10 Cultural Battles That Ruled 2017
Posted December 28, 2017 9:37 p.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2017 9:42 p.m. EST
Of all of the sequels and franchise extensions in 2017, none were as ambitious as the reboot of the culture wars starring Donald Trump. He swept into office with the swagger of a one-man Justice League, bent on vanquishing the liberal-leaning entertainment industrial complex and its coastal elite base, one tweet at a time.
The phrase “culture war” first crashed into the national discourse in the late 1980s, as a catchall term for battles over values, ideals and national identity. The battlegrounds were college campuses, Hollywood, the bedroom — anywhere that moral relativism, secularism and the general “culture of depravity,” as dedicated warriors like Rush Limbaugh put it, held sway.
Today’s culture wars, like war itself, have moved beyond the old, clearly defined fields of contention and are just as likely to rage among old allies as traditional right-left antagonists.
Here’s a selective, not-so-nostalgic look back at some of the fiercest fights from a year when just about every cultural event and artifact became an arena for asking not just “Which side are you on?” but “Do you really have my back?”
Trump Versus Hollywood
If there was any lingering hope that Trump was going to cede the stage to a more restrained character, it was laid to rest at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8, when Hollywood served up the making of a classic culture wars set piece.
The erstwhile Trump hair tousler Jimmy Fallon was the host, but it was Meryl Streep who volunteered as Trump’s scene partner. She unleashed a fiery speech that called out his mocking imitation of a disabled reporter during the campaign — a performance that “sank its hooks into my heart” — and extolled the open borders of culture. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she declared. “If we kick them out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
The room, and the internet, erupted in cheers. Conservative pundits accused her of elitist grandstanding, while on Twitter Trump called her “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “a Hillary flunky who lost big.”
Two weeks later, at a gala in New York, Streep attempted a rollback on at least one target. “I do like football — let me just make that clear,” she said. Some MMA fans, meanwhile, pointed out that the sport, which was brought to the United States by a Brazilian family that had studied jujitsu, is not only creative, but also more diverse than Hollywood.
Streep may get a do-over at this year’s Golden Globes on Jan. 7; she is nominated for her portrayal of newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, another woman who faced down a president, in Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama, “The Post.”
Whose Feminism Is This?
The Women’s March spurred millions of protesters in pink “pussy hats” to take to the streets across the country the day after Trump’s inauguration. It was a show of strength for the Resistance, but also a trailer for the internecine battles to follow. Signs pointed out the awkward fact that 53 percent of white women had voted for Trump. The pink hat itself was denounced as racist and transphobic.
Some two months later, Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” provided another sartorial rallying point, as protesters dressed in blood-red cloaks and white bonnets descended on various state capitals to challenge cuts to funding for reproductive health care. But what did those hats, and the show, really mean?
The fictional Republic of Gilead as an allegory of Trump’s America drew scoffs from conservatives, some of whom argued that its vision of sexual slavery could also be read as a parable about assisted reproduction. And on the left, some asked why nonwhite women (who in Margaret Atwood’s novel had been shipped to segregated colonies in the Midwest) were present, thanks to colorblind casting, but largely marginalized, while the actual history of slavery in the United States was ignored.
The show “isn’t really the future,” Jenn M. Jackson of the Black Youth Project wrote. “It more closely resembles the lived past of black women in the United States, just wrapped in cloaks and creepy white bonnets.”
Subverting a Border Wall
Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order calling for the construction of a border wall and temporarily suspending immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations brought demonstrators out into the streets again. Even some Super Bowl ads had a marked pro-immigrant slant (though the original ending of one from 84 Lumber, which featured a truck bearing Spanish-speaking migrants running smack into a wall, was deemed too controversial by Fox and changed).
Few in the arts world saw it as a moment for anything but resistance. When news outlets highlighted some entirely theoretical proposals that sneaked “subversive design” into the idea of a border wall (including a wall made of cactuses and another that doubled as a xylophone), the architects were blasted for turning a moral crisis into a design opportunity. “Miami Firm Proposes ‘Sustainable’ Hipster Moat for Trump’s Racist Wall” ran one headline.
