pop culture

The Great Awokening

In 2017, it was possible to see parables everywhere. The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency was one in which the destabilizing fact of that presidency was never far from mind — it made priorities clear, we told each other, unless it obscured them entirely. A racist reality star was in the Oval Office and actual neo-Nazis were claiming Taylor Swift as their Aryan princess; surely now was the time to scrutinize the content we consumed (binged, bought, shared, streamed, absorbed glassy-eyed) and determine what it actually said about the America we inhabited. It was the perfect year to take pop culture very seriously.

On January 20, Trump was sworn in as president. The same day, The Big Sick premiered at Sundance — which provides a convenient beginning to the story of the last year or so in popular culture. On the Capitol steps, Trump vowed to put “only America First”; in Park City, a genial romantic comedy from Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, emerged as a festival favorite. The Big Sick would go on to sell for $12 million, and the positive press to follow cast its success as a rebuke to presidential xenophobia — the right reassuring story to tell ourselves, about ourselves.

Another parable: Moonlight, a delicately wrought coming-of-age story about black masculinity, won the Academy Award for best picture. Quietly virtuosic, critically beloved, it had appeared an underdog contender; that presenters in fact gave its trophy to presumed front-runner La La Land (big, white, and nostalgic) seemed a heavy-handed illustration of odds stacked against the film. And how revealing, went an immediate narrative, that headlines were now given over to the graciousness of the La La Land team in relinquishing an Oscar they hadn’t won. This was a story about the ease of white victory, and overlooked black talent.

A new set of concerns — a self-conscious moral duty in matters of identity, of inclusion and representation — had come to dominate discussions among creators, critics, and consumers alike. A fundamental question (perhaps the first question; sometimes the only question) to ask of a work was how well it fulfilled these ideals. In what ways did it engage with the values of a pluralistic society? Who got the chance to make mass culture, and about whom did they get to make it?

Artists looked out into a new landscape. “From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, I think my show changed,” said Kenya Barris, creator of the sitcom Black-ish, of election night 2016. The show’s following season began with a premiere he described as a “historically significant think-piece”: an episode-long lesson on Juneteenth and the end of slavery, complete with segments in the style of “School House Rock” and Hamilton. In 2017, entertainment-as-think-piece proliferated, from the ABC digital series American Koko (about the Everyone’s a Little Racist detective agency, dedicated to the quotidian racial problems of “post-post-racial America”) to Joyner Lucas’s viral rap video “I’m Not Racist” (in which a black man and a white man in a MAGA hat each describe their anger, voice their wish for understanding, and then hug).

Among critics, the language of identity emerged from unlikely sources and found unlikely objects. The Wall Street Journal called Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman “the dazzling embodiment of female empowerment”; Teen Vogue condemned Riverdale, the live-action Archie show, for Jughead’s “asexual erasure.” With Twitter, critical power had taken root beyond its traditional confines, and so, in 2017, the public could weigh in directly on the culture they consumed. Such discourse could be scathing (as when a Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner implied soda might solve police brutality: “pepsi can explodes along with most of kendall jenner’s hand as a frightened cop with 6 months’ training sees her approach with an arm raised”), but it could also unfold in a spirit of constructive criticism, as when fans wondered about the politics of black women and blowjobs in the second season of Issa Rae’s Insecure.

Cultural criticism itself was fodder for new culture: Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s new documentary examined The Problem With Apu, the Indian convenience store proprietor on The Simpsons. The year abounded with familiar pop products revisited in a self-critical spirit, retooled to suit contemporary ideals. Spike Lee reimagined She’s Gotta Have It as a Netflix series, this time with less rape, more female writers, and a heroine who described herself as a “sex-positive polyamorous pansexual.” Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast (starring celebrity feminist Emma Watson) touted its inclusion of an “exclusively gay moment.” Will and Grace rebooted for the era of gay marriage, and “Woke Charlotte” memes repurposed Sex and the City screenshots to affectionately mock the bygone show’s failures of enlightenment, like calling bisexuality “just a layover on the way to Gay Town.”

