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?
I don’t want to make writing about pop culture a regular thing, but I’m particularly pissed off at the world of music right now. In particular, Bruno Mars, One Direction, Neyo and others for treating insecurity like it’s attractive.
You may be wondering: How did Lucas end up listening to so much Top 40 anyway? Two years ago I bought a 2003 Mazda that was too new for a tape deck for an mp3 adapter, but too old for an auxiliary jack. I work as a regional community organizer in a rural/suburban area and have to drive a lot. I just filed for reimbursement for 653 miles for the month of October. That’s a lot of time to listen to the radio and slowly melt away your brain.
I know singers praising the virtues of girls with negative body image issues have always been around. Maybe it’s coded into our genes. (Could men have evolved to like women who think they’re ugly because they’ll be less likely to reproduce with other men?)
But I feel like it’s gotten way out of hand in the last couple years with massive hit singles like “Just the way you are” by Bruno Mars, “What makes you beautiful” by One Direction, and the offender that inspired this blog, Ne-yo’s “Let me love you“.
These songs are condescending, superficial, and sound like poorly made Ryan Gosling memes.
“You don’t know you’re beautiful/That’s what makes you beautiful”??? That’s some of the most psychologically sick shit I ever heard.
They start by talking about how surprising it is that this cute girl has low self-esteem (after all, only ugly girls should have low self-esteem right?). They then explain to her why she should value herself. The reasoning usually goes: a) I think you’re beautiful , plus b) Whenever you walk around outside, lots of other people look at your body, so you must be beautiful . That’s fucking science bro.
Some people like these songs because they relate to them. They think: “Wow, sometimes I also think I’m not beautiful. Maybe the guys from One Direction like me too! Or maybe not. But at least even when I’m feeling down, there are probably people out there who think I’m beautiful. Maybe I could be the shy girl in some hipster movie who gets the guy in the end when he finally realizes the popular girl he’s dating is a total bitch.”
But the sinister part is that even though the messages in these songs appear to be about loving people despite their insecurities, they actually promote the idea that people are or should be attracted to low self-esteem.
Okay, children don’t do everything they see in music videos. After all, my generation’s squishy brains were molded in the era of 90’s gangsta rap when it was perfectly okay to graphically describe murdering someone on the radio, but we have historically low rates of violent crime. But I do believe that unfortunately children get most of their love/relationship advice from popular music. And that means a lot of little girls right now are walking around staring at the ground and flipping their hair in the hopes that it will get someone overwhelmed. I just want to tell them: “Please, STOP THIS BULLSHIT! Your vision is severely limited like that! You could trip and fall!”
Here’s the thing. No one, not even Ne-yo and his gravity-defying sideways hats, can “love you until you learn to love yourself”. Learning to love yourself, by definition, means loving yourself whether someone else loves you or not. If you need validation from someone else to tell you you’re beautiful before you believe it, you do not actually love yourself. Being confident, secure and capable is not only good for you, it’s sexy as hell.
People are constantly telling musical artists it’s irresponsible to mention sex, drugs and violence in their music. I just felt like someone needed to go after obnoxious love songs for being irresponsible too.