Always Lashing the Same Back
It continues to amaze me every day how completely and thoroughly we fail to understand our own culture. It’s especially baffling considering that this country, really, only has pop culture going for it; having given up on the Supermanly troika of truth, justice, and the American Way, and having shipped all its manufacturing to places where the gap between wage slavery and plain old regular slavery isn’t quite as stark, the only things we make any more are wars and entertainment. And yet we seem to have so little appreciation of both the way it’s made and the way it’s supposed to function, I’m left to conclude that constant immersion in popular culture no more makes you an expert on it than being a fish makes you an expert on water.
In the latest of this site’s ongoing and seemingly endless project of examining our critical relationship to the art we make, I wanted to talk about the concept of backlash, but I had trouble making anything coherent out of my thoughts, and then, just as I was hoping the goo of my random observations would congeal into the pudding of a thesis, the AV Club’s television editor Todd Van Der Werff wrote this, which has the advantage of not rambling as far afield as I normally do and thus saying much of what I wanted to say in a more concise manner. Girls has provided us with a stellar example of backlash sociology, albeit complicated by the fact that the show — which I think is generally quite good — has some genuine problems beyond the phony ones ginned up by its knee-jerk reactionary detractors. This, in itself, forms one of the problems inherent in backlash psychology: it creates an oppositional dichotomy so polarizing that it leaves no room for honest critique. People who genuinely dislike Girls for aesthetic reasons must spend most of their time pleading that their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the sexist cretins who are assailing it out of pure misogyny.
At one point, the majority of cultural backlash stemmed from a reaction to excessive hype; audiences who were once a bit more distrustful of marketing and advertising could sniff out a fraud a mile away, and would often come to distrust anything they suspected of being a rickety shell that was supported only by a rolling engine of P.R. This is unfair in its own way — excessive hype doesn’t always indicate emptiness at the core — but at least it usually came from a genuine and spontaneous populist resistance to being had. Now, in the age of the blockbuster, we encounter the bizarre reversal of this tendency: anyone who doesn’t immediately embrace the latest billion-dollar marketing campaign and the product around which it is built is viewed with suspicion, suspected of being a crank at best and an elitist snob at worst. Because the backlash mentality hasn’t really gone away; it has simply been redirected at other targets, and gained an ugly reactionary quality along the way.
Overvaluing the alleged political content of culture can be a risky thing; too much of it and one becomes the kind of neo-Zhdanovite that litters the electronic halls of sites like Big Hollywood, judging every artistic creation on how greatly it appears to cling to this or that ideological doctrine. But too little of it and you’re just allowing yourself to be blind to the tenor of the times. Though you’d never know it from the aggrieved victimology of the doctrinaire conservative movement, we’re at a very reactionary time in America today. The cultural mood is distinctly authoritarian, anti-intellectual, and militaristic, and our current form of populism and anti-elitism resembles that of the Know-Nothings more than that of the Progressives, with all the hostility directed at aesthetes and academics rather than genuine elites of money and power. The election of Barack Obama and the mild diversification of the body politic, far from creating a “post-racial America”, has triggered ugly backlashes where racism, sexism and homophobia are far more openly expressed than they were ten years ago.
Thus we get, every single day, the expression of this reactionary culture in our headlines and inboxes. Girls is savaged in language that could not be more blatantly misogynistic and patronizing towards women*, blotting out even the possibility of a measured conversation about its merits or failings. A woman proposes a project analyzing the use of sexist tropes in video games, and before it even begins, she is inundated with thousands of vile misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks. (I have said for a while now, based on my depressing nightly encounters with this site’s stats page, that the Internet does not allow you to retain many illusions, and Anita Sarkeesian’s story is proof of that. Another, for the masochistically curious, is this article, in which an analysis of racist comments in on-line comments sections is met with thousands of racist comments in the comments section, is so drearily awful that it might just mark the eternal doom of the concept of situational irony.) At the same cultural moment when the Angry Black Man stereotype is being revived**, the diversification of cultural product — the introduction of a female, gay or minority character in a role normally reserved for white men — is invariably met with rage. (Some of those thus enraged have gotten wise, and frame what is perfectly ordinary racism, sexism and homophobia in the context of ‘tokenism’ — that is, they are not angry at the presence of a homo in their straight male fantasies, but the object to the pandering arbitrariness of it all. It’s a nice dodge because it gives them a seemingly enlightened reason to never have any minority characters at all.) As Young Adult novels exercise a tyrannical hegemony over the best-seller charts, the controversy isn’t over how remarkably white they are, but how occasionally white they aren’t.