2017 was the year Girls ended its six-season run with Hannah Horvath unforeseeably the mother to a brown child. It was the year Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale made the 30-year-old book a best seller, the year I Love Dick, a theory-heavy feminist cult novel, somehow became a TV show — the latest from Jill Soloway’s production company, Topple (as in “topple the patriarchy”), 2017 was the year in which Christian Bale, Batman, remarked that our culture would be “so much richer” once it wasn’t “all white dudes who are running things.”

After all, if Donald Trump’s election was the first seismic event to shape the cultural landscape of 2017, to shake loose a radical sense of anger and possibility, the other was the reckoning over sex and power that followed the fall of Harvey Weinstein. A tide of accusations against prominent men in media and Hollywood brought with it a fresh awareness that these were the people who had decided which stories were worth telling, which voices worth hearing, which characters worth taking seriously. Louis C.K., disgraced, had to shelve I Love You, Daddy, his Woody Allen tribute. Jeffrey Tambor, similarly disgraced, appeared likely to leave his role as the titular trans parent on Transparent: The news prompted Slate to observe that “Transparent had made the world too woke for Transparent.”

And somewhere in the middle of all this, sometime cultural appropriator Katy Perry — she of the geisha costumes, the candy-colored cornrows, and the blank-white readiness to reflect a trend — released a new album. She embarked on a press tour that found her telling activist and podcaster DeRay Mckesson about how she’d recently come to understand the power of black women’s hair. “I can educate myself,” she said.

“Don’t you feel like we’re in a race to become the most woke?” Perry asked another interviewer. “Can someone tell me where the starting line and the finish line of all the wokeness is?” Whether or not Perry was indeed woke, she seemed to have registered that cartoon costumes and Swedish hooks were no longer adequate equipment for stardom.

The term she grabbed onto was one that had been around for a while, and had made its way from black culture to the New York Times. “Woke,” for Perry’s purposes, seemed to mean something along the lines of sensitive to the experiences of racial, cultural, sexual, and gender identities besides one’s own, and attuned to the injustices that shape our world; for different speakers, at different times, it had served variously as a statement of purpose (“I stay woke,” Erykah Badu sang in 2008), a term of approval (“Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was in 2015?”), and one of knowing skepticism (“World Weeps in Gratitude for Woke Hungarian Who Did 7 Types of Blackface to Save Africa From Going Extinct”).

Examining issues of identity in art is, of course, no new undertaking. But the striking development of the 2010s was the scale — the expansive growth of such analysis into a mass debate on work for a mass audience. Social media gave people (especially young people, idealism still intact) a public voice they’d never before had. It had become impossible to discuss contemporary pop culture without weighing such concerns; should a filmmaker or show-runner or singer chose not to grapple with them directly, others would do so, vocally.

If, in some future, there are still American Studies Ph.D. students, they will look back over the last 15 years and make sage remarks about the period of swift change we’ve all lived through. Recall that it was only in 2003 that Sofia Coppola released Lost in Translation, a movie whose humor concerning Japanese culture exists just to the sensitive side of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that the film ascended to institutional acclaim largely untroubled by complaints. From the vantage point of the present — when Coppola’s The Beguiled inspires immediate outcry for depicting no slaves in the Civil War South — this result is startling.

Such moments of not-okay-anymore recognition might throw the new era into starkest relief. And squabbles over what was and wasn’t acceptable — plus the accompanying self-righteousness of all parties, whether styling themselves unimpeachably correct or bravely defiant — were surely the most exhausting feature of the last year in pop culture. To dismiss wokeness as the handiwork of P.C. thought police, though, would be to ignore its reality: an altered pop-culture ecosystem, a Great Awokening in full bloom.

