Michael Moynihan seems to have woken up on the wrong side of his bed. (On Monday, that is. At 4:45 AM EST, when his article was posted. So maybe he didn’t sleep at all.) In a rambling complaint about people who complain about movies and TV shows for various reasons, Moynihan wrote:
There is a simple lesson in all of this: if you are trawling for readers, they can be reliably attracted by accusing films and televisions shows (Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Girls, The Daily Show, American Idol, The Muppets, Homeland, The Help—a depressingly long list) of encouraging torture, war, anti-capitalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and racism. An accusation precipitates a flurry of tweets and blog posts (“I can weigh in on this; I’ve seen that movie!”) followed immediately by mainstream-media reports on the roiling “controversy.” Everyone gets provocative headlines; everyone gets page views; everyone leaves unsatisfied.
Despite a column headline that name-checks Django Unchained but then fails to mention the movie anywhere other than in the above-quoted parenthetical, and despite the fact that this very same parenthetical — consisting of a litany of film and TV titles that mostly go unmentioned for the remainder of the article — quite conveniently doubles as SEO-bait itself, the only real common thread uniting commentary on Lena Dunham’s Girls and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is that both are well-publicized pieces of entertainment whose content inspires both slavish devotion and vehement disgust.
In other words, they’re popular. Other than that, there’s not much of a similarity, despite Moynihan’s increasingly strained attempts to prove the contrary. The primary critique of Girls, to which Moynihan devotes a significant portion of his article, relates to the series’ unapologetically white, bourgeois sensibilities — with plenty of twentysomething angst and daddy’s-girl entitlement syndrome to go around.
Like Moynihan, I find some of the more common criticisms of Girls to be repetitive and uninspired (a characterization, incidentally, I’d apply in good measure to the show itself). The cries of “where are the black girls?” sound a lot like “concern trolling” to my male Caucasian ears, but then…exactly. Who knows? As I see it, it’s Lena Dunham’s show, it’s Lena Dunham’s friends, and if they all happen to be white, well…it’s probably because that’s a pretty realistic portrayal of how middle- to upper-class cliques work in real life.
They’re also caricatures of whiny, self-absorbed, only-child, Upper East Side self-actualizers whose endless navel-gazing manages to stir just enough stale air to create a mildly entertaining storyline with enough awkward sex to compile a “Best Of” YouTube hit by now. In other words, if you’re going to ask about the racial component, you’ve got to start asking about everyone else the show is ignoring too. Which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much all of us.
Zero Dark Thirty — which, I must here disclaim, I have not watched — is something very different. And that Moynihan can’t distinguish between the two types of critiques is worrying. The film’s detractors are not, as his headline declares, “politicizing everything.” It’s simply mind-boggling to me how a movie that depicts a narrative beginning on September 11th and more or less ending with Osama bin Laden’s capture, interspersed with generous helpings of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other such light-hearted curiosities, could ever not be political.
In fact, Moynihan’s frustration brings to mind that of the Second Amendmentists, those last remaining bastions of valor in the face of government tyranny, who — with the onset of each successive mass shooting: oh look, there’s another, and oh look, cue the gun rights violins at the Newtown hearings — unironically proclaim that gun control advocates are politicizing a tragedy.
Well, torture, too, is a tragedy. It is a tragedy on a small scale, in that it doesn’t work. But it is also a tragedy on a large scale, because it is a betrayal of values that rise above temporal considerations, like efficacy and practicality, and that represent the core of a society’s priorities. This is precisely why Zero Dark Thirty is, for many, a film worth complaining about. For all the caterwauling over Lena Dunham’s Girls, the show is ultimately a reflection of the creative energies of one particularly privileged 26-year-old. (And, by the way, my callous dismissal of both the show and its critics can itself be justifiably subjected to rebuttal on political grounds.) Zero Dark Thirty is a film that, as has been well-documented, was marketed as quasi-journalistic while its director simultaneously fended off accusations of inaccuracy by insisting that a portrayal of torture is not equivalent to endorsement. (Never mind that the portrayal itself did not comport with reality.)
Moynihan makes passing reference to the utter incoherence of his comparison:
The politicization of Zero Dark Thirty is understandable; it deals with a controversial policy furiously debated during the Bush presidency, after all. But a work of art needn’t be expressly political for the critic to bemoan its political failings.
What does it mean to not be “expressly political?” Is it not precisely into these subjectively-defined political vacuums that some of the most sinister ideologies calmly began their gestation? To get the inevitable Nazi reference out of the way, it’s not as if Hitler’s campaign against the Jews began at Auschwitz. Many unthinkable crimes spawned from the seeds of a seemingly benign origin. But if we are to take Moynihan at his word — and, I presume, to accept his necessarily arbitrary line separating “expressly political” works of art from all the rest — how will we then guard against the gradual incursion of bad ideas into our culture?
The short answer is: we can’t. But if the vitriol surrounding Bigelow’s movie is “understandable,” why bring it up at all as an example of the politicization of pop culture? Why, especially, bring it up as a supporting argument for the overemphasis on racism in our movies and TV shows? And, lastly, why compare the critiques of this film to those radically different ones of Girls?
Moynihan’s contempt for both brands of the pop culture commentariat is palpable: “And on it goes, with countless writers, most not long out of college, on the hunt for smelly little heterodoxies, demanding that art be deployed in the service of the people.” But it is his own nonchalance that allows previous political taboos to enter the mainstream. It’s too late to stop politicizing everything. But it’s even worse to sit out the debate.