I recently came across a headline that gave me the frowns. It was a week or so ago, but in the midst of my “why don’t people get their history correct” rant, Part One. So consider this Part Two. The caption was:
Why so much Obama-era pop culture feels so cringe now: How Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter lost cultural cachet.Constance Grady, Vox.com
Much of this is a calculated irritant. The headline was recommended by a browser algorithm that is the technological equivalent of supermarket tabloid stands. It’s designed to be a wet fish slap. Obama somehow seems to share in the blame. At least in the supermarket, you can also contemplate the Snickers bars. On the Internet, it’s just you and this headline and the other stories cum ads about the “Last Bed/Pizza-Kit/Migraine Remedy You’ll Every Buy.”
It’s clickbait. It’s written by people whose profession is to tell you what to think and how to live. Those folks in the ancient days were the rule-making priests, then the culture-stamping bosses; now they are self-appointed influencers. (I was going to add barely-known bloggers, but then I’m a barely-known blogger, so never mind).
We all shouldn’t care so much. And yet…so many questions spring to mind.
Who decided Hamilton, Harry Potter, and Parks and Rec are completely out of favor? Who decided these were Popular in the first place? How is Harry Potter even “Obama-era,” when all of the book were published before Obama? I dispute the premise, and I dispute the facts. And it’s worth spending a few minutes on this because we should not stir together opinions about politics, art, and facts as if they are interchangeable. When we do that, it becomes much easier to dismiss videos from January 6th as “that’s your opinion.”
Vox Non Populi
In the original article, opinionista Constance Grady argues that these three cultural icons have lost their one-time beyond-reproach-coolness and have now become cringe. In a nutshell, Hamilton‘s fault is that it glorifies the genocidal Founding Fathers, Harry Potter has lost its feminist vision because it was written by a transphobe, and Parks & Rec “told us everything would be okay if we trusted the grownups” who then lied. The underlying ruination of all, says Grady, is Hillary Clinton. If one follows the article’s logic to the end, if Clinton had only won the election, then these shows would still be cool.
Of course you likely disagree in some fashion–if you’ve read this far–but let’s take this apart. It’s not just the mixing of culture and politics. Interweaving art or entertainment with real world events isn’t itself a sin; I’m fond of it myself (consider Exhibit A). Art and politics are exactly the point of Guernica and The 1812 Overture.
We should consider the source. Vox.com is a site that caters to culture and only culture, defined as what Vox.com deems to be culture. Meanwhile, there are so many pictures of so many things crossing the screen, that it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on any kind of written argument. It’s a signal to the reader that they ought not really care what the words say, anyway.
Still, we can separate facts from interpretation.
Just the Facts, Ma’am: Parks & Rec
Of course, we should start with Parks and Rec first, the show that was an homage to the ultimate fact-finder and optimist, Leslie Knope. Knope, who believed that hard work and enthusiasm could solve any problem, kept the Pawnee Indiana stationery store in business by filling binders full of facts.
For the record, Parks and Rec was neither cool nor popular when it aired. Its ratings throughout its run were dismal, and many critics disliked it. Like many shows, it has become more popular, now that shows are available for streaming.
It’s true that Amy Poehler, who played Knope and wrote and produced the show, was also known for potraying Hillary Clinton. The character saw herself as a small-town Hillary, and Poehler herself was an unabashed Clinton supporter. There was a connection between the show and the politician. But to connect Clinton’s election result to the show’s success isn’t accurate. After all, Leslie Knope the character ended up in Congress, a huge step up from Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks Department. She fictionally succeeded; the failure of her counterparts in reality doesn’t change P&R’s story nor does it change the fact that more people watched the show after it ended than before.
The Chosen One
Next, let’s be clear that all the Harry Potter books were written before Barack Obama was on the radar screen. The books were published between 1997 and 2007, and the first five movies had come and gone before Obama ran for President. Calling it an “Obama-era” series is wrong. It was a Bush-era series.
It’s more accurate to draw cultural parallels between the sinister efforts of the Ministry of Magic, whose rigidity and bureaucracy left it prey to the Dark Lord, and the Donald Rumsfeld-era of disinformation that sparked the Iraqi War. (The never-found Weapons of Mass Destruction? That happened when Rowling was creating the characters Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Umbridge.)
I’ll go on record: I was never a fan. I do own all the books and the movies, having dutifully bought them for my children who grew up when it dominated movie theaters. But I also have three bookcases full of other archetypical fantasy series, many about young teenage (white) male “chosen ones.” Lloyd Alexander’s is still my favorite. Potter’s not original, which always irked me.
Still, I dispute anyone who gets dismissive of Harry now because it turns out his beatified father was rather a bully, “a trust fund jock,” to quote the Vox article. That was the whole point, a feature not a bug. Bullying begets bullying. I liked the series more after it starting feeling more Russian novel than Peter Pan.