Paying attention to the politics of pop culture aligns with a broader interest in ethical consumption — of sweatshop-free T-shirts, of free-range eggs. Accordingly, some portion of woke criticism falls into the category of consumer advisory. At its most simplistic, such criticism tends to involve delineating the identities a given work depicts, then saying whether that depiction is good or bad, particularly in relation to restrictive norms or harmful stereotypes. “Woke” becomes a valuable nutrient no matter how dubious the product. Thus, headlines like Bustle’s “The CW’s ‘Dynasty’ Is Doing What Every Reboot Should — Righting the Wrongs of the Original” (i.e., dispensing with blatant ’80s-era homophobia and adding a black billionaire to the roster of white ones) or “13 Ways ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Sent Oppressive Gender Roles Back to the Upside Down” (Number 7: “Hopper Lets His Emotion Shine Through”). Praise in this register tends toward routine hyperbole — “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary,” “empowering,” “powerful” — with “problematic” and “not okay” as terms of censure. Readers become accustomed to learning that a popular TV show “Has a [Rape/Race/Woman] Problem,” or that a new movie offers “The [Teenage Heroine/Same-Sex Love Story/Portrayal of Depression] We Need Now.” Both Bustle and the New York Times could take this tone. In 2015, Manohla Dargis began her review of Trainwreck by calling Amy Schumer a feminist “superhero,” who mined “a neofeminist moment in which women are calling out sexists” for “ferocious comedy gold.” (It was a marked contrast to the assessment she’d offered four years earlier of the film that opened the door to the female raunch-comedy boom: Bridesmaids, she’d written then, was “an unexpectedly funny new comedy” and that it would be “easy to oversell.”)

Beyond breathless coverage of anti-sexist superheroes, a more essential concern for woke criticism has to do with the notion of ownership: Who has the right to tell a particular story or to work in a particular tradition, and who has the right to criticize such efforts? Who is a given work’s rightful audience? More people than ever before could weigh in, giving rise to a constant cross-pollination between critics, readers, audiences, and creators.

A minor but instructive case study arose in 2016, when the question of ownership briefly took the shape of a bisexual Latina taco.  Autostraddle, a website for lesbian and queer women, had published a warm review of the Seth Rogen adult cartoon Sausage Party, and in particular an anthropomorphic supermarket taco shell voiced by Salma Hayek. Yes, she was a cartoon taco, but according to writer Elyse Endick, she was “a massive contribution to the normalization of queer female characters on screen.”

Endick’s audience disagreed. “We heard from Latinx readers who believe the portrayal of Salma Hayek’s taco was racist and that it reinforced harmful stereotypes,” reported editor Heather Hogan in a follow-up post. “We heard from readers who were upset that we labeled the taco a lesbian when it seems more likely that she was bisexual.” Autostraddle removed the review and offered an extensive apology. “Yesterday’s Sausage Party review is a very hurtful example of what happens when our lack of access and that blindness and our weaknesses as editors due to our privilege and systemic racism collide.”

The right-wing blogosphere was giddy: Breitbart, the Daily Caller, the Federalist, Reason, and National Review all covered the incident, reveling in what they read as a too-good-to-be-true self-parody of P.C. excess. The taco aside, Hogan’s post included a forthright account of her site’s critical practices, using as an example their coverage of Orange Is the New Black:

My main priorities in our OITNB coverage were: 1) Making sure the majority of our reviews were written by women of color. And 2) Making sure any writer who shared an identity with an episode’s feature character had first dibs on writing about that episode. I told all of our writers they needed to be willing to trade or give up their review slots, if necessary, to achieve this goal …. And I personally edited every review so I could make sure the opinions voiced by our white writers were in line with the voices of Black writers I was seeking out every day for their opinions on every episode.

Autostraddle is a niche site; its readers arrive with a different set of expectations than they might bring to the New York Times or Entertainment Weekly. Still, the policies Hogan described are similar to those recently adopted by Kirkus Reviews for covering young adult fiction: Because there is “no substitute for lived experience,” Kirkus announced, they would strive to assign “books with diverse subject matter and protagonists” to “‘own voices’ reviewers.”

