If you’re stumbling across this blog for the first time, I can imagine you might wonder what a culture critic is doing at ThinkProgress. At the end of Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson’s character, Karen Eiffel, reflects back on the book she’s just finished. “Sometimes,” she muses, “when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And…Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives.”
In a world where the average American watches more than 150 hours of television every month; where we’ve already purchased 438,113,677 tickets to the movies, adding up to a billion-odd hours in theaters; where in three months, people hit play almost 55 million times on a pop-science fiction liberation odyssey, these things that our lives consume an awful lot of them. Art might not always be here to save us (though it can), but our movies, books, television shows, music, and video games say a lot about how we want to spend our lives, what we’re willing to accept to escape from them for a while, and what we dream they might be like in the future. If we are what we love, to paraphrase Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, figuring out our pop culture—from action blockbusters to indie gems and from billboard-dominating hits to mixtapes—is an important part of figuring out who we are and what we value.
Public opinion may fluctuate on everything from American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to offshore drilling, but two of the top-grossing movies of 2010 were an explicitly environmentalist science fiction epic and a movie about government regulation of military technology. The top scripted show on television may be a banal procedural where the government always saves the day—but it’s also an ongoing exploration of America’s relationship with Israel. And the poor in America are as absent from our pop culture as they are from the political agenda. Americans’ political opinions may seem frustratingly impenetrable to pollsters and politicians, but our contradictory views on everything from gender equality to police brutality are front and center in the things we use to entertain ourselves.
And just as pop culture’s a bellwether for our attitudes, it’s also a great way to sell ideas, whether it’s Michael Bay’s love letters to the American military or James Cameron’s fierce heroines who see more clearly and shoot straighter than the men around them. Whether it’s getting romantic comedy heroines to work in industries other than fashion and PR; imagining science-fictional universes where environmentalism is a key value; or simply getting our movies and television shows to have demographics that match America’s, good culture can help sell good politics.
So that’s what I’ll be doing here: asking questions about what pop culture means and how it can work harder and better for a progressive future, as well as taking a look at cultural politics and policy from the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” program to Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision to dismantle the Kansas Arts Commission. Questions, comments, or requests? Just email AlyssaObserves (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m excited to be here.