Book bans and boycotts are nothing new. Throughout history, select titles have caused ire amongst religious factions, political divides, and parents’ unions for various reasons. The Harry Potter novels, for example, received backlash in their heyday for the supposed influence of black magic at play. To Kill A Mockingbird has become a problematic novel for its use of racial slurs and the white saviour motif, despite once being heralded as an important text on racism. The Handmaid’s Tale is constantly challenged due to its depiction of sexual violence and religious criticism. There’s a long list with contentions that range from the expected to the head-scratching, and plain bizarre. Usually, however, these problems haven’t expanded beyond mere parent-teacher associations and small organisations. Usually. It seems now things might be starting to change.
With an “unprecedented” 330 book challenges recorded by the American Library Association (ALA) last Autumn/Fall, there’s been a sharp increase in calls to curtail cultural change, particularly in the South. Texas State Representative Matt Krause put over 800 books on a “watch list” recently; many of which deals with race and LGBTQ issues. In Oklahoma, there was a bill filed to ban books that address “sexual perversion”. In a county in Tennessee, the Holocaust-themed Maus was outright banned (for violent and sexual imagery). Police in South Carolina challenged The Hate U Give for perpetuating a “distrust in police”. And perhaps most surprisingly, Governor Greg Abbott (of Texas) called for criminal charges against school staff member providing access to young adult novels considered “pornography”. (This would be somewhat understandable for a school, except for the fact that you must question who deems the category.)
Despite popularising the term “snowflake” for liberals, it seems most of these contentions are coming from conservative factions and parents. Their concerns are not necessarily without merit, to be fair. It’s important for students to be given a broad and comprehensive reading list in their curriculum; not one which tilts too largely towards a political ideology. With that said, these challenges have expanded beyond any traditional coursework to libraries stocking books students may just happen upon. And… the process of taking these books down has been short-circuited with librarians growing weary of “concerns” and withdrawing controversial titles before the appropriate committee has even made a decision.
This is particularly unfair for LGBTQ students. Titles like All Boys Aren’t Blue and Heather Has Two Mommies have been challenged just because they don’t present an old-fashioned, heteronormative view in line with the cultural values of certain areas. It sends a message of exclusion to them while running the mistaken exercise of thinking you can shut out knowledge. As Emily Knox (author of Book Banning in 21st Century America) stated in an interview on Slate.com, “people are trying to get books like Maus banned because they are afraid that if their children read them, they will have different values” from their parents. Perhaps then, this can be seen as a desperate last leg to stand on in the generational and culture wars.
With the ALA reporting a 67% increase in attempts to ban school library books from September 2020 to September 2021, one can only worry where this will go next. Primarily, these contentions have come from the right, although it must be acknowledged that the left’s concerns over appropriate language for today’s sensibilities (with Mockingbird or something like Huckleburry Finn or Of Mice and Men) should draw concern and ridicule too. The banning and boycotting of any books, even with the best of intentions, reflects an insecurity on the part of the challengers as well as a high level of patronising. Hopefully, the #FReadom campaign in Texas (of school librarians), among others, will help reinforce the obvious notion that banning something makes it all the more interesting.
On January 6th 2021, things got a little shaky in Washington. Without getting into details, one president was preparing to take office while another’s feelings were hurt. The latter may have said some things that shouldn’t have been said; maybe suggested his followers descend on the Capitol in defiance of a “rigged” election with “fake” results. And yeah, sure, if you want to be technical with it, they may have done just that in a blatant disregard for democracy. It’s hard to remember.
Well, against type, old “Sleepy Joe” remembers. In one of his most defining moments yet, he made a speech last week regarding the “web of lies” the former, “defeated” president had spread resulting in this insurrection. While his rhetoric and performance may have been lauded by his side however, it begs the question as to how prominent Trump and “Trumpism” remains in defining this presidency.
Indeed, a year on now, the battle for the “soul of America” (as Biden put it) rages on. Despite a multitude of major spending bills, the picture being framed by the media is still one of left-and-right friction, via the nitty-gritty of negotiating these bills, mask mandates, and vaccine uptake; its narrative spins every accomplishment or historical event under this paralysis.
For example, the withdrawal from Afghanistan (and the immediate return of the Taliban) was set in motion under the Trump presidency but Biden’s been saddled with much of the blame (not that he should be wholly exonerated from it). The vaccination program, depending on who you ask, has been a disaster. Either Trump had already done “the best job” he could have with it and set everything in place, or else Biden was extolling authoritarian virtues by implementing a federal mandate or even taking credit for what Trump had done before him. Trump criticised Biden’s action and then (at a rally) encouraged his followers to get vaccinated. It’s a little confusing. I think the official position they’ve landed on is that “vaccinations are fine but you shouldn’t have to get one but they’re also a scam”. Plus, masks are “lame”.
Naturally enough, most governments have had to readjust their strategies somewhat to contend with new variants, like Omicron. To a degree, Joe Biden was naive to suggest life would be back to normal by now though. Alas, that’s run-of-the-mill politics at its laziest and yet, he’s taken bold action in this department with the $1.9-trillion stimulus “American Rescue Plan” (passed in March). Unfortunately, with a cling-film, flimsy thin majority, the Democrats have struggled to follow up on the other two parts of the “Build Back Better Plan”- the II) “American Jobs Plan” and III) “American Families Plan”. (Although, parts of II made their way into the $1.2 trillion “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act”, passed in November.) The pressure to regain ground in this debate (publicly contested by Senator Joe Manchin) may play a role in establishing Democratic credibility in the mid-terms.