On one hand, this seems like a dispiritingly literal-minded understanding of criticism. (And perhaps also an inconsistent one: Taken to its logical endpoint, shouldn’t teen readers be the ones reviewing YA books?) On the other hand, it reflects a new expectation of accountability, one nurtured by the expanded chance to confront cultural gatekeepers. A man who depicts women can expect to hear the response of real-life women. A white filmmaker who depicts black characters can expect to hear the response of black audiences. If a creator’s initial reaction was indignation (fuming over censorship, decrying the intrusion of politics into the sacrosanct realm of pop culture, etc.) the next might well be acceptance, however grudging, of higher standards: recognizing the need to think harder, imagine more vividly.

HBO’s bungled Confederate rollout demonstrated the new force of crowd-sourced criticism. An alternative-history series set in an America where slavery persisted, the show would be the next project from the creators of Game of Thrones, and the network announced Confederate with fanfare that suggested it had totally failed to anticipate what came next. What came next was outrage, which showrunner D.B. Weiss sought to quell by explaining his hope that Confederate could depict “how this history is still with us.” Nonetheless, the hashtag #NoConfederate trended nationally while Game of Thrones aired.

Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, in an essay analyzing the controversy. “African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that ‘history is still with us.’” Who were David Benioff and Weiss to tell a story of black suffering in America? Their track record in matters of racial and sexual sensitivity on Game of Thrones inspired, for skeptics, little confidence — but what seemed especially damning was the obliviousness they’d displayed in their own defense, which seemed to reveal a fundamentally limited understanding of the subject at hand. Production on Confederate was slated to begin in 2018 at the earliest, which meant that here, critical debate had transcended the need for any extant art to criticize: criticism itself was the event. Inasmuch as “a show about slavery by the Game of Thrones guys” was a thought-provoking premise, the thoughts had been provoked.

The Awokening was apparent in shifting tastes. If, only recently, cable TV shows had sought to display their ambition (and to challenge their viewers) by showcasing dark, conflicted anti-heroics, a new vanguard located its innovation in surfacing under-represented slices of human experience. In place of the self-serious drama of the Difficult Man on shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, there was the messily humane sad-com of identity on Girls or Transparent. In place of the tortured god-artist as a source of authentic creativity, the diverse and collaborative writers room of Atlanta or Insecure. In the past, critics asked viewers to take shows seriously by comparing them to Dickens or Shakespeare — something with a preexisting patina of good taste, something familiar. Now the claim for value lay in its broken ground: A TV show spoke with a voice we hadn’t heard, showed a world we hadn’t seen, confronted us with a perspective we’d ignored.

The vigilant, wishful agenda of the Awokening could frustrate artistic ends. Girls inspired a buffet of objections over the course of its run, but one of the first and most persistent had to do with the homogeneity of its cast. Lena Dunham promised to address the issue, and in subsequent seasons a handful of guest stars alleviated the show’s total whiteness: Donald Glover as a brief boyfriend, Jessica Williams as a brief co-worker, Riz Ahmed as the fling who fathers Hannah’s child. Yet what the initial outcry at the whiteness of Girls elided was that it might be all too possible for a Midwestern liberal-arts college graduate to move to Brooklyn and wind up with an entirely white social life — and that a truly biting portrayal of such a character’s limitations might involve confronting this reality rather than cosmetically amending it. Representation, that new critical watchword, describes a genuine benefit, that of recognizing one’s lived reality on the culture’s largest stages. But this power is hardly transmitted when woke becomes just a box to check.

The critical climate could foster a tone along the lines of an after-school special. On one episode of the Times podcast “Still Processing,” co-hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris described the dutiful attitude of a show like Dear White People toward its audience: It seemed constrained by its awareness of representing blackness for white viewers in a way that a previous generation of black entertainment was not. As Wortham put it, describing an episode in which a white character is patiently taught that he shouldn’t say the n-word, not even while rapping along to a favorite song: “Is this a School House Rock for white people, for understanding how to be around black people?” Watching the “overly didactic” Netflix reboot of She’s Gotta Have It, BuzzFeed’s Tomi Obaro wondered, “In 2017, as television is finally beginning to showcase a multiplicity of black voices, who are these lectures for?”

