The Politicisation Of Entertainment

The Politicisation Of Entertainment

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.

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

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.

1950s-1960s

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.

1970s

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.

1980s

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.

1990s

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.

2000s

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.

2010s

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 Modern Family 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.