Was Wonder Woman a radical feminist movie? Was it another politically underwhelming work of white feminism? Was it zionist propaganda? Was Dunkirk a brutal anti-war statement or an expensive jingoistic poem? Will Ready Player One be a narcissistic male nerd fantasy or a comment on the corporatizing of the mind? All of the arguments about these films’ political drives start to seem a bit dulled in the wake of Hollywood Reporter-broken news that the Koch Brothers — the other capitalist super-villains who, you know, aren’t our president — allegedly invested in and are profiting off them, and a hoard of other huge Warner Brothers films.
It’s not that mainstream films themselves shouldn’t strive to be either opaquely or explicitly politically interested (and, in my biased opinion, hopefully progressively thus), or that criticism should ignore these important facets of films’ relationships with the world beyond film. (So doing would make for some damn boring criticism.) Nor by any means do I mean to suggest that the impact of representation be dismissed — because the ways it can transform the cultural imagination are clearly huge. But right now it often does feel like a lot of cultural discourse is hinging a bit too heavily on the hope that life imitates art, rather than the other way around. What’s the limit to which the stories we tell matter if those stories help keep conservative, rich white men at the height of their power?
ThinkProgress once detailed some of the Koch brother’s most un-progressive activities:
David Koch said in a December 2014 interview, “I’m basically a libertarian. I’m a conservative on economic matters and I’m a social liberal.” But a ThinkProgress review of the brothers’ spending record finds that their actions largely contradict those claims. And the vast majority of the federal officials they have helped elect and re-elect since 2010 have been staunch social conservatives. Indeed, the duo and their affiliated organizations have spent more than $86 million in support of elected officials, presidential nominees and organizations who do not support abortion rights or same-sex marriage. Over that same period, the review found just over $86,000 spent in support of eight current officeholders who support both abortion rights and marriage equality (these totals do not include millions spent on unsuccessful House and Senate candidates).
Their seeming financial gain should, given the corporate nature of any superhero film, and our knowledge of the complex webs of American corporatism, not be altogether surprising. Apparently Trump’s current treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchen, got them involved in a $450 million dollar deal through his company RatPac-Dune back in 2013. Echoes of the “Fearless Girl” statue — that bronze female child facing down the bull of Wall Street, who happens to herself have been placed there by the investment firm State Street Global Advisers — abound.
Christina Cauterucci brilliantly writes in Slate:
In fact, one of the last blockbuster action movies with a woman in the leading role, Mad Max: Fury Road, was also funded by RatPac-Dune, the company that bankrolled Wonder Woman. One of the founders of that company, Steven Mnuchin, was the finance chair of Donald Trump’s campaign, donated $425,000 to the campaign and the Republican party to help him win, and now serves as his Treasury Secretary. In other words, if you bought a ticket to see Imperator Furiosa bust the heads of a bunch of sexual abusers, you may have helped America elect one.
The moral ballyhooing or furious condemnation of mainstream art and pop culture often seems undercut by the very fact that, presumably, the process by which most of these works were made will inevitably play into inequality-perpetuating systems in ways that have just as critical — and in some ways, a more direct and immediate — impact on the world as what we’re seeing onscreen. It’s very telling that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (who, admittedly, is socially liberal, while still being the quintessence of American corporate greed) once told Transparent creator Jill Soloway otherwise, as reported by Recode a few years back.
“The way that a story can make change is so much faster than the way that politics can make change. You create culture that has a story in it that says something as radical as ‘trans people are people’ and then laws follow,” he told Soloway, after they’d approached him with questions about how to bring intersectional questions into mainstream TV making. For it’s not just the mainstream — within capitalism, it travels down to independent film distribution and even the most subtle character driven TV dramas.
When giving their speech at the 2015 Emmys, Soloway thanked Bezos — owner of a $25 million lake house, a $23 million biggest-house-in-all-of-Washington-D.C.-home, a $17 million mishmash of apartments on Central Park West, another $25 million home Beverly Hills home, and a cheap ($12.9 million) second Beverly Hills home purchased last week — who has, until very recently, been notably stingy in his philanthropy, and whose company has been notoriously terrible to workers. And it’s not such a crazy thing that they thanked him: his company granted them (and many others) the funds and faith and platform to, between that and I Love Dick, make some brilliant, socially incisive, human television. Such is the type of thing you’d thank someone for.