On that note, what is “Democratic credibility”? For while the Republicans still largely stand by Trump (2/3 even still believe his lies about the election), the Democrats remain tentative in deciding just how progressive they want their party to be and where its future lies. Indeed, many feel Biden’s as-of-yet unrealised plans don’t go far enough- an age-old adage for progressives. Plus, there’s a general feeling that Biden is serving as a temporary, caretaker president with many eyes turning to Kamala Harris for 2024. Biden has stated he plans to run for re-election but even his supporters’ doubts haven’t been assuaged. This, unfortunately, reflects the notion that great, transformative change cannot be expected in these next few years, even if they are needed.
As mid-terms have historically been a disaster for Democrats and many of the same contentions from the Trump years remain, Joe Biden may simply have to contend himself with dulling the rancorous hate that’s divided America. Sadly, it’s not just down to him. It’ll take a degree of bi-partisanship, an acknowledgment on the GOP’s part that Trump lied, and the media to stop droning on about Trump all the time. It’ll take some time for us to acknowledge the success rate of the Biden presidency with a clear filter.
There’s no easy way to do this. Each US President existed in a different context of the young nation’s history and had unique challenges to face; be it economical (with the Panic of 1837 or The Great Depression after 1929), wartime (World War 2), or domestic (slavery). Each had external factors preying on their ability to do the job; from congressional layout to crises (e.g. 9/11) and world-changing dynamics (inflation in the ’70s). Each had different cabinets of support and varying levels of opposition (publicly, politically, and commercially). Really, one could argue it’s not even fair to judge the likes of Washington (from a simpler but creative period for government) against say, Bill Clinton, operating under a much more complex system. However… we’re going to anyways.
How exactly? Well, by accounting for their successes in foreign policy, economics, domestic policy, agenda set, public persuasion, and so on and so forth… Yes, all that, but mainly by addressing the central question: did they live up to the challenges of their time? And don’t worry, we’ll provide justification for these rankings- some may shock you given past rankings on other sites (sorry Andrew Jackson fans) but know this- plenty of thought has been given for each choice- this wasn’t some mere cut and paste job with a few throw-arounds for controversy.
Also, we will be excluding two presidents from this list: Joe Biden and William Henry Harrison. Joe; because, well, he’s not completed a year yet- although if push came to shove, I’d rank him around 15 for a strong response to Covid 19, with partial responsibility for the disastrous end to the Afghanistan war. And William H. Harrison? He served only 30 days in office, dying from pneumonia which he likely contracted after giving a tediously long inauguration speech in the cold. A lot of lists place him around 40, which I consider harsh. So let’s do the honourable thing and just bash his grandson who later became president.
Anyways, without further ado:
43. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
One of three impeached presidents, Andrew Johnson assumed the job in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and made a perpetual fool of himself by attempting to go back on much of what just been achieved in the Civil War. He opposed the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to former slaves and acted in a cantankerous manner, causing great friction with Congress, who passed the Tenure of Office Act (restricting Johnson’s ability to fire Cabinet officials). He was only acquitted because no one saw any chance of his re-election (which they were right about).
42. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021)
The former Apprentice host sowed a great deal of division in the country, inspiring renewed racist fervour and idiocy amongst his cohorts and followers. His outlandish statements aside, he will be remembered for making the pandemic far more devastating than it needed to be by spreading misinformation; corruption and nepotism; and refusing to take election results seriously, leading to a national insurrection on the Capitol building in January of this year.
41. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
At a time when decisive leadership was needed, James Buchanan essentially sat out the slavery issue, setting the stage for the secession of the southern states upon Lincoln’s election.
40. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Theodore Roosevelt wrote of him as a “servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him”. Pierce is best remembered for failing to secure sectional conciliation, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and aiding the downfall of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
39. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Named after something that literally sucks, Herbert Hoover failed to address one of the great calamities of the 20th Century: The Great Depression. His perceived lack of concern resulted in shanty towns being called “Hoovervilles” while his tariff act (fuelling an international trade war) only served to make things worse.
38. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
There was a time when this (literal) mad-man was once considered a top 15. In recent years, historians have re-addressed his legacy as that of an American Caesar whose Native Removal policy stands as one of the most heinous of policies ever committed to American soil. Sure, he was the father of the Democratic Party but that doesn’t acquit him of these horrendous charges. Sure, he was a “man of the people” and not one of the elites but his assault on the banks contributed to the Panic of 1837. So beyond these basic labels, why is he held to such lofty heights? (Also, Trump admired him.)
37. John Tyler (1841-1845)
John Tyler succeeded the month-long presidency of William H. Harrison, seeking to establish the legitimacy of his leadership. He even believed the President should set policy rather than Congress. To this end, he was referred to as “His Accidency” by the Whigs. Sick burn.
36. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Iraq. The economic crash. Besides that, seems an affable enough fellow.
35. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding is usually ranked in the bottom three but beyond his innate incompetence (which he at least admitted to), I don’t consider his (albeit corrupt) administration to be particularly damaging to the US. (He, at least, acknowledged that democracy was a “lie” without political equality for black citizens. He didn’t do anything about it but he acknowledged it.)
34. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Another spineless leader in the vein of Buchanan, Fillmore’s support of the 1850 compromise opened up the territories of the Mexican Cession to slavery and allowed for the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership. Harry Truman called him a “weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone”.
33. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
More like Van Burden, am I right? Van Buren continued Andrew Jackson’s policy of Native Removal and denied the application of Texas to the Union. His presidency was also mired by the Panic of 1837. (Interesting bit of trivia for you: Van Buren was a member of the Old Kindergarten Club for which to gain access you had to say “okay”, thus originating the term.)
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes’ era essentially marked an end to Reconstruction and inconsistent civil service reform. He also championed the Gold Standard and broke the Great Strike of 1877. Nothing particularly striking or memorable or interesting here.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A mess of contradictions: owned slaves but wanted to ban the expansion of slavery into western territories conquered from Mexico; a military triumph in that war who wasn’t particularly keen on Manifest Destiny (expanding US borders); a decisive commander in battle who avoided tough decisions as President. Given his strong commitment to the union, historians wonder (had he lived) whether the Compromise of 1850 or the Civil War would have occurred.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
The grandson of former President William H., he was committed to voting rights for African Americans but economically uncertain of how to handle the nation’s affairs, resulting in the 1893 crash.
29. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Once the promising successor to Teddy Roosevelt, committed to 80 antitrust suits against large industries, he disappointed his predecessor by reneging and falling into place among the more conservative members of the Republican Party. This led to old Teddy mounting a race against him in 1912 under the “Bull-Moose” party. Both would lose, leading to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s rise.
28. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Two non-consecutive terms? Oh, you better believe it happened! If people expected Cleveland to have improved in his off-years, they were sorely disappointed though when he was dealt the hand of the 1893 crash which he failed to deal with adequately. This resulted in Democrats losing support everywhere but the Deep South.
27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Harding’s successor has attained some historical reassessment on the part of classic Republicans who admired his small-government and laissez-faire economic approach. He helped restore the reputation of the White House following the corruption scandals of Harding’s cohorts but largely detached himself from the job; infamously sleeping during the day and avoiding mingling with guests. Upon his death, Dorothy Parker remarked “how can they tell?’
26. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Given some of his past associations in business dealings, people expected him to be more corrupt than he was. He fought the spoils patronage system he’d supported in New York and advocated tariff relief for businesses and tackled civil service reform. It doesn’t say much though when your reputation, at best, surmounts to: “well, I guess he wasn’t that bad”.
25. James Garfield (1881)
He only served a few months but contemporaries were impressed by his handling of Roscoe Conkling; a New York senator trying to push his agenda and men in high positions. Historians call him a “what if?”
24. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford’s rise to power was particularly incidental, taking over for Spiro Agnew as VP before taking over the main post when Nixon resigned. A generally decent and uncontroversial politician, Ford, unfortunately wasn’t a great communicator, even if his pardon of Nixon was intended to help move a damaged nation on.
23. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Besides that whole Watergate thing, Nixon wasn’t a terrible president. Strategically minded, he approached the Cold War in a more pragmatic way than his predecessors or successors ever did, resulting in the first SALT treaty and the opening of relations with China. He even tried his hand at a health care plan and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
22. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of John Adams served as Secretary of State and a senator before becoming president and as a representative after. It’s fair to say he’s best remembered for his later achievements there, focusing on the anti slavery movement. As the nation’s leader, he was generally considered to be too uncompromising to achieve much in an increasingly political age.
21. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Alas. My favourite president in essence and character but unfortunately not one with the most impressive record, even though he was the only post WW2 leader to not launch a missile. A true Washington “outsider”, Carter’s reign was beset by out-of-control issues like inflation and (more in control issues like) poor congressional relations. In my opinion, he was ahead of his time but legacies rest on effective, perceptible changes and not just rhetoric.
20. John Adams (1797-1801)
Being one of the OGs is a surefire way to knock yourself up the list but Adams paled in comparison to Washington and Jefferson, signing the controversial Alien and Seditions Act which included powers to deport foreigners and make it harder for new immigrants to vote; strange cause for a newly built nation but then it’s hard to find a footing in those early days. He gets marks for not expanding the naval war with France into a greater conflict, however.
19. James Polk (1845-1849)
A lot of land acquisition went on during Polk’s term; Oregon, California, and New Mexico, notably. He also settled the Texas border dispute, established the federal depository system, and lowered tariff rates. Simply put, one of the most accomplished presidents there ever was. Critics charge however that his underestimation of the Mexican War’s effects paved the way for sectional conflict and the troubles that ensued over the next decade.
18. James Madison (1809-1817)
The war of 1812 was seen as unnecessary by some and as something of a 2nd war of independence to others. The new nation, either way, cemented its foundations in this test.
17. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan’s often ranked in the top ten and I can see why… kind of. A great communicator, Reagan brought hope to a nation deflated by inflation, Vietnam, Watergate, and perceived ineffective leadership. He amped the Cold War back up in its last days, oversaw a more prosperous era (while setting the stage with his trickle-down economics for a latter recession) and delivered some great jokes. Let’s face it though; he stumbled when it came to talking specifics, didn’t handle the AIDS epidemic well, and of course, that whole Iran-Contra thing. Sorry Reagan fans. If it’s any consolation, I still like him! What a character.
16. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Grant’s administration was wrought by scandals involving bribes and a whiskey ring, tarnishing his image for years to come (even though he didn’t personally benefit from the crimes). If we look beyond that, he was actually a pretty effective president who worked to stabilise the post-war national economy, support reconstruction, and crush the KKK.
15. William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley’s presidency marked the emergence of an imperial era for the US as he declared war with Spain over Cuban independence. He was also the first president to actively engage the media by holding press conferences and he went on national tours to speak with voters. A new day had come.
14. James Monroe (1817-1825)
Monroe helped further the nationalistic cause by reaching out to all parts of the then smaller US, separating their course and interests from Europe’s with the Monroe Doctrine. Florida was also acquired during his tenure.
13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Despite being one of America’s most well educated leaders, Wilson held regressive viewpoints for race relations (even for his time). He’s ranked lowly in that regard but otherwise highly for guiding America through World War One and establishing the League of Nations, as well as banking reform, supporting labour and collective bargaining, and more.
12. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
I give some props for rhetoric and inspiring people but when it comes to actual legislative achievement, there’s not much to be said for JFK. And while, yes, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis with dramatic flair, he played a major role in starting it. And he set the stage for Vietnam. A great deal of his mythos has been born out of his untimely assassination. Again though, that inspiring stuff does count for something and let’s face it- it’s endured.
11. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
The senior Bush’s reputation has improved in recent years, probably as a result of people’s nostalgic yearning for a conservative who could be flexible. His 1990 tax hike might have irked his supporters after the reticence of his “no new taxes” election pledge but it was the right and responsible thing to do. Plus, on the world stage, he was very well respected for his even tempered, strategic diplomacy- too humble for most when the Berlin Wall fell and too cautious for others who wanted the Gulf War victory to lead onto further gains in Iraq (we later learned how that would work out). A very underrated president, in my opinion; he simply couldn’t sell himself well enough.
10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s impeachment was largely based on petty partisan squabbles so I’m not factoring that in as much as others would like. On the whole, he did the job successfully, steering the economy to a surplus for the first time since Truman’s years. While he was initially slow on Bosnia and Rwanda, he later found his footing on the international stage, earning support from the likes of Mandela and helping to establish NATO.
9. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
Vietnam escalated to disastrous levels under LBJ so why is he at number 9? Well, under the auspices of Communist Containment, one could argue he was merely maintaining a longstanding foreign policy of the US but really, it’s because his domestic agenda was so progressive and realised. Only a year after pushing the Civil Rights Bill, he got the Voting Rights Act passed. Then, a flurry of the most impressive legislation committed by a liberal president, including Medicare. He was an intimidating, foul-mouthed beast of a man but he knew how to play the political game better than almost any other US president.
8. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
One of the OGs, Jefferson promoted a western expansionist policy with the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the nation’s grounds. He also put an end to the long-standing problem of Tripoli pirates from North Africa, who were disrupting American trade in the Mediterranean. His passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, which suspended all trade with Europe, unfortunately wrecked the US economy and paved the way for the War of 1812 with Britain.
7. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
While many supporters were frustrated with the gridlock of congressional relations in Obama’s years and the supposed let-down in the wake of his meteoric rise, there’s no denying the achievement that was the Affordable Care Act. Not perfect, sure, but something that had eluded America’s leaders for decades. Besides that, Obama helped restore America’s image abroad and took some tough but much needed measures to restore the US economy after the 2008 crash.
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Truman was never given an easy hand to play. He had been virtually kept in the dark by FDR while VP, not even knowing about the development of the Atomic Bomb. To drop that in August of 1945 was perhaps one of the gravest decisions a US President ever had to make. Shortly thereafter, he had to take quick measures to ensure the containment of communism where he could, mostly with success, though a period of uncertainty loomed at the end of his tenure with the Korean War. Initially not popular upon leaving office, his reputation was restored by the time of Vietnam due to the accountability with which he had held himself- a sign upon his office reading “the buck stops here”.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
A military hero who ended the Korean War. A republican who continued the legacies of the New Deal and Fair Deal. Apatriot who opposed communism but would not give the red scare-mongering likes of Joseph McCarthy any time of his day. Yes, Ike was a popular leader who came as a natural choice for many in the post-war era. Perhaps his previous lack of political ambitions paved the way for him being the kind of president who could rule with sense, partisanship aside.
4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
We’re into the major leagues now. Roosevelt ushered in the Square Deal which aimed to conserve natural resources, control corporations, and protect consumers. And… he was a Republican. Yes,, of the old sort- the kind that believed in containing big government and capitalism where it got dangerous. While something of a bloodthirsty scoundrel, apparently always itching for a fight and building up the US navy, he also brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War (earning him the Nobel Peace Prize).
3. George Washington (1789-1797)
The first president is often ranked number one or two. While I admire his dedication to the job and setting the tone for the office by stepping down after two terms (where many wanted to make him essentially a king), it must be said that he operated in a time of widespread support and creativity for the new nation. He didn’t have the binds facing other presidents. Still, can’t really fault him on much.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Elected a record-breaking four times (dying early into his fourth term), FDR brought America through both the Great Depression and World War 2. His legacy is closely tied to the New Deal agenda, which set the course for liberal economic ambitions since, if never fully realised. Plus, he was also inspiring- helping to raise morale with his fireside chats and proclamations such as “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Upon his death, the people weren’t quite sure how another leader could occupy such a space.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
No president has ever faced a test quite like the Civil War. Upon election, several southern states seceded resulting in America’s darkest hour. Lincoln was responsible not only for winning this war and reuniting the broken nation but for passing the 13th Amendment which abolished the original sin of America’s foundation: slavery. This would mark the great turning point in the nation’s history. Managing such a hefty task required a man of great intellect and greater moral fibre.
In recent years, celebrities have adapted to an increasingly politicised world by themselves becoming more outspoken and vigilant on the issues. On various chat shows and through social media outlets, they’ll let their opinion ring out, regardless of research, originality, or grammar to attain that seal of approval needed to go on working in the industry without being seen as problematic.
So what’s the problem then?
On the surface, it’s not that evident. Celebrities should be entitled to their opinions. They don’t necessarily have to play ball with any mandate. You can simply scroll by if you don’t like what Whoopi Goldberg or Matt Damon has to say. Big whoop!
Well, the problem is that this politicisation has begun to affect the art itself and the culture surrounding it. For example, the other day I decided to punish myself by watching 10 minutes of the Video Music Awards (VMAs) to see what was what with the youths of today. They had a category for “Best Video With A Message” which was delivered to Billie Eilish for her (unusually) unremarkable song “Your Power”. She proceeded to offer vague insistences of people using their power responsibly or recognising privilege. I wasn’t able to pay attention, really. I was transfixed on the fact that this was an actual category at the VMAs- the dumbest awards’ ceremony ever created. After she had finished her speech, several performances then followed featuring twerking and lyrics about haters being haters and speaking one’s truth or something equally embarrassing. But back to the category. When did this vapid, moronic ceremony feel the need to pay tribute to ambiguous social issues? When did these issues, furthermore, become so commercialised?
