The Lived Experience Through The Lens of Pop Culture
Pop culture was never meant to be therapeutic for the conscience. It was merely an escape from reality, a make-believe world where you could imagine yourself as Clint Eastwood on a horse, or as Sylvester Stallone being one hell of a southpaw boxer. Or, it could have been you taking acid during a Jimi Hendrix concert, or raging with the grunge bands of the 90’s. It was only in the 2000’s, the millennial age, when mainstream pop culture became a place for the reclamation of maligned narratives. Finally, a space on the global stage for those with little social capital. Be it non-cisgender people, African-Americans, Latinos or people with clinical depression; the millennial age did more than take note of these problems, it made sure that they were heard.
This is not to strip the periods before that of credit for their art. Movies like Forrest Gump, Platoon, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter surely gave an insight into the prevailing anti-war sentiment in the USA and the protests by soldiers’ families. These movies could, however, very well be termed ‘Oscar bait’, and they got swept away in the same instead of provoking perhaps finer, more nuanced details of, say, military life.
Take a movie like Driving Miss Daisy, for example. It won the Best Picture Oscar in 1980, but its premise might make one skeptical about the award. Apart from the hailing of a ‘white saviour’, the film also promoted stereotypes about Afro-Americans; illiterate, not self dependent, helpless people who don’t know what to do in the face of problems. They’re undermined in their own stories.
The difference between that time and today, however, is that our generation won’t shy away from criticising such films. The films of yore too are scrutinised under the modern lens of how an ideal world must be; a post-postmodern critique, if you will. That’s how the image of James Bond has evolved. There is no denying that people did not take to a one-dimensional womanizer spy with cheeky sensibilities and a way to escape every situation effortlessly. They wanted someone more vulnerable and mortal, and possibly not a man, which is evident in the recent wave of Bond movies.
Moreover, take a look at the movies and shows of today. Get Out was a pivotal movie that took shots at liberals for ‘acting black’, thinking that that would solve racism. A less-talked-about but incredibly influential show was the Donald Glover show Atlanta, that was hailed by many Atlanta natives as a true portrayal of life and culture in the city. The show humanised Afro-Americans. This trend extends to a lot of shows, like Orange Is The New Black, that eventually went beyond the lead character and ended up becoming one of the most inclusive shows in recent times.
Mainstream music has also changed drastically over the past two decades. Hip-hop
- a genre often criticised for the use of homophobic slurs as a metric for masculinity - has now included artists like Tyler, The Creator, and more recently, Lil Nas X who thought it was safe enough to reveal their sexualities and talk about their experiences through their music. Notably, Tyler was accused of using one such slur. Musicians such as St Vincent and Troye Sivan have been much more open about the same throughout their discography.
Conscious hip-hop has also gained popularity, with the advent of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, who wrap messages and lived experiences in ear candy. Even pop stars like Beyonce and Lady Gaga have been using their global influence to further discussions that several years ago would have been considered too taboo to even be talked about.
But what does this increasing demand for inclusivity tell us? We, the millennials, want our screens to show us something that evokes not merely sympathy but also empathy. We want to see lived experiences. We do not want tokenistic gestures of inclusivity, but full-blooded accounts of stories about people that are not necessarily us. The idea that racism is over simply because a privileged character learns about the struggles of the ostracised minority, has been running for all of Hollywood’s existence; Hollywood’s systemic Oscar bait and guaranteed cash churning mechanism. Authentic stories, like real life, are possibly boring to them. They also forget the one rule of moviemaking: do not underestimate the audience. The same goes for music: concept albums exist to tell a story that’s beyond our imagination. Millennials, especially those who are part of the minority have become fed up of the fact that they can not see any entertainment that resembles them. They expect human depictions of what it means to belong to their race, religion, caste or gender.
One might even argue that the severance of human connection has left us seeking something real in our cinema. The millennial is looking for relatability and human fallibility more than he is looking for fantasy. The craving to feel is seen in how much readership emo Tumblr experiences achieve or in how much shows like BoJack Horseman shine. BoJack Horseman is highly acclaimed primarily because it really touches a nerve, in millennials, in the domain of mental health. It lets its viewers comprehend the consequences of such actions that already might have happened to them. Besides, the idea then also becomes about combining reality and fantasy, brutality and comedy, to make more high-end surreal art.
There is definitely the tough question that all of this poses: do we really need more and more art to get us to empathise with something? Isn’t once enough? To be honest, we are all guilty of it, including this writer here. It becomes a global statement, that our inaction, or our perception is part of the problem, if not the actual problem. But it has been done before, with resounding success. During the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2015, Kendrick Lamar released his hit song Alright. The refrain “We gon’ be alright” became the cry of the rally for some time and unified the protestors. We do not need conscious art to feel good about ourselves because we have seen/heard it; we need it to make us better people, if at all we really need it.
The good news is that inclusion and adequate representation in media has taken a much higher priority today as compared to earlier times. A UCLA study on diversity in Hollywood states that people of colour have quadrupled their share of broadcast television from 5.1% in 2011-12 to 21.5% in 2017-18.
Millennials are better educated as compared to previous generations, with 39% of people having a bachelor’s degree or higher; to compare, at the same age, the same statistic was 29% for Gen X, around 25% for baby boomers, and 15% for the Silent Generation. Higher education is becoming accessible to people of various cultures. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey talks about how millennials only like firms that abide by their values, and any non-adherence to consumer values on their part will make them or break them. People are more receptive to personal and social problems, and while there are a myriad of surveys pointing to how millennials are becoming less empathetic, one can not deny that it is the millennials who are shaping narratives about intersectionality, privilege, class and race amongst other things. Call it political correctness or call it sensitivity, it has arguably bettered the debate. It is this nuance that is slowly but surely influencing content around us.
Quintessential to this is the scenario of Indian stand-up comedy. After the calling out of the prevalence of sexual harassment in what was perceived as a circle that was woke just for show, female comedians have been earning what’s due to them. Their jokes are a lot more oriented towards the female experience, quite naturally, whilst their other observations are arguably spot on. In another example, TVF’s Kota Factory created ripples across the student community in India for its bleak but true depiction of the city. Engineering students possibly shed tears at the time the show was released because they saw their life reflected in it. Millennials are both creating and consuming bold content.
Studios understand the importance of discourse for long-term retention of the millennial as a consumer. This is evident in the shifts in strategy by platforms such as Netflix towards creating content that is politically or socially charged. These shifts in strategy betray how they see their consumers; as a generation that wants to confront socio-politico realities head on. As a generation that is so desperate to connect to the characters on screen, to view life through the lens of cinema as a way of trying to make sense of our own troubles and our trauma. We seek a lot fewer heroes and a lot more flawed humans in our cinema.
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