The French photographer JR earned better reviews for his more pointed (and Instagram-friendly) intervention: a nearly 70-foot photograph of a baby peering over the existing barrier bordering San Diego County. Installed on the Mexican side, in the city of Tecate, it was fully visible only from the United States.
Who Gets to Tell the Story?
Jordan Peele scored a No. 1 movie in February with “Get Out,” a satire of the ways white liberal racism loves black bodies to death, while accusations of more direct cultural body snatching — and the question of who has the right to represent black pain — dogged white artists throughout the year.
After the Whitney Biennial opened in March, some African-American artists called for the removal, even the destruction, of “Open Casket,” Dana Schutz’s painting based on the famous photographs of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” artist Hannah Black wrote on Facebook, calling contemporary art “a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.” In a statement, Schutz said the painting was born of empathy with Till’s mother. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America,” she said. “But I do know what it is like to be a mother.”
The year saw plenty of full-throated paeans to cultural appropriation, which argued that borrowing and mixing were the engines of culture itself. But when Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” set during the riots of 1967, was accused of appropriating black stories and black pain, she defended herself by agreeing with the charge — sort of. “Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,” she told Variety. “However, I am able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it was told.”
Satire and Its Discontents
If you come at the king, you best not miss — or, if you’re joking, at least get ready for the inevitable guerrilla warfare over the limits of art, free speech and satire.
When Kathy Griffin tweeted out a photograph of herself holding the bloody, severed head of Trump, she found few defenders and was promptly fired from her gig co-hosting CNN’s New Year’s Eve special. But the conversation became a pitched partisan battle a week later, when a bootleg video from the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar” was posted online showing the very bloody assassination of a very Trump-like Caesar.
Breitbart, Fox News and other outlets pumped the story with headlines like “Senators Stab Trump to Death in Central Park Performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” Corporate sponsors withdrew support or distanced themselves. After Donald Trump Jr. asked on Twitter if the play had any taxpayer funding, the National Endowment for the Arts (which had been marked for elimination by the Trump administration) felt compelled to issue a statement saying it had no connection with the production.
“Lefty Actors Are Beginning to Fear Trump,” National Review declared. But others wondered why conservatives who love to champion free speech against the forces of political correctness were suddenly melting like snowflakes.
The End of Whitewashing?
Since the debate over whitewashing broke out, those looking for more representation of Asian-Americans in movies have had to settle for justice via meme. Last year’s #StarringJohnCho campaign had cast the Korean-American actor (via Photoshop) in just about everything, with no measurable effect on his real-life credits. When “Ghost in the Shell,” which had stirred controversy with its casting of Scarlett Johansson as a cyborg whose name is Major Motoko Kusanagi in the animé original, opened in March, unhappy fans weaponized the movie’s promotional meme generator, transforming the tagline “I Am Major” into variations like “I Am in Love With White Feminism.”
Johansson defended herself by arguing that the character “has a human brain in an entirely machinate body,” and said, “I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.” Then, in August, an online outcry actually prompted a white actor to back out of a role in the reboot of “Hellboy.” Ed Skrein made his decision less than a week after the announcement that he would play a character who is half-Japanese in the original comic book series.
“I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage,” Skrein said in a statement. “It is clear,” he added, “that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voice in the arts.”
The Ghosts of the Confederacy
“The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Man in the High Castle” may have been embraced by some as perversely inspirational tales of resistance to the Trumpian present. But the vogue for high-concept historical what-ifs ran into a brick wall of a different kind of resistance in July when HBO unveiled plans for “Confederate,” a new series from the lauded creators of “Game of Thrones” set in an alternative present in which the South had successfully seceded and slavery was still legal.