If one has something genuine to say about race, mental health, addiction, or inequality, you shouldn’t bemoan or ridicule them necessarily. Sometimes, even celebrities can offer nuggets of wisdom with first-hand experience or a good depth of knowledge. Nowadays however, it’s enough to just hitch your ride to this wagon for the sake of trending on Twitter or getting a few, click bait likes. (It’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s career plan.) What was once seen as pandering and distasteful is now seen as courageous and important. (One has to wonder, on a side note, how courageous it is to say something you know will go down well?)
It happens in the music industry with many of the top-charting songs today addressing empowerment on a fundamentally basic level, in literature (with an increasing number of novels tackling issues and story/plot trailing behind as a casualty), and in TV/movies. With regards the latter, this problem is most evident. On press junkets, actors will often be asked to elaborate on an issue or theme in their work (better suited to a director or doctorate student) that their PR has clearly tapped them on. When they don’t answer quite convincingly, it can elicit a Twitter storm. For example, Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood garnered negative reactions from those who sought to make a sexist out of Quentin Tarantino (ignoring Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) when he refused to pander and answer the question. (Poor Margot wasn’t quite sure what to say but felt she’d been given a good opportunity.)
Hollywood has always been a predominantly liberal market. This is nothing new. Politics have aggressively come to the fore in recent years however, as evident with the movies put up for major awards that lack general popularity or remote commercial appeal (Nomadland) and an increased emphasis on ideology over art. Too often now, I see reviews focusing on the importance of the subject rather than the quality of the project itself, e.g. Black Panther. Similarly, many of the reviews for the Star Wars sequel trilogy were built around subverting expectations and the promotion of a female lead rather than the nonsense stories roughly hewn together without a plan (not even my analysis; J.J. Abrams confirmed it would’ve been better with a plan).
This trail of thought can go a little awry though so it should be stated that diversity is, in fact, a good thing in cinema and TV. It gives an increased number of actors, writers, and directors an opportunity. It promotes a wealth of stories, not seen before. And it attracts a wider net of audiences.
It can’t be the be-all and end-all of creating art however. Problems arise when producers think it’s enough and don’t do the proper work involved in actualising the reality of the stories represented by various cultures. For example, the female-reboot of Ghostbusters was widely ridiculed because it felt, from the offset, like a cheap cash-grab. By ridiculed, it is worth noting, I mean by audiences. Critics are a different matter.
As aforementioned with the Star Wars sequels, reviews can be skewed. Social media dictates a lot of what we’re willing to say today which is why any Marvel criticism can cause a stir online or why super popular figures are beyond criticism in their camps (Beyoncé, Obama, Oprah, etc.) With the politicisation of entertainment, it’s only become a tougher job to give an honest critique of a musical performance (lest you undermine how women are perceived by criticising Little Mix) or a movie like Nomadland (which said a lot about America without the distraction of remote entertainment or story). It takes tact to be a successful critic, these days.
We live in a time when politicians try to grab the public’s attention with the flair or a celebrity and when celebrities speak with the calculations of a politician. For all the good that’s come of these last years, opening the floodgates for diversity and tackling subjects previously not remarked on, we’ve somehow permitted political correctness to infect the arts. If history has taught us anything, it’s that many of the great pieces of literature (Huckleberry Finn), film (Citizen Kane), and TV (The Sopranos) were not created in a space of orthodoxy and permissiveness. Simply stated, the problem lies in thinking we can mandate artistic relevance and excellence.
“Speak[ing] your truth” has become an incessantly annoying phrase in recent years. Once the mantra of the truly oppressed, used for good cause in shedding light on issues like sexism and racism, it’s become a cliche adopted by anyone and everyone. You see it in magazine articles, on inane Instagram posts, in every Oprah interview, and even in ad campaigns. And for what purpose, I wonder, besides some vague reach for headline fodder?
In full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am a curmudgeon and contrarian. So in the interest of attaining some balance, I decided to give “speak your truth” a fair shot by reminding myself of its origins and use. In essence, it’s a reiteration of sharing one’s story or providing a different perspective. With the #metoo movement, it became a calling card for accounts of abused women who were never afforded a platform to share their version of events. Similarly, across history, it rallied strength by numbers for groups of oppressed minorities, whose history was erased; a new edition of “the truth” for many, educated by a whitewashed system.
The truth is different from your or my truth however. It may sound petty to distinguish these, in light of what’s been stated above but here’s the thing: who’s to validate the actual truth when so many sides can claim legitimacy via emotional goodwill? It’s not just the oppressed that use this phrase. It’s dragged out for pasture by the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, Holocaust deniers, and Trump supporters of this world too. And with so much “truth” going on, it gets pretty foggy out there.
The Atlantic highlighted this well in early 2018, speaking about Oprah’s Cecile B. De Mille Award speech at the Golden Globes. A strong proponent of all things spiritual and motivational, she urged people to (you guessed it) “speak [their] truth” leading to calls (among idiots) for her to run for president. To be fair, given the actual good she’s done with her show and her background, there’s some weight to her pronouncement against others except that she’s also helped dilute the power of this message by praising the likes of Jenny McCarthy for her bravery when speaking out against vaccinations (in 2007). This is not meant to fan the flames of a vaccination debate but to simply point out that opposing sides (as we’d imagine them) each believe they’re speaking truth to power.
In a “post-truth world” of “alternative facts” and headline readers, speaking one’s truth isn’t entirely a noble endeavour. I’d even go so far as to say that it emboldens political opposites by adding an extra layer of sanctimonious narcissism to their bubbles. On top of that too, it’s been capitalised on by celebrities for surpassing a certain number of followers (The Rock) and by clothing brands like Calvin Klein who featured a roster of celebrities in their “I speak my truth” campaign. (Kendall Jenner was one of them.)