If the franchise lost value because of the transphobic stance–both public and ongoing–of J.K. Rowling, that’s a fair cop, as the Brits say. Many artists take positions that put them on the very wrong end of human rights: Roald Dahl, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer. I don’t fault anyone for boycotting Potter on those grounds. I’ll never watch a Woody Allen movie again. People can also choose to appreciate the art and criticize the artist. The continued success of the Potter spin-off movies, musicals, and anniversary specials belies the idea of “pendulum of cultural opinion swinging.”
It’s Not About Hermione
But that’s not really what irks Constance Grady, who only years earlier (2017) had waxed lyrical about how the Harry Potter franchise “changed the world.” What bugs Grady now is Hermione. Hermione was going to save the world; the “black Hermione” was going to be a triumph. Thus, when that hard-worker Hillary Clinton didn’t save the world, Harry Potter was ruined.
Whether it’s fair to tarnish the Potter series with moping about our rough American political fortunes, the key point is that IT’S NOT CALLED HERMIONE GRANGER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. Hermione was not the Chosen One. Of course, all us smart girls love Hermione, but as with all Hermiones, no one ever listens to her. She discovers how to time travel and creates transportation portals but never gets true credit. Yeah, she is Hillary Clinton. She marries the goofy, loveable dolt–what does she see in him? That’s the fate of all Hermiones.
Meanwhile, the franchise survives. Even now, Python programmers illustrate how to recreate the Potter invisible-cloak-floating-head effect through coding. While Grady claims that Potter passé because grown-ups are debating Hogwart’s houses, grown-ups are debating and buying merchandise precisely because of their ongoing love with the series. The Potter juggernaut will live on.
Hamilton Is Just a Musical
Last but not least, Hamilton. Hamilton was never the greatest musical ever staged in the history of the world nor is it now unfashionable and gross because it’s about the Founding Fathers, and many were slave owners. Hamilton was innovative. Hamilton put a spotlight on diversity in a way musicals hadn’t done before. Hamilton brought people to the theater to learn a little history who had always hated history. Hamilton was also annoying when screaming fans would jump and down during the songs when you had paid big money to watch the much-touted show.
Hamilton is now firmly fixed in the canon of the Greatest American Musicals. It’s not the GOAT, but still excellent. Its unique style of music made it distinct, a style which turns out to be influential but not that easy to replicate. By itself, the musical people made people think differently about the past. The fact there are 13 more years of history since its opening–some of it not too fun–doesn’t change the impact Hamilton had at the time. It practically revitalized Broadway. People flocked to see it.
People have also been inspired, by Hamilton and by plenty of other world events, to question the roles of the Founding Fathers and their peers. That’s fair. It’s not fair to throw Hamilton under the bus because it “whitewashes” slave ownership. Critics shouldn’t fault a story because it’s not about their current pet topic, especially those same critics who loved the musical before. As the fellow says in 1776, the Declaration of Independence does not address deep sea fishing rights. Let’s focus on what it does address.
People Come and Go So Quickly Here
Ultimately, what articles like this do is simply highlight that popularity is on a roller coaster. Much of this cringe-wringing is simply a reaction to overexposure, exposure which is often created by the people now complaining the loudest. It’s not surprising. Once movie studios started narrowing all the blockbusters to cater to the lucrative 13-17 year old demographic, and Harry Potter caused publishing to focus on the Young Adult category, the logical extension is for cultural critics to be like teenagers, switching from loving to loathing with their fluctuating hormones.
Then, add in real world events: Lockdown, COVID, Trump, MAGA, the assault on the Capitol, etc. and everybody is suddenly crankypants about everything. But let’s stop projecting our misery on to stories. And stop blaming Hillary Clinton for everything, for crissake.
In a recent Netflix comedy send-up, Death to 2021, faux-British academic Tennyson Foss (Hugh Grant), keeps conflating real history with plots from stories, Harry Potter included. For example, Foss explains how the coronavirus surge was “reminiscent of the time when the White Walkers brought their army bearing down upon us.” The off-camera interviewer keeps trying to point out the difference between fact and fiction, but he just can’t absorb it. That seems to be where we are right now.
We need to remember what really happens. We can’t get so focused on whether our current political figures adequately channel our favorite movie characters that we lose sight of reality. We are dangerously close to that. Documentation matters. We saw body bags laid out on the ice throughout 2020; we can’t forget what we’ve been through.
Pop culture will evolve. Keep it in perspective.
And, if you know how to build Minecraft sets in homage to Hamilton, you can put proof to the idea that it’s over. This is so so not cringe-worthy!
The roller coaster is slowly chugging back up again.