The 18 Moments In Pop Culture That Got Us Thinking This Year

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/ThinkProgress

This post contains spoilers about everything that happened in 2014.

It’s the time of year when every news site publishes list upon list of memorable moments — best, worst, funniest, etc. — throughout the past year. It’s only fitting for a progressive news site to write a progressive version of that theme. So here they are, the most progressive moments of 2014.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a record of the best OR worst moments in pop culture this year. In fact, it’s a record of best AND worst moments – ones that made us smile, laugh, and/or cry for humanity. It is a list of happenings, in no particular order, that either advanced progressive ideals or got us talking about them. So without further ado:

1. Super Bowl ads that angered Americans

Most people hoped that commercials occupying mutli-million dollar time slots would compensate for one of the most boring Super Bowls of all time last January. A Coke commercial did just that, by showing an awesome and unexpected montage of people from diverse backgrounds singing ‘America the Beautiful’ in different languages. So of course people were outraged, and demanded that people speak English or get out of town, signaling that xenophobia is still alive and well in the U.S.

And then there was the visually stunning ad by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), “Proud to Be,” which was not aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial reminded the country that Native Americans are not a monolith, but are common in their resilience and survivorship. Although it aired on television in subsequent days, it’s a shame that Native Americans — the original Americans — were not given a spotlight on the most American day of the year, because of the NFL’s commitment to racism and injustice.

2. NFL blunders

Speaking of Native Americans, Dan Snyder still refuses to admit how offensive the term “Redskins” is, which was just one of the NFL’s major flubs this year. His communications team even had the audacity to start a Twitter trend, #RedskinsPride, to get people talking about what the team means to them. Click here to see how well that went. The NFL also screwed up when it tried to cover up a video of Ray Rice beating his girlfriend in an elevator — and then lied about it. The incident opened up a discussion about the culture of domestic violence among football players, and lax policies that enable abusers to go unpunished. It also pointed to society’s tendency to re-victimize survivors of abuse, like Rice’s wife Janay, by either blaming them for their plight or accusing them of not speaking up. And then there was running back Adrian Peterson, who allegedly beat his four-year-old child, and reopened the longstanding debate over corporal punishment. All in all, the NFL was one of the biggest losers of the year, but it also forced sports fans to confront serious subject matter.



3. A butt discussion that wouldn’t die

It’s time to lay the conversation about butts to rest, but let us not forget how big arses sashayed their way into mainstream pop culture’s collective psyche and started an important dialogue about body image and race. A lot of publications — Vanity Fair, Vogue, the New York Times — had the nerve to say that prominent white women + Beyonce + Nicki Minaj made big butts desirable, enviable, and trendy, while simultaneously overlooking and erasing women of color with curves who never received the same amount of praise. Regardless, the booty talk did usher in a renewed appreciation for a body type that is not size 0. It was a welcome change. Cue Anaconda video.

4. Obvious Child, the movie that normalized abortion

In this brilliant indie film starring Jenny Slate, abortion isn’t treated as the act of shame that we tend to see on television and in most movies. After a night of rebound sex, Slate gets pregnant and immediately decides to have an abortion, guilt-free. She doesn’t hesitate, and she doesn’t feel like her world is ending. In fact, the movie is a romantic comedy, which carries as much weight as the underlying abortion story line. With women’s reproductive health rights under attack from the Supreme Court and state governments, Obvious Child is an important film that counters negative perceptions of abortion and advocates a woman’s right to exercise agency over her own body.

5. The ubiquity of on-screen rape

The Game of Thrones scene in which Jaime Lannister raped his sister, Cersei, next to their dead son was one of the most superfluous scenes in television history. On a show characterized by gruesome death and destruction, Game of Thrones‘ distortion of its source material, in which Cersei verbally consents to her brother/lover’s advances, used violence against women for shock value only. Shortly after the episode aired, cast members defended the scene, which sparked a national conversation about consent and the way we talk about rape. But GoT wasn’t the only perpetrator of on-screen rape this year (see House of Cards and the Americans). After Gone Girl was released in October, the debate about women falsely accusing men of rape and domestic violence was reignited. Many argued that the movie (and book) reinforced the myth that women “cry rape” at the expense of men, while others defended it as a feminist work. Either way, rape was front and center, making us question both its use as an entertainment tool and its representation in pop culture overall.

