What to Do With the Time That Is Given to Us: Processing Reality Through Pop Culture

So, three weeks ago the world imploded for a lot of people. Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States, defying poll estimates and data guru predictions. Two weeks out, I’m still processing my own grief, and the waves of bad news that have followed only make that harder – antisemitic white nationalist Steve Bannon as chief advisor, climate change denier Myron Ebell nominated as head of EPA, out and out racist Jeff Sessions as attorney general pick. It looks ugly. And the left has been doing a lot of soul-searching – or, alternately, a lot of infighting – about what went wrong, and what we do now.

This conversation has gone a lot of directions, but the one I want to focus on now is the only one I feel somewhat equipped to write about: the argument about pop culture as a distraction. Opiate of the masses. Etcetera.

The basic gist of this point of view is that by engaging with literature and other media as a point of contact with reality – dystopian fiction has been a particular target of this conversation – people are creating distance between themselves and the horrors of the real dystopia that lives all around us. People of color in particular have written about the ways in which dystopian fiction is a white fantasy about a world that already exists, where the violence against black and brown people in the United States is suddenly extended to white people as well.

Additionally, as Claire Fallon writes in the article linked above, comparing fiction with reality (i.e. comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort or President Snow, in two popular examples) can breed complacency and inaction.

In Harry Potter, evidence suggests, children learn to practice empathy for those unlike themselves. But it’s also, ultimately, a comforting children’s saga. In the series, there’s a clear villain, Voldemort, and a small clutch of heroic figures battling against him. Voldemort doesn’t win in the end. If Trump, as some have rather glibly put it, is Voldemort, then it’s hard to imagine Trump winning in the end either.

If we assume that the narrative will provide a hero to save us, she argues, then what motivation is there to act to save ourselves?

It’s not a new argument. In 1944 theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment that what they called “the culture industry” produces standardized culture as a factory produces standardized goods, for the express purpose of manipulating the masses into passivity.

To be entertained means to be in agreement…amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality.

I think there is certainly something to all of this. For people scared for their lives, references to “Dumbledore’s Army” can feel flippant, trivializing. And it is certainly worth discussing the homogeneity of many of these narratives. And if people experience catharsis through a fictional story about the overthrow of the First Order, perhaps they will lose the sense of urgency that drives rebellion in real life. It is also worth considering the typical frame of “good vs. evil” in these comparisons, a simplification that is vastly more complicated in the real world.

But I don’t think that’s the end of it, and ultimately I don’t think it’s helpful to be so blithely dismissive of the role culture plays in politics (and politics plays in culture). All culture, like it or not, is political, and our interactions with it are politically driven – even if that interaction is simply “I want to not think about reality for a while.” And that’s not how I’ve seen fiction being used in the aftermath of this election.

Fiction can be a way of understanding and mediating reality – of processing catastrophe or pain. Turning to a familiar story can be, rather than an opiate, a way of making sense of what’s happening – a way of providing a framework for a world that seems to have been shaken to its roots. When reality is terrifying and strange, it is human to search for ways to make sense of it, and pop culture is everywhere, a deeply embedded part of our daily lives. We know those stories. They make sense.

The day after the election, I spent most of the day sobbing, and I know I wasn’t alone. The place I found comfort was in poetry – first, Mary Oliver (“Wild Geese” is a poem I always come back to for comfort) and then, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read, repeatedly, a poem Sam Gamgee recites at one of his darkest moments. The portion that spoke to me most:

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

I saw numerous people on social media sharing other quotes from Lord of the Rings as well, movies and books – the quote the title of this post is taken from frequently among them. People reaching for a familiar script for comfort, and more than that, for understanding.

Lord of the Rings is frequently framed as a simplistic story of good conquering evil. As anyone who makes the mistake of bringing up Tolkien around me learns, however, the truth is far more complicated than that. There are two warring impulses in Tolkien, constantly in tension – a deep pessimism and a need for hope. It is often forgotten that Frodo’s victory – if it can be called his victory – costs him everything. He returns to the Shire a shadow of his former self, and ultimately has to leave the mortal world forever. In The Silmarillion, the cost of the victory over Morgoth is the destruction of huge swaths of the world. The battle against evil is neither easy nor simple, and Tolkien acknowledges that. The story that underlies Lord of the Rings isn’t one battle, good vs. evil, good victorious. It is a constant uphill slog, unrelenting and often thankless.

Much like politics. Maybe now’s a good time to quote from another pop culture touchstone: Captain America. In 2012’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which an American icon destroys a government agency corrupted by Nazi expies, Steve Rogers breaks in to appeal to the good people still left.

If you launch those helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way. Unless we stop them. I know I’m asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.

Hey, will you look at that. A call to arms to act against a government betraying the people it promised to protect.

All right, maybe now I’m being flippant. But the point is: people use fiction to make the insensible sensible. That’s one thing, and that has value of its own. Fiction can be a powerful interpretive lens and means of understanding oneself, the world, and others. People also use fiction to inspire themselves, to reflect, to find role models both positive and negative.

I am not arguing that consuming a piece of media, or drawing lines of comparison between media and real life, is somehow on par with direct action. It isn’t. But acting as though people using pop culture as a way of making meaning are universally anesthetized to reality, as though Hunger Games comparisons at Vox are a symptom of the rot at America’s core, as though young people rallying around a fictional organization is meaningless or actively harmful, as though “politically useless but personally uplifting” renders an interaction worthless or worthy of condemnation-

That just seems unnecessary.

Further Reading: Harry Potter and the Conscience of a Liberal” by Laurie Penny on The Baffler, “Donald Trump’s Dystopias” by Sophie Gilbert from The Atlantic, “Harry Potter is Actually a Great Narrative Frame for Good and Evil” by Emily Temple on LitHub.

And for something completely different: “Look, All I’m Saying is Let’s At Least Give Nyarlahotep A Chance” by Andrew Paul on McSweeney’s.



2 thoughts on “What to Do With the Time That Is Given to Us: Processing Reality Through Pop Culture

  1. Thanks for this. Nicely argued and quite helpful. Counter-narratives have always been a powerful form of resistance to the dominant ideology. Biblical narratives like Revelation, for example, were subversive attacks on Empire while also proposing “a new heaven and earth.” You make an important point about Tolkien shunning a simplistic good-vs.-evil motif in his trilogy. During WWII he was troubled about the Allies’ massive engines of destruction themselves becoming “tools of Morgoth.” and his deeply Christian vision recognized the persistence of evil which would not be permanently banished by worldly victory, but only overcome by hope “unlooked-for” (his term for providential grace, used 16 times in the trilogy).


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