Of course, at its heart, this is just simple run-of-the-mill sexism and racism, no different than we’ve ever had in America except to the degree they’re flexing their muscles after a period in which real gains were made for blacks, women and gays. (We may not have to put up with that strutting for long, as our government is fast at work trying to reverse those gains.) What’s different right now is that the mechanism of the backlash has been harnessed and turned against the very functions that used to drive it. Backlash culture is no longer a tool of popular revolt against racism and sexism in the media, but a means of defending them. It’s not even a tenuously class-based mode of resentment against the cycle of hype; suddenly, the unstoppable engine of marketing is something to be respected, praised, even anticipated as much as the product it supposedly exists to serve. I’ve already covered to the point of exhaustion the ressentiment against creators and the replacement of empathy for them with sympathy for their corporate masters, so I’ll leave that incomprehensible act of fealty aside and focus on other ways the script has gotten flipped in the new age of backlash.
Once, in what might be called the Heaven’s Gate era, it was considered a cardinal sin of the culture to spend an absurd amount of money on an ill-conceived and poorly executed piece of art and then foist it onto the public expecting accolades and rewards. The punishment for this degree of hubris was a steadfast determination to stay home, sinking the movie into well-deserved debt and obscurity and giving the creator and studio some time to consider their contemptuous actions by at least temporarily scuttling their careers. Now, in what we might call the John Carter era, a combination of anti-intellectual backlash at the audience level and self-flattering ambition at the critical level (where no one can ever admit that a movie was dull, a book pointless or an album unlistenable lest you cheat yourself out of a future ‘think piece’ in which you bully up your reputation with a ‘reassessment’ of its ‘underrated’ virtues) has led to the redirection of backlash not at the creators, who delivered a boring calamity of a film, or the producers, who sank hundreds of millions into its marketing, but the handful of stubborn jerks who refuse to admit how awesome it is. Televised mediocrities whose omnipresent advertising and syndication is looked on as a fact of life are spared the rod, but fans of barely-watched cult shows of intelligence and craft like The Wire and Community are assailed as pretentious frauds trying to cram down the throats of a trusting public programs that barely half a million people will ever see. Anything ordinary, expensive and attended by trains of PR drones strewing rose petals is considered worthy of our respect, while allegedly serious journalists wonder if it wasn’t perfectly understandable for people to ask for their money back after being forced to withstand the ordeal of seeing a movie with a slightly unconventional narrative structure.
The psychology and operation of the backlash has always been with us, and likely always will be, and it will no doubt assume different forms, both old and new, in the future. But now, in its current state, it resembles less Jesus crafting a whip to cleanse the temple of its money-changers than it does a captain’s mate seizing the cat to make sure the crewmen aren’t asking any uncomfortable questions.
*: At the risk of creating another expensive and unwieldy government bureaucracy, I’m afraid I have to suggest the formation of a new federal review panel. If they discover you have made a comment about Lena Dunham, and it consists of two of the three criticisms that she is (a) fat, (b) ugly and (c) unfunny, you must produce a picture of yourself, a picture of your significant other, and a joke you have written. They will be analyzed by the panel, and you will then be barred from using the Internet for a period of time based on the degree of disparity between your criticism and your reality.
**: Not to put too fine a point on it, but if there is anything shocking and disgraceful about black culture in 2012, it is that it doesn’t feature more black people who are absolutely fucking furious.