**A scene with Jaime and Cersei that did not include rape.

**A scene with Jaime and Cersei that did not include rape.


6. Emma Watson’s brilliant speech

Feminism. It’s a word that shouldn’t go away, despite Time’s failed attempt to make it so. In fairness, discussions about feminism have become redundant, and should probably should start moving beyond the “Are you one or not?” question. But Emma Watson declaring her reasons for being a feminist in front of the U.N. shouldn’t be overlooked. As a newly appointed ambassador for HeForShe, to encourage men around the globe to stand up for women’s rights, Watson’s speech showed us all that young witches can blossom into strong, trailblazing women demanding gender equality.

7. Laverne Cox’s epic victories

On the subject of trailblazing women, Laverne Cox became the first trans woman to receive an Emmy nod (for Orange Is the New Black) AND the first to grace the cover of Time. At the forefront of trans rights activism, Cox’s celebrity advanced trans visibility in a profound way. Her friend Janet Mock’s hit autobiography, Redefining Realness, also did the trick. But Cox was, arguably, the most influential trans person in America this year.



8. Tragic Hollywood deaths

Every year we unexpectedly lose entertainers, but some deaths really hit close to home. This year, the country was taken aback when funnyman Robin Williams committed suicide, and the extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on heroin. Both losses got us talking about the stigma attached to drug abuse and mental illness, and how that stigma has tragic consequences for people afraid to speak up. The “Genie, you’re free” meme also stirred up controversy, with many arguing that the message actually encouraged and glorified suicide. But beyond their causes of death, the two actors left a gaping hole in the movie industry, and legacies that extend far beyond the world of entertainment. RIP.


9. The New York Times’ major screw-ups

A huge bomb was dropped on the news world when Executive Editor Jill Abramson was allegedly fired from the Times after asking for a pay raise. The backlash was immediate, and put the gender pay gap front and center. But it also highlighted the glass ceiling phenomenon in which women are hired as “fixers” and then blamed for not being able to clean up the mess they inherited. So that was Strike 1 for the publication. Then, fan favorite Alessandra Stanley, who’s notorious for writing factually incorrect articles, wrote a piece about Shonda Rhimes being an angry black woman. She also went so far as to reify warped standards of beauty and offend a prominent black actress in the same sentence. Stanley’s and Abramson’s forced departure reflected poorly on the Times’ credibility and called into question journalistic integrity in one fell swoop.

Jill Abramson


10. Television’s much-needed makeover

Every year we push for more diversity in television, and this year we saw a lot more of it. We were introduced to Jane the Virgin, Black-ish, Cristela, and How to Get Away With Murder, in what is a clear push for better race representation on the small screen. ABC also announced its new show Fresh Off the Boat, which will premiere early next year. But there was also record-breaking LGBT inclusion, with new shows like Transparent on Amazon, Looking on HBO, and a number of recurring LGBT characters on more established shows (Orange Is the New Black, The Fosters, Glee, etc.). A GLAAD study also found that there are more people with disabilities on TV than ever before. On the flip side, TV is backtracking on gender equity: the number of women with speaking roles declined by 1 percent, and they are less likely to be shown in a work setting than their male counterparts.

jane the virgin


11. Op-eds that put Hollywood’s sex offenders on blast

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past 3 weeks, you know that Bill Cosby allegedly raped a lot of women in the past, who are now speaking out about his history of sexual misconduct. Although allegations were made against him in 2004, comedian Hannibal Burress reintroduced the conversation in joke form. But that joke had unintended consequences, when Barbara Bowman wrote a Washington Post op-ed about her horrifying encounter with Cosby and being shamed for speaking out. Soon after the op-ed was published, victim after victim came forth to tell their stories about the actor. But hers was not the only piece slamming a high-profile entertainer for sex crimes. Dylan Farrow published a New York Times letter about being molested by her father, Woody Allen, and the difficulties of watching him receive praise in spite of his wrongdoing. Neither Cosby nor Allen have been convicted for their crimes, but by writing widely publicized letters, their accusers revamped the war on superstars who perpetuate violence against women, and think they can get away with it unscathed.

12. The campaign to #CancelColbert

Although Colbert won the coveted late night talk show slot that Letterman’s giving up, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the beloved comedian. It started when a Twitter account associated with the Colbert Report tweeted “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” poking fun at Dan Synder’s reluctance to scrap the Redskins team name. In response, Asian-American activist Suey Park started the #CancelColbert campaign. Some who disagreed with Park’s campaign said that the joke was a simple misunderstanding, but it did leave a blemish on Colbert’s pristine comedic past. It’s worth noting that Colbert did not actually tweet the message himself. More than anything, #CancelColbert made us evaluate the role of comedy in pop culture, and think about subject matter that is or is not fair game, and who is allowed to make race-related jokes.

