Why I Care So Much About Mass Culture, Including Superhero Movies


Credit: DC Comics

I’ve been writing at ThinkProgress for almost three years now, but periodically, we’ll still get a flood of commenters who want to know why a political site also publishes cultural reporting and commentary. And sometimes, we’ll get complaints that I’m spending too much time talking about a particular type of culture, for example, that I should be covering the fine arts more than I do superhero movies or television. Most of the time, I don’t wade into these debates because I think I’ve been pretty clear about what I’m doing here from the beginning. When more people will go see a superhero blockbuster in its opening weekend than turn on the evening news on any given night, it’s critically important to engage with the ideas that show up in mass culture, and to examine how they affect our attitudes about ourselves and each other, and how they shape the perception of America around the world.

But on occasion, I feel like it’s important to wade in, particularly when someone suggests that a cultural product is unworthy of enthusiasm or serious analysis. The point I try to make in my work is that enthusiasm itself is interesting and revealing, and can be worth examination even if you don’t find a work to have merit on the basis of your own aesthetic judgement. I also think that suggesting that a class of works isn’t worth investment is a way of denying that work accountability for its quality and its politics–it’s the flip side of the defense mounted by superfans of movies, television, or video games when they’re uncomfortable with a critique that complicates their love of a product, the cry that “it’s just a movie/TV show/video game.”

So when Jonathan Chait, whose writing I have long enjoyed and admired, suggested that it would be silly to have a strong reaction to the casting of Wonder Woman, a character who holds enormous significance for American culture, and whose arrival on screen is bound to be a major event in our present movie environment, I felt like it was worth saying something;

I think it’s always worth remembering that it’s a luxury to be able to let the casting of a single character–or even the characters in an entire genre of movies–pass by without comment. But when there are comparatively few people who look like you at all in mass culture, and those who do are frequently portrayed as villainous, or weak, or hysterical, or stupid, those moments of safe harbor when you see a version of yourself, or of your experiences, affirmed on screen are genuinely exciting and precious. They’re an acknowledgement that your life exists, and that it’s considered interesting to other people.

As the blogger behind DC Women Kicking Ass put it on Twitter, “There is only one shot at Wonder Woman having a movie. One. It’s take 75 years to get here. And if this doesn’t work, it’s over.” I, and so many other critics, would love to be in a position where every depiction of a woman or a person of color in a superhero movie, or a romantic comedy, or a police procedural, or a supernatural drama didn’t feel freighted with significance. I would really like to be in a position where the most important feminist character in the history of comics wasn’t in the hands of a company that held contests where entrants had to draw female characters committing suicide and banned female characters from getting married to their girlfriends. I badly envy folks who have such cultural riches their ability to be cavalier about a single role. And I look forward to a day when I don’t have to litigate casting decisions one by one–I have a review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to write, and I’d like to get to it before Christmas. But I’m not there yet.