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Debunking the Trope That “Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant”

Disney, media, and our naive notions of the truth

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 5 days ago 6 min read
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Photo by Christina Langford-Miller on Unsplash

There is this tiring trope that happens in media. The villain has been deceiving the populace of a town, country, or galaxy for the entire runtime. It seems like they will never face justice, but then our hero steps onto a stage with evidence or leaks a hot mic recording to the public, and the villain's secret gets revealed. The crowd instantly turns on them, and the day is saved.

This trope is everyone in pop culture. It's also a lie. A convenient fairytale we tell children (and adults), so they can ignore the reality that people are not always convinced when the truth is revealed.

A breakdown of the trope

It needs to be stated how prevalent this trope is, especially in children's media. A good example is the Pixar film Coco where antagonist Ernesto de la Cruz, who before the climax we believe is protagonist Miguel's father, accidentally reveals to the entire underworld on a hot mic that he killed character Héctor. "I am the one willing to do what is necessary to seize my moment, whatever it takes," he accidentally confesses onscreen to thousands.

The entire afterlife community turns on him instantly, booing him off the stage, and within a year, he has lost his standing in both the real world and the land of the dead. There are many other examples, particularly with a hot mic (see also Little Gideon revealing his evil plan to the town of Gravity Falls and Bellwether confessing accidentally to the cops in Zootopia).

Adult media has this trope as well. The 2011 film Horrible Bosses involves a CEO getting busted for what he has said on a recording. We see the same exact thing replicated in 2007's Hairspray, the second Mission Impossible movie, Now You See Me 2, and pretty much every other media property where our protagonist has to go up against a villain with far more political power and clout than them.

My favorite example comes from the kid movie Sea Beast (2022), which I low-key love for just how improbable it is. Character Maisie Brumble is standing on the back of a giant sea creature, far away from a crowd of onlookers, and she monologues to them how the kingdom's war with the sea beasts is a false one. The beasts have not been killing people: that's all been propaganda from the monarchy. The crowd not only hears her (which, like what?), but the speech works. Maisie can get through decades, maybe centuries, of propaganda to convince the inhabitants that their war is an unjust one.

Yet this trope is tiredly unrealistic. It's nice to believe that such an interaction is enough to topple an oppressive system. The sweetness of this trope is why it gets told in the first place, but it's not true. We have seen children in the real world monologue about the pain they have experienced with, say, a mass shooting, only for conspiracy theorists to deny the event even happened (see the Sandy Hook massacre). We have seen reporters leak politicians' statements and financial records only for the information to be ignored (see the Panama papers, the Snowden files, etc.).

The truth is often not enough to get through well-entrenched propaganda. I wouldn't care about these cute kids' movies telling children that “speaking truth to power is enough to topple empires” if this was not how actual adults thought too. Many adults continue to make the false claim that we can change things by merely bringing injustices to light. "Sunlight," the saying goes, "is the best disinfectant." Or to riff on a famous newspaper's newest slogan: "Democracy dies in Darkness."

This perspective ignores the power dynamics at play in writing, recording, and remembering history. It's a constant struggle to get people to learn about things as they happened because, like the monarchs of Sea Beast, those in power are putting out propaganda to distort the truth. When someone learns information that conflicts with that propaganda, they often don't accept it willingly but resist the truth at all costs.

For example, in the United States, conservatives have attempted to purge discussions of queer, black, and brown histories from our schools because the mere airing of the truth is not enough to get them to accept it. Many conservative actors would prefer to go on believing in the same lies they have always believed in, evidence be damned, and are removing all information that makes them uncomfortable (see the moral panic over CRT and queer rights). It takes genuine work and political organizing to get people to abandon well-entrenched narratives. Sometimes you need an entire competing propaganda arm to repeat an alternative history constantly to get to the point where the public starts questioning its indoctrination.

The history of nonwhite, nonheteronormative America has, for the longest time, been a stigmatized history — one preserved by fringe journalists, writers, and everyday people, who were not believed until decades or centuries after the fact, and still unbelieved by many. Truthseekers we consider heroes today (e.g., Ida B. Wells, MLK Jr., etc.) were hated in their heyday. Their wide appeal now is often because of political battles that made that information more palatable to the public, and even today, much of their original message has been so watered down as to no longer make mainstream society uncomfortable (see the appropriation of MLK Jrs “I have a dream speech”).

Just revealing information is never enough to create political change, and it's high time we recognize that both on the Silver Screen and off it.

An honest conclusion

One of the most significant subversions of this trope comes from the movie, Sorry to Bother You, where protagonist Cassius Green tries to reveal to the public how the corporation WorryFree is turning its workers into horse people. Cassius leaks this information to the public only for no outcry to emerge. The truth doesn't lead to a fundamental shift in society but the continuation of the status quo. As the character Squeeze says of Cassius's “call your congress members” campaign:

“Most people that saw you on that screen knew calling their congressman wasn’t going to do shit. If you get shown a problem but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”

And so Cassius abandons this campaign and helps Squeeze with a strike — something that has been going on throughout the film. It's implied that this slow, painful work of union organizing is needed to get people to eventually accept Cassius's information. This message advocates for workers to push for systemic reform, not simply just to “state their stories” or their “truth.” The fight for power is depicted as mattering more.

Conversely, the "sunlight is the best disinfectant" trope primes people to believe that the bare minimum is enough: that they can live in a fantasy world where, regardless of power dynamics, they can tell the truth, and people will listen to them. It's a very privileged and naive perspective that we should not teach to children, let alone adults. Kids are smart enough to know that adults lie, and it's not a leap for them to understand that adults not only lie about history but actively ignore it.

I would love more media taking the Sorry To Bother You route because while telling the truth is essential, fighting for it is what really counts.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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  • sleepy drafts5 days ago

    Wow!! What an incredible piece!

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