Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies. Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human. Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows). Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies. Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.
On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.” The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis). Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.
Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed). As the New York Times recently noted:
One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances. CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”
Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.
Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves. But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think. It suggests what is possible and what isn’t. By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society. The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries. Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.
I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe. They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money. They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless. The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them. And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.
But, again, it’s more complicated than that. The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors. Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice. Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that). They also establish boundaries. To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic. They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.
Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity? How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction! Starting in the USA! Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming. Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.
Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see? Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.