How to win the coming culture war in 2017

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A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in January 2017. Journalism worth paying for. Available weekly from street vendors or subscriptions here.

History rarely falls into neat numerical decades. I would assert the 1980s (yuppies, power suits, a money obsession) didn’t really end till the mid 1990s when a new generation of politicians began to take power. Policies and attitudes take a while to gain momentum and once they do (as with equal marriage and attitudes to homosexuality) they can make a seismic impact.

Similarly since the US Election and the EU referendum there’s a major debate about whether supposed liberal progressive values have been rejected and the alt-right is in the ascendant. A battle you might say between those who want to make society better versus those who want to make it “like it used to be”. But go to the cinema, turn on the TV, read some books, and you’ll find that “mainstream” doesn’t change that fast.

Shortly after the US presidential election I went to interview the directors of the smash hit Disney film Moana and found two boyishly smiling sixty something white men dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Ron Clements and Jon Musker joined Disney as young art graduates in the early 1970s and trained under Walt’s first generation of animators who made such classics as Pinocchio. They pioneered technology with early CGI in Basil the Great Mouse Detective but also changing attitudes. Encouraged by conversations with their female storyboard artists, they’ve written strong women like Meg in Hercules for years. “We started this movie 5 years ago,” points out Ron Clements, “but,” Jon Musker jumps in, “if it’s an inspiration for young women to follow their own inner voices and feel that they don’t have limits and if it’s an inspiration for people to celebrate diversity and culture we like that result.” I realized two things. The first was how much joy there was in their work (Duayne Johnson’s character’s tattoos show all his feelings however hard he tries to hide them).

But I also realized this is the frontline. This is what Susan Faludi has called the Thirty Years War that many who support Trump are waging against social change. But the fact remains that a major American corporation like Disney now instinctively wants to make inclusive films that don’t patronize girls or boys. And it’s normal that older white men, as much as anyone else, get it.

In short the progressive stuff that had been going on for 30 years hasn’t just stopped. In fact it’s all the more noticeable.

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Jane Seymour reminded us last month that her long running TV show Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman (1993-98) was no guilty pleasure, but essential Vitamin C in the fight against prejudice and environmental short sightedness: “Pollution in the water, intolerance to different cultures, medical choices of whether to go to a doctor or believe in faith medicine, dealing with immigration, book burning, fear of people’s sexuality, the history of what happened with the native people – you name it, we touched on it,” she said in an interview with Metro in December 2016. “I knew it was a good show when I did it, but looking back on some of the issues we dealt with is phenomenal – and people have been dealing with them for a long time.”

The new Wonder Woman film has high expectations for Gal Gadot’s performance. Marvel comics are selling well with a number of female stars; 7 foot tall, green super-attorney She-Hulk , Thor, Captain Marvel and the young Muslim-American heroine Ms Marvel.

At rehearsals for Everyone’s Talking About Jamie
(l-r) Front Row producer Hannah Robins, me, Jamie Campbell,composer Dan G Sells, writer Tom MacRae

Theatre is full of inspiring celebrations of the power of great music and social progress. Hamilton opens in London this year. Motown, Strictly Ballroom, the forthcoming Everybody’s Talking about Jamie opening in Sheffield this month, inspired by the true story of 16 year old Jamie Campbell and his plans to be a drag queen. You can hear more about it on Front Row next Wed 25th Jan.

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Dreamgirls is a celebration of how African American music transformed America, and a personal love letter to Etta James. Composer Henry Krieger told me how he used to sneak off to the Apollo theatre in Harlem as a teenager to watch the acts.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nicola Walker in Unforgotten

Closer to home in a crowded TV landscape of police procedurals, many that celebrate torture and female abuse under the false flag of a female lead (The Fall, most Scandi-noir) there are shows like Unforgotten that celebrate the essential decency of our criminal justice service and the calm dedication with which its civil servants – police, forensics, prosecutors try to solve crime.

Culture matters. Not because I disagree with Peter Cook’s line on Weimar Germany: “Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second World war.” But because we all need fun to escape misery, and shared joy binds us. Frank Cottrell Boyce, who co-created the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony wrote recently “A nation is not an opening ceremony. But it’s not a referendum either. A nation is a project.”

So go and see stuff to escape and make yourself happy, but think about how much of it actually celebrates equality and diversity and entertains while reminding us how far we’ve come. Rogue One as much as Ali Smith’s novel Autumn. And not just for its post Brexit zeitgeist, but for Autumn’s reminder of how pop artist Pauline Boty was written out of 60s cultural history and our need to challenge the agendas of those who write the official versions of things.

Pauline Boty

Be cautious too of those films that masquerade as progress while protecting old privileges. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, as others have pointed out, is in that odd genre (like Doctor Strange) of erasing people of colour, and indeed gay people, while exploiting their experience.

One of the last deaths of 2016 that might have slipped your notice was Disney artist Tyrus Wong born in China in 1910; one of Walt’s pioneers, who worked on Bambi.

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One of the many citizens who made America great. “He had a gift for evoking incredible feeling in his art with simple gestural composition” said the corporation in a statement on New Year’s Eve.

In the war to define who we are I’ll be seeing films, shows, exhibitions and reading books to collect cultural reminders of what defines the best of us through the year ahead. I urge you to do the same.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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