The use of language changes throughout history and most people will dabble in hyperbole from time to time but with important concepts like truth and lies, one should take the time to consider their value. After all, a large percentage of Americans still believe the election was stolen from Trump despite clear evidence to the contrary. Their arguments may be non-existent but the emotional weight attached to their call can’t be denied. And when one begins conflating their opinion with facts, it gets pretty to see where the my and your get separated from the the (truth).
Following on from my last piece about Gen X’s low-profile status when juxtaposed against Boomers and Millenials, I thought it was worth revisiting the murky subject of generational struggle. This time however, I will be focusing on the generation that just won’t die off: The Boomers.
These illustrious, seemingly all-powerful beings were born roughly between the early 40s and early 60s and came into their own at a time of great economic improvement and opportunity, greater music, and massive cultural change (i.e. the ’60s). Indeed, the popular picture that’s been painted of this era is one of revolutionary zeal, free spiritedness, and tremendous progress on Civil Rights; a time of renewed hope for mankind, following the bleakness of the Silent Generation. Of course, theirs was not a time without struggle as Vietnam and race riots dominated the news in the late ’60s while the ’70s saw staggering oil inflation, a decline in respect for politics (following Nixon), and the continuation of the Cold War. By the time of the 1980s however, the Boomers had found a sure footing in America as the dominant electorate and net of cultural values. And… that’s where things changed.
Now, it goes without saying that an entire generation cannot “sell out”; at least not in terms of its populace. With that self-evident notion hovering above us however, let’s consider how the radiant plumage of the ’60s got withered away and replaced with the shoulder pads, dodgy hair-dos, and new right or neoliberal values of the ’80s. Gone were the days of the “Hippie Revolution”; it was in with the “Commercial Revolution”, the “Reagan Revolution”, and a new mentality for an a generation graduating into their mid life.
We’ve already touched on the struggles of the ’70s, if not the psychological and cultural repercussions they bore. Most people’s idealism will at some point be compromised by the practicalities of adult life when children, careers, and other factors come into the equation. The teens and young adults of the late ’60s simply grew up at some point. They were jaded, with that said, by the experiences of their time. While 1967 boasted the so-called “Summer of Love”, 1968 brought the “Summer of Hate” with revolutionary spirits leading to protests and then quashed protests. The loveable druggies of the Hippie era became, in part by reality (but also by the Media and politicians) the junkies of the following decade. Lyndon Johnson’s progressive agenda was torn asunder when Vietnam clouded his resume, not to mention the rise of Nixon (who hated Hippies and started the War on Drugs). With the sullen decline of this spirit in the ’70s (the decade of “Malaise”), it was no wonder why many Boomers were ready for a fresh start with the ’80s.
Ronald Reagan was able to sell that “fresh start” for many. Whilst his administration pushed America on a right-wing trajectory (it’s largely followed since) that would actually (in years to come) negatively affect the majority of Americans, he was able to sell it with a winning smile and the profile of a true leader. Enough Americans believed things were improving (having faced the “tough love” years of the Carter Administration) and voted him back in in 1984 as well as his successor, George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Democrats, in meek response, basically followed the New Right to the centre, whereby they could get a New Democrat-type politician into power with Bill Clinton in 1992 and so on… Politics aside, the point is that Boomers, having taken the largest share of the electorate by the 1980s were the ones to benefit from the initial economic upturn. Thus, even a mantra like “Greed is Good” (meant as a warning from Oliver Stone in 1987’s Wall Street) came to exhibit a twisted kind of wisdom for its age.
Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths has been particularly critical of this turn of events. Speaking in an interview with Vox at the time of the book’s release, he said:
“Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatised gain and socialised risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant bomber economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.”
The “Trickle-Down” economic model has been something of a “greatest hits” piece for the GOP since the 1980s. It would be foolish to state however that Boomers knew what they were in for with such changes. Even the politicians of the time, bent on conservative policies, couldn’t have known. With that said, that particular decade did set a damaging tone for what was to follow. The future of subsequent generation’s retirement funds, college loans, mortgages, and more were determined by what was set out then. At least in the 1970s, when there were economic struggles, there was some measure of co-ordination between Republicans and Democrats to balance out the extremes of either side that have increasingly flourished since. In many ways, it was a time of more liberal economic and political thinking.
The ’80s saw the rise of modern commercialism and a quasi-sanitised media too. Malls replaced high streets and new kinds of products lined the window faces of the shops built within. Movies of the ’70s, built on morally ambivalent antiheroes and dark realities faded from popularity as likeable heroes again took the screen. “Just Say No” and other family-friendly values and slogans helped push cheesy sitcoms to the fore. CDs saw the introduction of “Parental Advisory” stickers with censorship prevailing in the MTV era. Language and content were closely monitored on TV. It was a different kind of political correctness, to what we’re used to today, buoyed mostly by the New Right with puritanical leanings. All that is not to say great art wasn’t born out of that decade because it was but it was certainly symptomatic of a new way of refining the cultural values of the time.
American culture naturally moved on from the ’80s, with some persuasion from Gen X and subsequently Millenials in the following decades but by the mid-late ’90s, Boomers had effectively seized the reigns of power, which they still have tremendous persuasion over.
It is a harsh indictment, yes, and perhaps one a millennial, such as myself should be careful about castigating. As aforementioned, it’s generally the case that people will have different concerns in their 20s to what they have in their 40s. And the latter group, having moved up the career ladder, will have more money and more likely to grow conservative. People in their 20s want to see change. People in their latter years, less so. Plus, we’re not the first generation to think we know better or are “with it”. As Holly Scott put it in The Washington Post, of this generationaldivide:
“Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have ‘Ok, boomer’. The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the Arron saint of the youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, ‘ something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?'”
Perhaps, like the Boomers, we are destined to meet a dead end, to hit a brick wall? Perhaps each generation is bound to retrace the same, familiar patterns if within a different context? And perhaps still, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “every generation needs a new revolution”.