Or consider Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series about the life of an actor named Dev working and dating in New York City. The week it premiered in 2015, Ansari contributed an op-ed to the New York Times about his own experiences as an Indian actor in Hollywood. “Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy,” Ansari wrote. “But a straight white guy is not every man.” Master of None dramatized the predicament of minority actors with a plotline in which Dev must decide whether to pursue an acting job after he’s accidentally forwarded a casually racist email from a TV executive. Over coffee with a fellow Indian actor, Dev recapitulates the points Ansari made in his op-ed: “Isn’t it frustrating? So much of the stuff we go out for is just stereotypes.”

At its best, Master of None gives a platform to voices too rarely heard. More often, however, it mines the rich material of human difference for neat lessons in empathy. Here, say, is why Dev should have greater understanding of his female friends, or his immigrant parents, or old people. In the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the show’s précis on sexism, situations occur that illustrate the problem of sexism. Then, the women Dev knows sit around bars and restaurants explaining to him (and to viewers) that sexism exists. Dev learns a lesson. The lesson is that sexism exists. Presumably viewers are to learn this also. It is difficult, though, to imagine a viewer likely to be simultaneously surprised by and receptive to such lessons. This is not a blow to the patriarchy; this is Sesame Street.

When the grand ideals of inclusion are reduced to complacent correctness, the results are merely smug. Master of None devotes much time to establishing Dev’s connoisseurship — to impressing upon us that he is a man of expert taste. He knows the right wine bar for a first date (the one owned by the guy from LCD Soundsystem), the right opening line for Tinder (“I’m going to Whole Foods. Can I get you anything?”). He’s invited to the right parties (ones John Legend attends). His apartment is furnished with impeccable eclecticism, the mid-century leather couch weathered just so. There’s little indication that any of this might be a bit tedious: The show seems largely to endorse the rightness of Dev’s tastes and beliefs, lavishing his meals in indulgent montages and his self-education in tributes to classic Italian film. When — at the end of an episode illustrating the pitfalls of dating apps — he finds himself in bed with a woman who keeps condoms in an Aunt Jemima cookie jar, it is a signal of racism as abrupt, clumsy, and blatant as the intrusion of the kitsch jar itself into Dev’s perfectly prop-styled world. Racism: how tacky.

Directed by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang, Jay-Z’s video for his song “Moonlight” offered, by contrast, a perspective of frustrated ambivalence on making art in the age of wokeness. The seven-and-a-half minute clip restages scenes from Friends with black stars like Jerrod Carmichael, Issa Rae, and Tiffany Haddish cast as the leads. They re-create the show’s opening credits, deliver familiar dialogue, and throughout, undeniably, there’s the genuine pleasure of seeing new people reanimate this stale old world — watching as they splash in that fountain, inhabit that vast purple apartment, win the canned approval of a studio audience. Also undeniably: it’s still Friends.

The title alludes to Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning film, but as many viewers noted, the “Moonlight” video also calls to mind Living Single, the sitcom about a group of black friends that premiered the year before Friends and reportedly inspired the later show. Jay and Yang’s work reclaims that source material, but also poses the question of what doing so means. In a meta moment, Carmichael’s character takes a break on the Friends set to consider the implications of the project: “When they asked me to do it, I was like, All right, this is something subversive, something that would turn culture on the head.” Hannibal Buress, who has shown up playing himself, swiftly punctures that hope: “Well, you did a good job of subverting good comedy.” In other words, do we get to imagine ourselves subversive for making (or watching) a by-the-numbers sitcom that replaces white people with black ones?

“We stuck in La La Land,” Jay raps. “Even when we win we gon’ lose.”

Looking back over the last year suggests two paths for the Awokening, as illustrated by one complicated failure and one resounding success.