It’s not particularly sensible to suggest that Soloway should have resisted working with Amazon, or to try to scold them or any other artist for so doing. (Especially when Soloway’s vision is distinctly queer and fervently feminist and thereby all the more difficult to get made and seen.) George Saunders, writer of a great many fabulist/vaguely sci-fi short stories about the inequality of the American social landscape, just sold one such story, Sea Oak, to Amazon Studios; it’ll star Glenn Close, and will probably, similarly, be great. Every fucking person is enmeshed in this system, and attempting a capitalist call-out culture will nearly always involve some form of hypocrisy. Hell, if Amazon or, say, the NRA wanted to make my anal sex anthology who knows what I’d say? (Fine, I haven’t written one, but will start immediately, and, fine, would also definitely say no to the NRA, who anyway definitely wouldn’t want to make my anal sex anthology, but still.)
It just so happens that the excellence, and eye for innovation and socially conscious stories, with which the likes of Amazon Studios selects projects to produce also makes that company look a whole lot cooler than it is. Art does have a social impact within the altering of collective perception, but the abstract perceptional change that messages provoke exists simultaneously with the systems the money it makes perpetuates. The social impact of art is not at all nullified by this fact, but it is certainly complicated by it. It is more complicated than, say, Jill Soloway saying “Thank you Goddess” at the Emmys, given that that expression is being made in the exact same speech that an emblem of late capitalist patriarchy is being thanked. “Thank you Goddess. Goddess first, Amazon second.” Art, entertainment, and most damn aspects of American life will never be wholly morally sound, so why is it that we’re (and I use “we’re,” because look at my job — I’m clearly a part of this) so often more focused on the morality of art and entertainment’s messaging about oppressive systems, rather than the actual systems that benefit directly from that art? Likely because those systems seem inescapable, impossible to evade, whereas we can seek to change perception person by person, artwork by artwork.
Such is an inevitable, disorienting juxtaposition we’re going to continue to see arising, particularly as film and TV become more socially conscious in response to spikes in systems of oppression under Trumpism, while “new-economy conglomerates” like Amazon continue to expand, and Tea Party-enabling, climate change legislation-opposing billionaires like the Koch brothers will quietly attach their wealth to mega-studios like Warner Bros. Hollywood has always been a rich white patriarchy, and now we’re dealing with the dizzying fact that the stories it’s starting to tell are indicative of a world that largely wants to topple it – yet continue to feed it, because what the hell doesn’t?
The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. The New York Observer is, of course, owned by Jared fucking Kushner, which means this piece in favor of bringing a more democratic socialist approach to the Democratic Party is actually itself working in favor of one of the most annoying capitalists on the planet. The system is so vast and tentacled that it should never be shocking that certain symbols and viewpoints expressed in art and news and discourse will not reflect those of the systems that profit from them; that’s why the moral weight, the ascribing of heroism and villainy to pop cultural items in the hopes that culture will start taking cues solely from them — as opposed to the other way around — starts to feel disproportionate. The click-bait oriented trends in criticism, where the headline is meant to come down to a dictatorial moral “yes” or moral “no” as defining the total worth of an artwork, become glaringly inadequate when so little, in a society deeply enmeshed in capital that reifies systems of inequality along race and gender lines, can truly be seen as a moral “yes” or “no.”
I use Transparent above as an example because it’s such a good exception: truly one of the best shows on television, because it’s inquisitive, because it does tell trans stories in a way formerly unseen on TV (as in: nuanced, without its characters needing to be heroes or exemplars of some abstract notion of the “trans experience”), because it has both an endeared and vicious approach to character, because it’s socially intelligent rather than think piece-y, and because it shows the potential of what long form character driven storytelling can do. I use it because I wonder if all of these things can more often be taken into account in the way art is declared worthwhile or worth rejecting: criticism that dissects, interrogates, appreciates, and questions TV and film’s internal emotional, political, and moral messages without elevating them to messianic levels or condemning them as devils-pop-culturally-incarnate. Art and entertainment’s complexities, its moral conundrums, puzzles, and even hypocrisies are inevitable. And perhaps the focus of our true ire should be not quite as vehemently at artists and celebrities — who ultimately are not the makers of a political climate, but the sometimes totally spot-on or off-base tellers of it — and rather at the true makers: the people with actual power, the invisible profiteers funding regressive politicians, and the politicians enacting their socially regressive, wealth-defending ideologies.
The only way the current unavoidable, built in (and understandable) hypocrisies of the messaging within much pop culture and mainstream art can be avoided is within a drastically changed system: until then, the morality of your favorite blockbuster or TV show will almost always have a murkier life than that of the progressivism it may or may not envision.