Thanks to dozens of Blue Avocado readers who sent in examples of nonprofits in popular culture, here’s a quick look at the mostly-fake world of nonprofits on the big and small screens.
Queen Latifah in “Life Support” is a refreshing exception to how nonprofits are typically portrayed in popular culture. As Ana in this 2007 film, she works her butt off at Life Support, an AIDS education nonprofit, but neglects her family and endangers her own health (sound just a little familiar?). Through Ana, we catch glimpses of what we know community nonprofits to be: fiercely committed, under-staffed, and essential life support to their clients and the community writ large.
In contrast, nonprofits are more usually invisible, stereotyped, or off-camera employers of minor characters. For example, in “The West Wing,” Mary Louise Parker played the director of a women’s rights group deeply enmeshed in policy work. Several “Curb Your Enthusiasm” characters interact with NRDC, a nonprofit where producer Larry David’s ex-wife is active in real life. References to the real-life Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center as well as to the fictional California Arts Center pop up in “The L Word.”
Nonprofit issues . . . but not nonprofits
But mostly what we learn about nonprofits in popular culture — and not just in mainstream culture — is wrong twice over. First, while the issues that nonprofits address are nearly ubiquitous in popular culture, the nonprofits dealing with them are inversely invisible.
Alcoholism, family violence, corporate wrongdoing, alienated youth, mental illness, racism, environmental degradation, and more are everywhere in popular culture. “Sex and the City” character Samantha contracts and even raises money for breast cancer, but we never glimpse the breast cancer organization she supports. Rapper Kanye West indicts the diamond industry in his music video “Diamonds,” but doesn’t allude to the organized fight against that industry’s abuses. Russell Crowe’s character in the film “A Beautiful Mind,” suffering from schizophrenia, slowly gets to a functioning place, apparently without the help of mental health professionals or organizations.
Second, when we do see people working in nonprofit fields of endeavor, we see them divorced from any institutional context.
We don’t get to know nonprofit people except as minor characters acting as props to depict the services they offer. It’s as if we saw the many lawyers on television, but we only saw them in court, never in their offices interacting with their coworkers or their clients. Or if we saw police on the street, but never in the precinct house. We encounter social workers visiting clients (in “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance), but we never see them at their desks working the phones, in the conference room struggling through staff meetings or fuming in the bathroom over busted love affairs.
Stereotypes at the extremes
Screenwriters often simply use us as backdrops: Nonprofit fundraising galas and museum/gallery openings are frequent locations for plot devices unrelated to nonprofits: lovers meet for the first time, spies swap briefcases, or an assassin targets a politician. In “Rush Hour,” Jackie Chan has a fight at a museum exhibit opening, allowing him to do martial arts stunts with giant Chinese antique vases. Julia Roberts (as a wealthy society matron) and Tom Hanks (as a U.S. senator) meet at such a gala in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Fundraising galas make good backdrops, but they reinforce the stereotype of wealthy socialites “playing” at charity causes.
The exact opposite of the glittering gala is the other archetypal image of nonprofits: soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Blue Avocado readers pointed out that homeless shelters figure in the films “Dave,” “Scrooged,” “Gabriel,” “The Soloist,” and others. This author’s favorite “Star Trek” episode (City on the Edge of Forever) features a young, idealistic soup kitchen operator with whom Captain Kirk falls in love.
“Life Support” is not the only exception to the standard fare, but it is one of the few. “The Cider House Rules” takes place largely in an orphanage run by Michael Caine as the crusty but soft-hearted director/doctor. In a rare scene involving a charity board, he gets his way around the stuffy, wealthy, stingy board members. In “Role Models,” Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are sentenced to 150 hours of community service in a clone of Big Brothers Big Sisters — where they meet a whacko but savvy director, and find redemption for themselves (oh, and for the kids, too).
Hugh Grant does some phone calling for Amnesty International, and also works for a few minutes at a soup kitchen in the film “About a Boy.” These scenes show Grant as self-absorbed, showing off his skimpy volunteer work, but the truth is that it was another way to meet girls. In the 1990s cult TV show “Twin Peaks,” doomed prom queen Laura Palmer was a dedicated volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels. Will & Grace go to see a ballet performance, but they hate it.
Films we’d like to see
Hey Hollywood! Can’t you do us better than that? We want to see:
- George Clooney as the development director for a community housing organization. He falls in love with the frumpy-and-committed housing programs director (America Ferrera) and together they build another 2,000 units of affordable housing.
- Will Smith as the larger-than-life board president of a disability rights organization . . . battling City Hall for funds, battling community prejudice, and distributing Board Cafe articles at board meetings.
- Kathy Bates as the powerhouse nonprofit CEO with a mysterious past who leads an anti-toxics organization, going door-to-door with volunteers in a polluted Latino neighborhood one day and testifying in Congress the next. Over time we learn that her father (James Earl Jones) and her mother (Meryl Streep) rescued her from a spaceship that crashed in a nearby landfill.
Of course we know that film and television don’t depict reality, and we’ll keep on watching and enjoying it. At the same time, we can be more aware of what images and stereotypes are subtly projected into our collective consciousness. And within our own worlds, we can tell the stories from our work and our lives that will educate and inspire our families, friends, co-workers, and even ourselves.
We couldn’t do justice to the many responses we got from Blue Avocado readers on this question, so here’s the place to chime in. What pop culture films, video, and music nonprofits get your votes for best and worst?