on the climate change and environmental issues, and more important, what was the quality of the content. Something’s happened, it’s possible it’s because climate change is upon us. I think the attitude has shifted.

Greenpeace’s Katie Camosy has the final word:

I suspect that as we see more environmentalist characters in our entertainment, we’ll also see versions that better reflect real people we know in our own lives. At Greenpeace we’ve gone from being hit with golf balls in 1998’s Armageddon to receiving a $250 million donation in last year’s Succession. It’s progress!

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