Boomers and Millenials don’t get along. Where Boomers, in the post-war economic boost, saw a general incline in the quality of life and retirement benefits, Millenials feel they’ve been given the short-end of the stick with increasing opportunities for debt and later-retirement. Meanwhile, Boomers feel their foes have become increasingly fragile and dependent on benefits that didn’t exist way back when. To each other, the stereotypes are consolidated, ruminated upon, and passed around for affirmation across social and traditional media. In the midst of this quagmire however lies a “forgotten” 65 million Americans we sometimes call “Generation X”.
Who comprises this mysterious assembly of shadows, you may ask. Born between the mid ’60s and the early ’80s, this generation saw a displacement in the values and philosophies placed before them. With the thaw of the ’60s counter-culture giving way to the commercial assembly-line of the 80s, the rise of the right, and the formation of the neoliberal left, they grew up with a somewhat despondent and disinterested outlook on life and politics. It was a time when children were raised by TVs (as both parents went to work), when walkmans roamed the Earth, and when being cool meant you didn’t care. Highlighted by the raucous fuzz of grunge in the early ’90s, the emergence of hip-hop, and indie auteurs in cinema (Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc), this generation paved its own path demarcating itself from the passions and dominance of the generations preceding and succeeding them.
Now, all this talk of generational values is of course susceptible to inferences of exceptions and accusations of generalisations. With that much acknowledged (for the sake of it), I would still agree with Rich Cohen’s point of view (from Vanity Fair in 2017) that the “shared experiences” roughly define a generation and our purpose in examining them. And as he puts it, with such flavour, Gen X was shaped by “irony and a keen sense of dread”, almost sharing “more in common with the poets haunting the taverns on 52nd street at the end of the 30s than the hippies at Woodstock”.
This is an interesting association. In poetic form, it is sometimes philosophised that trends associated with one generation skip the next before re-emerging (like fashion). To an extent, one could argue that Millenials and Boomers share in common, a sense of passion for civil liberties and rights (at least drawing a parallel between today and the late 60s). However, again as it is worth noting (along with this entire piece), this is speculative and may cause distress to some.
Speaking of “distress”, it is sometimes noted that what divides Millenials from Gen X is this sense of “fragility” touched upon so delicately earlier. Gen X, being the “whatever, man” generation, are thought to be less emotionally involved and politically fired up (for all the good and bad that comes with that). One doesn’t have to look back too far to see a time when not every chat show was dominated by politics and when the dominant subject of a presidency was an affair with an intern. Perhaps this sense of displacement and disinterest was based on how the Boomers came to adopt new ill-fitted power suits with giant shoulder pads in the ’80s, when the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s was paved over for a parking lot. Perhaps, this disenfranchisement was wrung from disappointment.
A part of me feels a little annoyed for Gen X because many of the woes of Millenials are shared by them, to some extent. For example, they only control 16% of wealth in the US despite being in the 40-55 age bracket and having both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (where Boomers control over 50%). They’ve got their share of debt and suffered through the dotcom bust and 2008 Financial Crash at pivotal times of home ownership in their age group. Plus, they’ve had to watch their beloved VHS and DVDs die tragically. They’re the first generation to be worse off than their parents in terms of retirement.
Now, many of the debt woes that plague both generations have gotten worse, like college loans. In this sense, Millenials are worse off in facing an even grimmer future. But let’s face it, they suck up too much oxygen in this room. Gen X deserves some attention too. Perhaps, their unflinching, shoe-gazing, Breakfast Club, Ethan Hawk-ish, Kurt Cobain, ironic ways have led them to sulk where others shout. Perhaps, these Boomers serving in office till they collapse hasn’t afforded them the chance to do the shouting. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly why they’ve been left in the dark but their influence may yet come (or comeback) to the forefront of our political and cultural zeitgeist.
To leave this destination-less fathoming on a note of some aplomb, I’d like to quote George Orwell (the Stephanie Meyer of his day): “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it and the one that comes after it.” So the next time you’re thinking of those unyielding Boomers or those self-righteous Millenials or whatever Gen Z is, spare a thought for that kinda-somewhere-in-the-middle-but-not-really-generation that is Generation X.
In the pantheon of presidential historical evaluation, the first 100 days has never been an accurate indicator of what is to come. Often referred to as the “Honeymoon period”, it tends to reflect a more restrained take on the presidency, given its freshness, initial public support, and change of power dynamics. In a sense, everyone’s testing the water and willing (on some part) to give the benefit of the doubt. This is doubly true for the Biden administration, who have come into their own with a long-suppressed sigh of relief following the turmoil of the Trump years.
This is perhaps the most evident thing about the new president; his normality and candour in juxtaposition to the raging clown prince of crime, whose final days saw siege upon the Capitol. Joe Biden has been effective, thus far, in restoring a sense of normalcy and decency in how America tackles its problems. A naturally empathetic man, he’s struck the right tone in addressing mass shootings and the pandemic, in a time when true leadership has been needed.
His words have been supported to by action too; namely, the $1.9 trillion Covid Bill set to alleviate the economic offsets of the pandemic. More liberal commentators, worried that he would prove too moderate, have been surprised by this bold course of action. Thankfully, Biden understands that dramatic times call for dramatic responses and having paid witness to the gridlock of the Obama years, he’s done his base right by practically ignoring the Republicans’ attempts to slim down this bill.
The pandemic has, at this point, reached a turning in the tides with over 200 million Americans vaccinated at this point (a goal set out by the administration). As always, I would be reluctant to give Trump any credit since he only ever served to aggravate the World Health Organization, undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci, and meander wildly on the severity of the virus but it is worth at least noting, that some structure was in place for Biden to capitalise on this reversal of fortunes. As a leader, he’s set a good standard however, asking Americans to continue wearing masks while paying respect to the scientists Trump so callously questioned.
