The most important thing that happened in our culture in the past decade wasn’t any one movie, television show, album or technological development. The 2010s were the decade in which culture merged with politics in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
Donald Trump was the ultimate, and most consequential master of this dynamic. He was able to mount a credible run for president because his stint in reality television had earned him a national audience, making his wealth and business acumen seem real enough. On the campaign trail, Trump turned his rallies into political theater. The churning administration made the characters on “Veep” look competent and the schemers on “Scandal” seem like cartoons.
Despite their political differences, the Democrats running to replace Trump all promise a return to normalcy in which the next president is basically boring. Among other things, the 2020 election will be a referendum on whether that pitch resonates with an audience conditioned, and perhaps accustomed, to four years of nonstop drama.
Trump was hardly the only person using culture to transform politics. Aggrieved video game fans launched harassment campaigns against a number of female and LGBT game critics and artists, inspired by a conspiratorial memo that dressed up vengeful sentiments about one author’s former partner as concerns about journalistic ethics. Figures such as provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and former Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen Bannon saw the controversy as an opportunity to recruit disaffected young men to the alt-right. This so-called GamerGate became a sewer pipeline, dumping the vicious tactics of online argumentation into the political mainstream.
Politics isn’t just more like culture now. The consumption of mass culture feels more like politics than ever. Consumers don’t merely pay for movie and concert tickets or for cable and streaming subscriptions. Now, fans do vast amounts of unpaid public relations work on behalf of the giant corporations who make zillions of dollars by churning out that content, defending the progressivism of the Marvel movies and the “Star Wars” universe or the supremacy of Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift with a gusto no mere publicist could muster.
Social media has lowered the barriers between artists and fans and made it possible for audiences to lobby for changes to movies and television shows. If it’s hard to believe that more than a million people might ask for an entire, extremely expensive season of television to be remade after it was released, as happened after the final season of “Game of Thrones,” that’s because you’re thinking of fans the wrong way: They’re no longer just customers, but an odd combination of consumers and constituents. After they have argued so fervently in support of their beloved franchises and so-called faves, is it any wonder fans think they’re owed?
And this isn’t even the most combustible element of this culture-politics merger. The marriage has exposed the contradictions of an industry that has long wanted credit for contributing to American progress even as it relied on backward practices and indulgent norms.
The #MeToo movement, which began with activist Tarana Burke, exposed misogyny and harassment that had festered in Hollywood for decades. The women who spoke up about their experiences with alleged predators such as Harvey Weinstein helped elevate that slogan into a global movement, one that’s now funding legal actions on behalf of women in other industries.
Other contradictions have been harder to reconcile. In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden credited the sitcom “Will & Grace,” which originally ran from 1998 to 2006, as a significant factor in the fight for marriage equality. Seven years later, even a cautious company such as Disney is simultaneously inserting very minor gay characters into its biggest franchise movies to garner points at home – but those moments don’t always make it into the cuts of films when screened in countries such as the United Arab Emirates.
Hollywood hasn’t yet been forced to choose between the demands of American audiences and the censors who control access to valuable markets such as China and Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean the entertainment industry’s balancing acts can continue forever. The current set of compromises was strained this year when some of the same figures in the National Basketball Association who have advocated against bias in policing in the United States moved quickly to defend the Chinese government in its conflict with the people of Hong Kong. And there are thorny political conflicts closer to home, too: The National Football League has yet to resolve its relationship with Colin Kaepernick, who says he was blacklisted for his political stances, and the “Star Wars” franchise continues to struggle with some fans who are fine with aliens but have lashed out against greater human diversity onscreen.
And individual creators risk offending the fans they once courted. “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, who spent much of the decade dropping additional details about her characters to make the world she’d created seem more progressive, ends it mired in controversy over her remarks about transgender people.
Maybe the next decade in politics and culture will bring a return to relative normalcy in which we all agree that politicians should be boring and effective and that culture should be escapist and disengaged. Maybe the movements of this decade will continue rather than fizzle out, producing an entertainment industry that’s more diverse in human and intellectual terms, and public figures who establish new ways of communicating with the public. And so maybe it is fitting that this franchise-dominated decade is ending with a cliffhanger.