Culture Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

As award season reaches its climax with the Oscars on February 26th, it is impossible to overlook the largely leftist political edge of award acceptance speeches. While the entertainment media industry leans left and would have some criticism of any Republican president, the current president, Donald Trump, differs greatly from a ‘usual Republican’. Consequently, celebrities have focused on criticizing the divisive nature of his rhetoric more than usual conservative policies. In her Golden Globe speech lambasting Trump, Meryl Streep most clearly demonstrated this kind of criticism, pointing out that “without outsiders and foreigners, [we’d] have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”

While criticism like Streep’s are direct and rhetorically powerful, it does little more than galvanize the left’s approval and the right’s disdain. Streep’s message and conservative reactions highlight the redrawing of the culture war. Whereas the old culture wars were fought on matters of religion and sexuality, Trump has redrawn the battle into one of “populism and nationalism” versus cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. With the culture wars reset and reignited, the question remains: what is pop culture’s role?

Although the fantasy of a post-racial America after Obama’s election was quickly dashed, his term oversaw the ‘diversifying’ of pop culture and the rise of multiculturalism. Voices and narratives from marginalized perspectives—particularly women and people of color—gained prominence in national discourse. Beyonce’s proclamation of her feminism as a black woman made her the subject of conversation and admiration. With examples ranging from “Steven Universe” to “Ms Marvel” to “Transparent,” television and comics have also been telling a stories from a wider range of perspectives and identities. While movies were slow to catch up by comparison, this ethos is embraced in films from “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” to even “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

This trend towards diversity coincided with the growing value of inclusivity and intersectionality on the political left. As a result, the cultural and political left became more closely entwined, especially due to the Obamas’ effective use of pop culture as a political platform. This synthesis is perhaps best embodied by “Hamilton: An American Musical.”The musical quickly garnered national attention for its cast of racially diverse Founding Fathers and hip-hop score. Yet, it let its leftist flag fly with the “young, scrappy, and hungry” idealism of 2008 Obama and the belief that a strong executive is needed for general prosperity.

This growing inclusion and respect of minority voices was matched by a growing backlash to “political correctness.” This backlash was first manifested with Gamergate in the summer of 2014. Originally a controversy over ethics in games journalism, Gamergate soon devolved into harassing female game developers and commentators. They were villainized as unwanted invaders whose perspectives politicized and attacked their media, their entertainment, their culture. With its rejection of ‘diversity’ and its use of social media, Gamergate can be seen as the herald of the alt-right.

Two years later, those who resented the cultural elite and its ‘politically correct’ hegemony would join those who resented economic and political elites to vote Trump into the presidency. When then VP-elect Mike Pence was addressed by the cast of “Hamilton,” imploring the Trump administration to heed the worries of the minority communities, Trump claimed that Pence was harassed and demanded that the cast apologize. The war against multicultural pop culture thus began.

With the values represented by “Hamilton” rejected under Trumpian pop culture, what will pop culture look like? Gamergate’s premise that culture should be apolitical, while understandable on the surface, is ultimately impossible. Narratives are political because they are drawn from societal—and thus, political—experience. The desire to be apolitical is really a desire to return to what was not noticeably political: to default to the status quo that is in itself political. A prime example of this is the backlash to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” As the film neared its release, the alt-right charged that it was anti-white propaganda; a politicized defiling of the ‘pure,’ original trilogy. However, made in a time when fascism was considered morally wrong on principle, the original Star Wars itself was political: its antagonists’ fascist tendencies were sufficient to demonstrate their villainy.

If art can’t be apolitical, then maybe pop culture will now be less focused on racial diversity and return to focusing on white working class protagonists. One narrative regarding Trump’s win was that he was supported by the white, working class voters who felt economically abandoned by the elite. Regardless of how accurate this narrative actually is, there have been hints of its resonance in culture. J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” briefly caught national attention for its depiction of the despair surrounding the collapse of white working class culture. “Hell or High Water,” a crime thriller rooted in that same despair, is up for several Oscars, including Best Picture.

One could argue that this is for the better. By appealing to minorities through their concerns regarding their race, gender, and other markers of identity—hence the term ‘identity politics’—one could argue that the left have equated ‘straight white males’ as oppressors in the process, encouraging them to act and think according to concerns regarding their identity. The white nationalist alt-right, fighting against diversity and ‘white genocide,’ can be thus seen as identity politics from the right. Should pop culture try to dial down ‘identity politics’ on the left in the hope that it will matched on the right?

I don’t quite think so.

As tactical rallying cries and mere appeals to one’s identity, identity politics are a definite cause for concern. Casting Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” without considering their reasons for supporting him not only cuts any attempt at conversation short, but also risks pushing those supporters to more tribalistic extremes. Streep’s aforementioned speech falls into this exact trap by casting herself and her audience as cosmopolitan, pro-art ‘heroes’ and Trump as a nationalist, anti-art ‘villian.’

However, striving for diversity and the inclusion of marginalized voices should not be a means to political power, but a universal ideal, monopolized by neither the left nor the right. At its core, diversity reinforces the dignity of all individuals regardless of their race, gender, class, or creed—including the white working class which has been marginalized over the years. While the technocratic political elite have lost the ability to articulate why core values, such as diversity, are important on a visceral level, art and entertainment retain that ability by emotionally investing us in the lives of the characters on page or on screen regardless of how similar or different we are from them. Rather than rejecting those who feel economically marginalized and therefore are beginning to devalue racial diversity, we must take their perspectives into the fold before it is too late.

This is not to ask that all of pop culture be reduced to condescending fables or leftist drivel. Rather, this is an urgent call for entertainment media to reinforce the value of diversity by presenting subjects of all identities as complex characters rather than simple caricatures, especially in the face of an administration whose rhetoric has stridently otherized minorities — and whose policies look to do much worse.

Hansy D. Piou ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Quincy House.