Time Magazine announced its finalists for Person Of The Year today, and the list is a not unsurprising mix of figures from various realms of public life:
Bashar Assad, President of Syria
Jeff Bezos, Amazon Founder
Ted Cruz, Texas Senator
Miley Cyrus, Singer
Pope Francis, Leader of the Catholic Church
Barack Obama, President of the United States
Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran
Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services
Edward Snowden, N.S.A. Leaker
Edith Windsor, Gay rights activist
It’s easy to declare that one of these things is not like the other, and to tut-tut Cyrus’ inclusion on the list is evidence that Time is falling prey to the drive for click-bait, to teenagers and their pop music, to Tumblr and its complaints. “What’s next,” we might moan. “Upworthy-style headlines in the House That Henry Luce built?” But let’s pause, for a moment, and consider why some of the other candidates have made it to the final round of what is, by design, a very effective tool for Time to drive traffic and newsstand sales, no matter who ends up on the cover.
Cyrus isn’t alone for earning a spot on the finalists’ list because of her cultural influence, an arena of change that’s often treated like a poor stepchild to categories like politics or economics. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, wields both economic and cultural influence. His company is at the center of an ongoing, state-by-state fight over whether or not Amazon should collect sales tax on the items it sells and delivers to customers–not doing so has been part of Amazon’s competitive advantage. And Amazon has been at the center of a number of exposes regarding working conditions in its fulfillment centers. The company’s also launched a number of intriguing cultural endeavors, including Amazon Worlds, a proposed plan to let writers of fan fiction make some money by selling licensed works through Amazon, and a short fiction program. But I’m willing to bet that Bezos’ inclusion on the list will focus on two other news items from 2013: Bezos’ purchase, as a private citizen, of the Washington Post, and his much-publicized announcement on 60 Minutes that the company is attempting to deliver a super-fast delivery system that would allow light packages to be dropped off by octocopters.
Amazon’s sales tax and labor issues are on-going, hardly new to this year. Amazon Worlds, while intriguing, hasn’t yet licensed the major franchises that would make the project take off. And while short fiction distribution is important and heartening, and I’m glad to see Kindle technology turned towards monetizing a broader range of fiction, I don’t know that it’s Person Of The Year-worthy. So we’re left with two cultural moves that sound sexy, but are entirely forward-looking. It’s true that Don Graham has departed as publisher of the Washington Post, but Bezos has otherwise left the structure of the Post largely in place, making no significant editorial or technological changes yet. That’s wise stewardship of a major institution of American journalism. Bezos shouldn’t upend the Post, even in areas where the company badly needs it, like a dramatic redesign of the website, without carefully considering his vision for the company, and the needs of the journalists whose skills he presumably values.
But awarding him Time’s Person Of The Year for the purchase would seem more speculative than based on any actual revolution in American newspaper management. And the announcement of Amazon Prime Air, which has to clear numerous regulatory hurdles and answer a huge range of design questions would be an even larger gesture of enthusiasm over substance. I can easily see naming Bezos Person Of The Year for his cultural stewardship of the Post or a transformation of American skies in years to come. But if we’re giving the accolade for actual cultural impact in the preceding year, I’m not sure Bezos is the champ.
A better contender might be Pope Francis. But if we’re going to declare the man who holds the jurisdiction of the Holy See Person Of The Year, we ought to acknowledge it’s because of his work radically transforming the public image of the papacy, rather than because of any doctrinal changes he’s instituted. Francis has a remarkable gift for gestures both viral and substantive, whether he’s kissing a man with boils, sneaking out at night without his papal regalia to serve the homeless, letting slip that he used to work as a bouncer, or suspending a German bishop who’d authorized lavish renovations of his official residence in an effort to show that the Church is serious about corruption.
It’s brilliant of Pope Francis to recognize that the brand of the Catholic Church–perhaps particularly with non-Catholics–depends substantially on how the person who occupies the Papacy is perceived by the world. And it’s absolutely true that the Catholic Church, which in many quarters is a symbol of repression and abuse of power, badly needs a rebranding. But it’s one thing to make non-Catholics get the same thrill out of Pope Francis that they do from a video of two animals who are best friends or a story about anonymous donors making it up to a waitress who got a cruel message in lieu of a tip.
It’s another entirely to push Catholic doctrine forward. A survey that tries to get the Vatican more information about the lived family experiences of lay Catholics may help achieve that latter, and much harder, goal. So may a synod of bishops on the family scheduled for the autumn of 2014, for which that survey is being conducted. As Amy Davidson has written at the New Yorker, when Francis meets the bishops, “Many of them are making a very different noise than the one we have heard from their Pope. The greetings might be stranger and more difficult ones than any Francis has experienced in St. Peter’s Square. And the synod will likely require a different sort of leadership than we’ve entirely seen from him.” Depending on the outcome of their conversations, Pope Francis may achieve change so radical that it makes this year’s gestures look like a mere PR campaign. If change does not come, it will speak deeply to the state of the church and of worldwide Catholicism. Either way, we won’t be able to deliver that verdict at least until late 2014, and perhaps into the next year.
Miley Cyrus’ cultural contributions may ultimately be smaller than the advancement of a new business model for American newspapers, or a major change in the perception and doctrine of the Catholic Church. But unlike Bezos and Pope Francis, Cyrus’ contributions happened this year. There’s an argument to be made that the Person Of The Year should be honored for their positive contributions to the world, though Time has clearly never made that a requirement in their selection process. But whether or not you like Cyrus’ music, whether or not you find the video for “It Can’t Stop” appropriative or her performance at the Video Music Awards vulgar and racially insensitive, or whether you buy her suggestions that she’s self-aware and making her sexualized presentations deliberately ugly, it’s undeniable that Cyrus inspired incredibly important, and often rewardingly complex, conversations about the state of our mass culture this year.
Where’s the line between homage and appropriation? Is there an un-fraught way for white artists to work in black forms (a question also raised by Robin Thicke’s work this year), or to employ non-white back-up dancers? How are we to understand the ways in which young, white female pop stars deploy race and sexuality in defining adult identities that are meant to be distinct from the ones they’ve been asked to assume by their labels, managers, and parents, and sometimes a single person occupying more than one of those roles? Are young women in media complicit in their sexualization, or victims of it, and where does their responsibility begin and end? How does ratchet culture move from being a signifier class when deployed by black artists and commentators, to something that tells us about the intersection and conflation of race and class when it’s deployed by white artists? Why can’t we grant women of color the same right to monetize their sexuality, and to explore their sexuality in public without slut-shaming them that we can extend to a white artist like Cyrus? Why, when a woman and man perform sexually together in public, is the woman held solely responsible for any outrage that might result (that is, if the man is white)?
Cyrus inspired inquiries into all of these questions, and more, in 2013. I would hold absolutely no animus if Time’s editors decided that Kathleen Sibelius’ stewardship of Obamacare or Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people were more significant world events than the flashpoint Cyrus offered up. But it would be unfortunate if a calculation in that direction was interpreted as yet another sign that politics are more important than culture. Bezos and Pope Francis are finalists on this list for cultural reasons, too. Sen. Ted Cruz’s vainglorious pursuit of his own public profile is not more important than the future of American journalism, the reputation of the Catholic church, or America’s fraught cultural history just because he happens to operate in the realm of politics. And significant figures like Edith Windsor, whose case led the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense Of Marriage Act, often draw their power not just from their impact on law, but because of the way they affect custom and perception, which are part of culture. Miley Cyrus isn’t as crazy or pandering a finalist as she might seem. Instead, she’s a reminder that we slight culture and its role in our public and private lives at peril of our own ignorance.