The first — the failure — is the comedy of Louis C.K., who this year became a symbol of allyship gone wrong. A defining figure in comedy and auteur-driven TV, he was the worst-case scenario left unspoken in all those efforts to sort good from bad: an artist who said the right things and did the wrong ones anyway. More than that, though, the terms on which he was admired point to the brittleness of a certain kind of woke approval. His rise had coincided with a moment when audiences were surprisingly willing to regard comedians as voices of socio-political morality — to applaud John Oliver for “destroying” a governmental hypocrisy, or Amy Schumer for her “empowering” response to body-shamers. Louis’s stature depended on his reputation as simultaneously audacious and a good guy, a guy who got things right; he’d speak frankly about parenting or sex, but also about white privilege. “I’m not saying that white people are better; I’m saying that being white is better, clearly,” he says in a 2008 special. “Who could even argue?” In a bit from 2013, he outlines a working definition of rape culture: “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women!”

Louis himself seemed uneasy cast in the role of righteous moralist. “My goal is not to have everyone say, ‘This was an excellent indictment of this bad thing,’” he told New York in an interview last year. “I’m confounded by people who want that from art.” For an enlightened faction of his audience, though, moments like these were an opportunity to hear their own beliefs given voice in the most appealing way possible: to be reassured of their rightness in a context that made their rightness feel somewhat special, possibly subversive. Proximity to dick jokes made Obama-era identity truisms sound like risqué truth-telling. The viewer’s experience, in this context, was one of deep self-satisfaction.

That comfort shattered, of course, when women went on the record with accounts of Louis C.K.’s sexual harassment. One lesson might be that we should have taken all those jokes about compulsive masturbation more seriously. But more than that, the end of Louis C.K.’s career was a warning to audiences about outsourcing moral conscience to celebrities, and about the cheap pleasure of being told what you want to hear.

The great woke-culture triumph of 2017 succeeded on opposite terms: Jordan Peele’s Get Out was art about identity that declined to make a woke white audience comfortable or reassure it of its own correctness. The widespread desire to look woke was, in fact, an object of its satire. Get Out’s villains style themselves as the kind of white people who are definitely not racist; as The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson pointed out on Twitter, if Get Out existed in the world of Get Out, they’d all be talking about how much they loved Get Out. The wit of casting Bradley Whitford (best known for The West Wing, another era’s brand of high-minded liberal entertainment) and Allison Williams (best known for Girls) gave bite to its unsparing view of ostensibly right-thinking white complicity.

Near the film’s end, its hero, Chris, lies on the pavement beside his dead girlfriend, a houseful of dead white people down the road just behind him. He has just escaped a murderous nightmare; he’s catching his breath; he’s survived — and then there’s a siren and the lights of a police car, and the bottom falls out of the viewer’s stomach. You know as well as Chris does that he’s fucked.

What the movie accomplishes in this moment — generating an instant, unthinking awareness that the arrival of the cops is only going to make things worse, that they will not believe Chris’s version of events, that if he’s not dead now, he’s about to be treated as a criminal — is to use the apparatus of horror-movie storytelling to dramatize a vital experience of race in America. And maneuvering a white audience into having this experience is more ambitious, more effective, and more riveting than delivering a Very Special Episode treatise on the plight of innocent black men killed by police. Instead of dutifully explaining the importance of empathy, the film has produced it, viscerally, in the viewer.

In the 1977 essay “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis, the late leftist critic, wrestles with the question of how to reconcile her feminism and her love of rock. Along the way, she admits her distaste for much of “women’s-culture music.” She finds that she’s more bothered by the shortcomings of her musical fellow travelers than their (un-woke) mainstream counterparts — in particular, by their palpable desire not to offend. “Timid music made me feel timid,” she concludes, “whatever its ostensible politics.” On the other hand, “music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated … challenged me to do the same.” Politics and taste might not always align, but it was possible to discern something significant if you paid close attention to an artist’s attitude toward their audience. Were they tiptoeing around some listener’s self-image? Or were they working to be heard?

An artist can be so perfectly attuned to the moment that he or she makes machines precision engineered to flatter contemporary taste. An artist can also be so perfectly attuned to the moment that he or she sees what’s unsaid and so says something new. The first category is disposable; the second is not. The work of a critic — alert to ideals, alert to ambition — is to tell the difference.

*A version of this article appears in the January 8, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.

Pop Culture’s Great Awokening