Media activist April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, started a #NoConfederate campaign, which flooded Twitter during Season 7 of “Game of Thrones.” Despite the involvement of two well-regarded black writer-producers, the show was dismissed by skeptics as Lost Cause nostalgia dressed up in progressive prestige-cable clothing, or even “slavery fan fiction.” “Confederate” had a few defenders, like Judd Apatow, who said on Twitter that criticizing a show before it even existed amounted to “censorship,” but then backed away from that word. A month later, tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the slated removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Trump reacted to the violent clashes there, during which one counterprotester was killed by a white supremacist, by praising the “very fine people on both sides.” Not a single scene of “Confederate” had been shot, but maybe we were watching it already?
Trolling Taylor Swift
First they came for Pepe the Frog, New Balance shoes and Jane Austen. But when the alt-right came for Taylor Swift, things (as all things Taylor tend to do) got complicated.
The white nationalists’ appropriation of the singer first drew headlines in 2016, when the editor of The Daily Stormer called her “a pure Aryan goddess.” It came crawling out of the grave again in August, when Breitbart News mysteriously spent a day tweeting out lyrics from her single “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Then in November, after the album “Reputation” was released, a blogger for the obscure site Pop Front called for Swift to explicitly repudiate white nationalism, and suggested that her music might be a gateway drug for Nazi-curious young fans.
Swift’s lawyers sent a letter to the blogger demanding a retraction, only to get a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union of California, criticizing what it called an effort to suppress constitutionally protected free speech. A few weeks later, The Guardian ran an editorial suggesting that Swift, with her feud-prone ways (and social media army of rabid fan enforcers), was “an envoy for Trump’s values,” if not necessarily a Trump supporter.
That editorial drew baffled reactions, but the question remains, When it comes to politics, how long can Swift refuse to come to the phone?
Country Music and Guns
Mainstream country music generally steers clear of politics, beyond heartwarming tributes to America and the occasional rabble-rousing patriotic song. But after the mass shooting at a festival in Las Vegas in October left 58 fans dead and 500 more wounded, some cracks in the industry’s solidarity with American gun culture began to appear.
A few stars, including Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line, issued statements distancing themselves from the National Rifle Association. Before the Country Music Association Awards, the group’s threats to revoke the credentials of any journalist who attempted to talk about “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like” drew intense criticism from artists, suggesting not everyone wanted to shut up and sing.
The show opened with a somber tribute to the victims of the shooting and the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, but no one went full Dixie Chick, or even mildly Meryl Streep. Instead, the hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who had started out by declaring the show a “politics-free zone,” offered up “Before He Tweets,” a lighthearted parody of Trump’s Twitter habits to the tune of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”
#MeToo Versus Hollywood
As the list of the men felled by allegations of sexual harassment and assault grew longer, the Weinstein Effect was shadowed by what might be called the Louis C.K. Conundrum. The offending men were gone (for now at least), but was it still OK to like — or even look at — their work?
While fans debated the politics of erasure, corporations made some of the decisions for us, for their own reasons, as books, television shows, movies and other projects were canceled or altered. Facing the social media calls for a boycott of the upcoming movie “All the Money in the World,” Sony spent about $10 million to reshoot 22 scenes with Christopher Plummer in which Kevin Spacey (who was accused of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault of a minor) had appeared. A poet named Isobel O’Hare took a more low-budget approach, turning the offending men’s mea (sorta) culpas into “erasure” poems by blacking out most of their words to reveal blunter messages.
“Every man on Earth is bewildered,” read her redacted version of a statement by Richard Dreyfuss, who was accused of harassing a female writer (he recalled their interactions as part of a “mutual seduction ritual”). “I have to step away from the fun, but I am comfortable and safe,” read O’Hare’s take on Mario Batali’s apology.
Perhaps to underline that point, a second apology by Batali, included in his weekly newsletter, ended with a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls. With entertainment and political figures seeming to topple daily, America is unlikely to trade its culture wars for a friendly bake-off anytime soon.