We can’t be sure of the date on which western culture truly lost its shit, but we can say that this shit was long gone by the time Huffington Post paid actor James Franco to share his cultural thoughts. In a widely shared (and curiously esteemed) piece of television criticism from 2012, Franco made the claim that the HBO program Girls was not very good due to (a) its under-representation of women of colour and (b) its failure to portray men to whom Franco could personally relate.
Let’s resist the tu quoque temptations here and not point out that there are about five guys in the world with whom former it-dude Franco could reasonably compare himself. Or, that there are fewer than five women of colour who have appeared alongside the star in his dozens of films. Let’s not remind Franco that he is just as free as Lena Dunham to remove the bong from Seth Rogen’s white fist and greenlight a diverse stoner movie any time he wishes.
But, let’s do remind Franco, and everyone else who believes so utterly in the power of the culture to improve the world, that this is only entertainment. Whatever Bono tells himself before writing one of his tedious songs about peace, entertainment does not change the world.
The world of entertainment can itself change and Chris Rock — an immeasurably better essayist than Franco — offered his strategies for such change in 2014. As Rock points out in a very practical piece, it’s just good for entertainment if there are different kinds of people making different kinds of things. Entertainment is not, as is now widely supposed, necessarily good for the world.
Franco’s critique is just one of many that measures a cultural item in terms of its potential to do good or harm. He believes, as do many, in the power of his profession to Make the World a Better Place. Film, television, video games and stars themselves are judged largely for their social usefulness and listicles now appear each day on Why X Is Good For Empowerment or Why Y Is Bad For Self-esteem.
One casualty of such evaluation is criticism itself — Susan Sontag would have a fit were she alive to see this newly narrow interrogation of the culture. But the greatest harm is the one we do to ourselves. If we continue to believe that all we really need to change is the culture, all we really will change is the culture. Society itself can go about its business unchecked, just so long as it looks okay on film.
As Rock says in his essay, it’s nice to see moral codes and practices that resemble your own in cinema or elsewhere in the culture. It’s nice, but it’s not much else. In an era of outrage, hyper-empowerment and “problematic faves”, it has become difficult to make this point. To say in a time that values representation well above reality that you really don’t think it’s Lena Dunham’s job to set moral codes is seen as little short of bigotry.
It is, of course, worthwhile to question Dunham’s improbably whitewashed Brooklyn. But it is dangerous to presume that her more authentic or moral representation produces a better reality. And this is how we have begun to think.
We protest and critique cultural infractions at an extraordinary rate. There is rarely a day that does not produce some widespread revulsion with a tweet, a film or a lyric. There is an argument that it is “elitist” to question the nature of such exchange and a very widespread view that people are finally engaged in a mass conversation about justice.
There is also an argument for momentarily shutting the fuck up. And thinking, perhaps, that this cultural fascination actually paralyses our engagement with the social.
This is not just a case of saying “there are more important things to be worried about”. It is, however, to urge a more careful reading of the diminishing connection between the cultural and the social. And to extend Chris Rock’s point that there is no reason to believe that a more reasonable entertainment industry will produce a more reasonable world. To suppose that it can is Sisyphean.
Even within the increasingly closed system of cultural critique, we can narrow our focus to a fatal point of paralysing nothingness. In one recent “outrage”, a former contestant from The Bachelor is held in press and social media as the reason for child exploitation.
In a recent Instagram post, the farcically gorgeous Snezana Markoski posed with her 10-year-old daughter in a bath tub. This (fairly modest) image launched several newspaper “analyses” decrying the sexualisation of children etc. And, of course, thousands of internet comments.
Let’s leave aide the curious belief that a person who sought to be married via reality television was not discharged of all moral responsibility the minute she attended a rose ceremony and ask: WTF?
First, if there is anything overtly “sexual” about a picture of a little girl in a bath, then the AFP should immediately seize all my family’s photograph albums. Second, if there is anything overtly “exploitative” about this quite sweet image of two pretty people, it is the fact that it was produced in the service of sales. If we must feel concern for little Eve Markoski, it is surely for her fee.
The social question “Was this little girl remunerated for advertising a bath scrub?” is a reasonable one left largely unasked. It is eclipsed by the cultural assumption that pictures of pouting children are somehow intrinsically bad.
Cultural representations may not impact social reality in the neat and immediate way we have come to presume that they do. In the case of Eve Markoski, though, a little union representation might not be a bad thing — perhaps we should be most worried that the kid got a lunch break and had a body scrub health and safety supervisor on hand.
It is not “elitist” to urge us to question the impact of the cultural on the social. What is elitist is to keep presuming, as James Franco does, that the cultural elite shape the social world.