Culture Plus: On Arts and Politics

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last month, Alyssa Rosenberg, a favorite writer of mine, wrote in the Washington Post about the intersection of arts and politics. “The great political strength of art,” she wrote, “is that when politics walks through the door of culture, politics begins to function differently.” But, she asked, once we accept that arts and politics are intertwined, how do we let the latter affect our views of the former? How do we choose what to respect because of its politics, and what do we throw out because of its messages?

Last week, in an otherwise very positive review, I criticized Outlander‘s tactic of using a woman’s sexual assault to further develop two male characters. My criticism drew no small amount of pushback from commenters. I thought that hurting a woman to advance male plotlines was reminiscent of the fantasy works Outlander was setting itself apart from, starkly in contrast to the show’s nuanced portrayal of its female protagonist. It’s not that I didn’t love Outlander, but it felt frustrating to have a show that got so much right get something so seriously (in my mind) wrong.

While thinking about Outlander, a series I plan on sticking with despite a few missteps early on, I’ve also thought of all the other media I’ve stuck with and why. There is Game of Thrones, which I criticized heavily in the Gazette last year for its portrayal of sexual violence. I’ve been disappointed by the show of late, but I can’t seem to step away. It’s one of the only shows on television that can promise an in-depth mythology, high production values, and sharp action directing every week. I’ve essentially given up hope on the show’s treatment of female characters but I continue to see something worthwhile each time I tune in.

If I was to only engage with media that fit into my political views, I would most likely still be watching The Newsroom. The Newsroom seemed tailored to my taste when it first premiered: written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network, Sports Night), it follows a group of crusading journalists who are out to tell the truth to an American public rendered stagnant by biased cable news. Much like The West Wing, it promised to be a fast-talking, whip-smart love letter to idealistic liberalism.

In an effort to avoid constructing fictional news stories, the show is set in the recent past, portraying how this crack team would respond to stories like the BP Oil Spill or the rise of the Tea Party. Unfortunately, this meant that the team responded to each story with the hindsight of the show’s writers, making declarations about how “real journalism” should be done while ignoring the understandable mistakes that can be made in the midst of a disaster. I gave up on The Newsroom midway through its second season because, despite it’s politics, which aligned with mine more often than not, it was less of a love letter to liberalism, and more like a condescending take-down of anyone who didn’t agree.

I’ve found that, while engaging with (for lack of a better word) “problematic” media can be tiring, it can also be rewarding. It’s been pointed out that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, in addition to kick-starting the plague of edgy and dark superheroes, argues rather loudly for Bush-era foreign policy and against the sentiment of the Occupy movement. But, The Dark Knight also features impressive practical effects, a stellar performance from Heath Ledger, and is altogether one of the few sequels to hold the distinction of improving on the story of original. It may be the case that the trilogy’s flaws make it more interesting to engage with: why has Nolan taken this particular stance on Gotham’s lower class? Why are viewers surprised that a story about a billionaire fighting crime takes a soft stance on inequality?

This marks my first official Culture Plus column of the year, and I’d like to refocus on what I want this column to be. Rather than arguing about what we should give up and why, or espousing the too-neat Tumblrism that “you can enjoy problematic things as long as you acknowledge they’re problematic,” I want to engage more with why people want to embrace or reject certain stories. It will be more difficult than assigning a do-or-don’t label to a work, but I think it’s a more honest (and hopefully interesting) choice.

Featured image courtesy of http://www.hollywoodreporter.com.

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

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