Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.
I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness. Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.
But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement. Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past. And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal. The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.
This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?
The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s. But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.
I want to focus on Hollywood here. Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling. (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)
I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s. (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant). Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism. Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code. Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order. Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie. Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo. The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.
So the more important question: Why?
Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie? Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic? Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.
Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work. Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public. A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.
This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world: Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?