Popular Culture Has a New Responsibility, Whether it Likes it or Not

Star Wars Protest

In the age of Trump, millennials, a generation raised by popular culture, have been looking to it to draw meaning and make sense of the world. Everything that happens these days is apparently just like that one moment from Harry Potter, every time someone gets fired it brings to mind a shocking character death on Game of Thrones, every government official is just like that villain from Star Wars; even that horrific Charlottesville march and the President’s equally horrific response to it reminded people of that one time this character did that thing in this book/movie/TV show. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not this is a dumb way to look at the world, but it’s the way things are now for a lot of people. As we begin to isolate ourselves through technology and media, those things become enormous influences to us. The irony is that pop culture has become less explicitly didactic, TV creators these days aren’t interested in teaching word for word blatant lessons of the day, and more writers are content with trusting audiences to figure things out for themselves. We have such a diverse group of people consuming media in these increasingly confusing times, and in a lot of cases, people are taking the wrong lessons.

Take this scene from American History X for example. The intention is to show how racist attitudes and corrosive ideas spread through the conventionally wholesome setting of the American dinner table, but it didn’t exactly come off that way. The goal of the filmmakers was to present these racist ideas in a negative light, but one glance at this clip’s comment section and a look at how this film became a cult hit among the very Neo-Nazis it tried to criticize shows you things worked out differently. What happened? How can people not see what the scene was really going for? The way the father casually assumed books written by black writers were without merit, how he told his son to never afford black achievement the benefit of the doubt he would give to his fellow white citizens, all of that was so clearly heinous but it went over people’s heads. Thanks to some stellar performances and nuanced characterizations, this film was very well received in its debut almost two decades ago, but these days its a film who’s criticism of racism is about as effective as The Godfather series’ repudiation of organized crime. This is to say the film is about as effective as your dorky guidance counselor telling you not to drink or smoke “because it’s bad for you”. American History X isn’t just a movie that tells you that racism is bad, it’s one that implies that it’s also “punk”, and unfortunately this is taken to mean that it’s “cool”. It is presented more as a persona that one can adopt as long as they’re tough enough, not the evil cancer on civilization that it is.

I bring all this up because the big question I’m leading to is whether or not artists have a responsibility to not just consumers, but society as a whole. It’s easy to dismiss this outright, since artists should have as much freedom as possible to create their best work. How would a film like American History X have been served with someone explaining in detail to the camera why the father in that dinner scene was wrong to think the way that he did? Not well I imagine. Switching gears though, perhaps it is fairer to say that less romanticization of the life of a Neo-Nazi would have meant one less societal factor contributing to things like a large scale Nazi march taking place in 2017. It’s unfair to blame a single piece of media for bad things that happen to society, but it is worth looking at how these singular pieces contribute to a society in which toxic behaviour is normalized. In times of confusion people seem to be looking towards these fictional (often anti) heroes for them to either emulate or look to as a source of inspiration. I think it’s worth thinking about at who they’re looking at, and prudent to create characters with this in mind.

We live in a society where Arya Stark from Game of Thrones is being floated around by actual policy advisers in America is a potential symbol of #Resistance. This mass murdering, deeply damaged child may one day hold real influence because of the way she has entered the public consciousness through popular culture. We have comic writers depicting Deathstroke the Terminator as anti-firearms in response to the 2016 Orlando massacre, a heinous act that his character would have happily perpetrated himself if given the write amount of money. Circling back to Game of Thrones, we have “feminist icon” Daenerys Targaryen, a white princess who in one sequence, burns several brown men alive and is subsequently worshiped by an entire society of brown people in response. Politics and popular culture have become so intertwined, with people becoming far more aware of their influence on each other, that it’s actually in our best interest to examine how disturbing some of these dynamics at work really are.

Whether or not ones work is explicitly political doesn’t change the fact that it is contributing to some sort of discourse. I don’t believe in censorship or claim that art that doesn’t match my positions on issues is inherently flawed, but I do think we should be asking these questions. Would something like the proposed “Confederate” show brought to you by the creators of Game of Thrones be such a great idea in today’s political climate? I’m inclined to say no, and not because I think they will do a horrible job (although I believe there is evidence that suggests they may not be so adept at handling the issue of race in a sensitive manner), but because we live in a society that may not be equipped to handle it. Creators should be thinking about their works in the context of the world they are bringing them to, because evidence suggests that this idea that they have no real influence on each other is ridiculous. So with a film like American History X, which is technically a well put together work, I don’t see a “good” film, I see a deeply flawed and irresponsible one because of the context in which it was received. I don’t believe thinking along those lines is “anti-art” or “pro-censorship”. I do believe we shouldn’t be just thinking about the art our world is creating, but also the world our art is creating. Articulating our thoughts on culture is important, because it is something that relates to  our real lives, especially because everything that happens in our real lives seems to get related back to our culture.

PS: You should definitely also check out this piece on South Park and its role in creating the generation of trolls whose influence has run roughshod throughout society. I spend a lot of time observing these trolls, and there can be no denying how huge an influence this decades old cartoon has had on them. I’m not even saying South Park is a bad show (the school centred episodes are deeply enjoyable), but it definitely had a hand in the problems we face today.

South Park Trolls

A conversation on South Park courtesy of Reddit’s infamous Donald Trump subreddit.

Quote of the Day:

Maximus: Everyone in the universe is a hero. All you have to do is know the difference between good and bad, and root for good.
Morty: Rick says good and bad are artificial constructs.
Maximus: Yeah well, I get the feeling… he kind of needs that to be the case.

– Rick and Morty.

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