The Covid Bill hasn’t been the only bold proposal put forth too. Biden has also unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan which has long been overdue (Trump had actually been correct in 2016, assessing this as one of America’s gravest issues but failed to deliver in appropriate fashion). To his critics, this may be overreaching. They’d have a point too, since the buck has to stop somewhere. With that said, with the awesome power of the presidency, it is gratifying to see these major issues tackled with some gravitas. Just remember, that any leader’s going to be popular when spending.
Elsewhere, Biden has marked a contrast with the Trump administration by suspending the Keystone pipeline and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. He’s also gotten the first notable gun control package in three decade (though limited) and boasted the fastest cabinet appointee approvals in four presidencies. On the surface, it seems like this has thus been a highly successful, action-oriented start. Beneath the surface however…
Well, not to quash people hopes but yes, the tough days are ahead. As eluded to earlier, spending makes one popular but bills have to be settled and the economic downturn of the last year’s events has yet to manifest. (We can only hope this massive investment will curb the worst of this.) The immigration problem, too, is rearing its head, as Biden struggles to set out a new policy, differentiating from Trump’s. (Even George W. Bush has called on his party to act in Congress to work on this.) Plus, while justice was exacted in the George Floyd trial, we’re still seeing disgusting instances of police brutality against Black Americans. Now that a Democrat is in power (and the party has a slight majority), some legislative action will be expected. The Republicans, momentarily out of sorts for now, will return with their combative stances and make this presidency increasingly more difficult.
So, while a dark cloud looms on the horizon, we can at least be thankful that Biden has proven more radical than expected in his approach to the immediate major problems facing him. With his conciliatory inaugural address too, he has hopefully set out a renewed air of compassion for the politics of compromise in Washington. In a sense, reversing the hateful rhetoric of 2016-2020 may prove his greatest feat.
Despite this site’s preoccupation with American culture and politics, every now and then, a story emerges so large and unimportant we feel the need to cover it. I am of course referring to the fiasco, the pandemonium, the chaos, and disorder of Harry and Meghan’s own Brexit. You see, despite their intentions to leave it all behind and start anew, they’re back out there, pursuing the spotlight with the fervent appetite of Prince Andrew at a Pizza Express. Why? Because they need to Speak. Their. Truth.
Where better to get a factual and dignified take of accounts too than the chicken-soup-for-the-soul odyssey that is Oprah!? No-one has the know-how and interrogative dynamism of the Queen of Media, whose line of questioning as teased in the trailer (“were you silent or silenced”) showed this was going to be anything but a walk in the park.
Of course, I’m not so heartless as to deem Harry and Meghan’s plight inauthentic or trivial. Certainly, the British media’s coverage has been hostile, bordering on psychotically obsessed at points. And if you find yourself saying “you know what, Piers Morgan has a point,” something has probably gone awry. (He stormed out of an interview when questioned about his constant attacks of Meghan. They once were friends or something so there’s a whole story there.) Plus, tabloids have spun the story so much that it’s hard to make heads or tail of when all this animosity began. And they’re trash. So on the whole, I do feel that Meghan Markle has been bullied.
On the surface, it seems Harry and Meghan have not navigated this tricky terrain with much tact however. Alternately torn between vague notions of privacy and stepping away or stepping back from the Royal Family, they’ve squandered a lot of good-will by doing such high profile interviews (worst of all, appearing on James Corden’s show; the lowest of the low) which has led to accusations of them wanting the glitz and the glamour but none of the baggage of that wacky family.
Now, they were never going to exactly be left alone (being Royals) and race has disgracefully played a part in the narrative surrounding Meghan, distinguishing her from the likes of Kate Middleton. The British press have painted her as something of a sorceress or spinner of webs; the Margery Tyrell of the Royal Family; a deviant, bent on pursuing the most delicious of all prizes, UNLIMITED POWER. Her claims, in stark contrast to this picture, were never going to be as credible since the press survive on perpetuating and repeating controversial claims, even if they’re outlandish or plain untrue. So, maybe appearing on Oprah is her chance to try win the people over, having been dogged by such spurious accounts of mischief while in reality, being bullied by the institution and the press. (Although really, she didn’t know what it would be like?)
It’s a catch-22, if that’s the case. By trying to restore her reputation in the public’s eyes, she’s reinforcing her image as an attention-seeking socialite. Perhaps a personal essay would have been a more dignified approach? But then, headlines amplify what essays don’t. Maybe another interviewer? Oprah’s great at what she does but a lot of her interviews feed into the tabloid style of things. Though… she does guarantee a wide net for viewership. In this respect, I’m quite sympathetic because I don’t know what exactly she can do to reverse people’s perceptions of her. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to believe in all this miasma of conflicting statements. Even some of her assertions have been contested (e.g. her son was never going to be a prince due to laws surrounding his not being direct in line to the throne).
What’s more important, however, is the archaic and hierarchical boundaries in which the Royal Family, as an institution, operate. In the interview, Harry claims that they are afraid of receiving negative coverage from the tabloids and as a result, give them special access. Therein lies the most significant point of the conversation; something we’ve always suspected (known) but is still quite shocking to have formalised by a prince.
Monarchy, as a system, is outdated. For whatever reason, many countries defend its existence with weak countenances of tradition, tourism, and symbolism against which politicians can be held to account. If we’re being honest though, none of that matters since nepotism, on this scale, is wrong. I can’t quite reconcile Harry and Meghan’s personal accounts with the way they’ve conducted themselves at all times but at least this interview might shed light on this eon-long system of oppression and abuse. After all, she’s been disparaged to the highest degree while the likes of Prince Andrew have been given a pass for far worse. Isn’t it time we held them all to account by the same standards?
Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).
As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.
With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.
The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.
A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.
The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.
Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.
The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.
With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of ModernFamily and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).
Change and Consistency
Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.
What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.