TV-Colbert-Get Lucky


13. Donald Sterling’s “F&%k, my mic was on?” mishap

Ohhh Donald Sterling, where do we even begin with you? Like Mel Gibson before him, Clippers owner Donald Sterling got caught saying some outlandishly racist things to then-girlfriend V. Stiviano. Take a listen, thanks to gossip-site-turned-“video journalism”-site, TMZ:

Sterling already had a history of racism against African Americans– ie. gross housing discrimination — but the recording was the final nail in his coffin. Offending the very players who contributed to his excessive wealth, the video served as a loud reminder that we do not live in a post-racial society, and a prime example of the devaluation of black lives in America. Sterling has since sold the basketball team.

14. The rise of Michael Sam, American treasure

Last year, Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in a major American sport. Last week, Collins announced his plan to retire, but he did pave the way for gay athletes to come out. Enter Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay football player selected in the NFL draft. The media is still figuring out how to discuss LGBT athletes (see ESPN’s cringe-worthy locker room story), but Sam continues to change the sports world by virtue of being, unapologetically, himself. He’s the real MVP. (Quick aside: Actress Ellen Page also came out at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time To Thrive conference.)



15. The NSFW celebrity photo hack

Some called it a sex scandal. Others (more accurately) dubbed the leak of hundreds of naked photos on 4chan sexual harassment. Among the victims were Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, underage olympian Mikayla Pierce and 98 additional celebrities. Although celebrities’ leaked photos made headlines in previous years, a photo hack of this magnitude was unprecedented. This is not to say that non-celebrities haven’t experienced the same abuse of privacy in the past, but the theft and publication of photos belonging to superstars started an interesting, necessary conversation about digital sex crimes. It also highlighted a culture of victim-blaming, with people making comments like “You’re a celebrity and shouldn’t do anything you don’t want people to see.” But most importantly, it shows that social media, from 4chan to Twitter, actually fosters a culture of misogyny.

16. Sochi and that soccer tournament

The Winter Olympics and World Cup, two of the biggest sporting events in the world, happened this year. It brought ‘Merica together the way most sporting events do. In February we crowded around TV screens and computer monitors to catch a glimpse of the freestyle skiers, curlers, and ice dancers beating Canadians and Russians with their mesmerizing twizzles. Meryl Davis and Charlie White became America’s favorite “couple.”

Flash forward to the World Cup in June, where the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team (and Tim Howard) won over millions of new fans, who never cared about the world’s most popular sport. Competing in Group G — the “Group of Death,” the U.S. silenced haters and non-believers alike. We beat Ghana, tied with Portugal, lost to Germany, and STILL clawed our way into the next round. The country went nuts.

But two countries paid a heavy price for our joy: Brazil and Russia. In Brazil, communities were destroyed so that stadiums could be built, leaving thousands homeless; police committed human rights abuses against outraged civilians who took the streets; and billions of dollars that could’ve been used for much-needed public and social services were allocated to the event. In Sochi, hundreds of residents were relocated from their homes, and LGBT athletes and fans were persecuted and censored. Today the city is a wasteland.

17. The trial criminalizing rap lyrics

Should we consider music a criminal threat? That’s what the Supreme Court will determine in the case of Anthony Elonis, who posted violent rap lyrics about his wife and was sentenced to 44 months in prison thereafter. More broadly, the trial is about persecuting individuals based on verbal threats, but rap lyrics — which often glorify violence — are a key component of the discussion. The debate as to whether or not they can and should be used as evidence is not new. Last January a similar court case convened in New Jersey, after which the state’s Supreme Court overturned Vonte Skinner’s murder conviction, ruling that the rap lyrics used to implicate him were prejudiced and “risked poisoning the jury.” But the U.S. Supreme Court case continues the conversation, which is fraught with racial undertones and calls online speech into question. The decision will come down between now and next June.

18. #GamerGate got a second wind

It started in 2012 when Anita Sarkeesian spoke out about the presence and portrayal of women in videogames, after which she was brutally attacked online. Some even went so far as to create a game that allows players to beat her up. Two years later, the death threats against her continue. But a similar case of misogyny and online harassment happened in August, when an ex-boyfriend alleged that Zoe Quinn, a videogame developer, slept with a Nathan Grayson, a game reviewer for Kotaku, to get a positive review of Depression Quest. Since then, Quinn’s been the victim of online attacks and rape and death threats. And women who’ve spoken out in support of people like Quinn and Sarkeesian have been attacked ruthlessly. Many people cited ethics in journalism as the real problem at hand, but that’s a secondary issue at best. Let’s just hope that GamerGate — the name for the online assault of female game critics, developers, and bloggers — dies in 2015. And in case you were wondering, there’s still no proof that Grayson ever reviewed Depression Quest.


CREDIT: Anita Sarkeesian