Boycotts are en vogue again.
Any place where politics is injected into pop culture, there is that compelling urge to tune out and send a message of our own in return, voting with our pocketbooks. So the thinking goes, if they can’t keep their mouths shut, then we don’t have to give them our money.
The NFL. The new “Star Trek” show. The next mini-season of the “X-Files” due out in 2018. That “Mother” movie.
The calls for the boycotts are quite understandable. The whole reason we tune into football or science fiction or any other form of entertainment is for pure escapism. We will always be divided on political issues or even in personal disagreements with friends and family, but at the end of the day, we can still come together to enjoy a good sports contest or television show and not be inundated with that stuff, at least for a little while.
So, when the talent gets involved with making political statements, we all cringe. Many of us simply shake our heads and ignore it.
I happen to do so because I’m an artist and a musician myself so I understand the dilemma politics poses. After all the pieces I’ve written on politics, I’d probably have to use a pseudonym or something if I ever intended to market that stuff to a liberal audience or any other audience for that matter.
For my own part, as a result, I have trained myself to tune out the politics that occurs on the sidelines or when the camera’s not rolling because it distracts from the game or the art or the story and my enjoyment of that medium. Besides, I prefer to judge the entertainment purely on its merits even if others will not do so. Was that a good song? Was that a good movie? Did my team stop the run? And so forth.
Regardless of the content of the political message being conveyed, non-political public figures almost always take a risk every time they engage in politics, because you risk alienating some portion of your audience.
If it were me, I’d discourage celebrities and athletes from engaging in politics for precisely those reasons. It might harm the bottom lines of their employers and risk future projects.
Or it could be misinterpreted and convey a message you did not otherwise intend.
For example, are those athletes and celebrities now taking the knee for the national anthem trying to say that all police officers are racist? Or that the American flag symbolizes racial oppression as Colin Kaepernick stated when his protest began? Probably not, but many others were absolutely going to take it that way no matter what and nobody should be surprised by the justifiable reaction.
Or were they trying to send some sort of political message of defiance to President Donald Trump? Maybe they were, but that got lost in the shuffle, too.
Besides the obvious controversy such politicking by celebrities and athletes invites, it breaks the illusion. It ends the escapism. It brings the audience back to the real world we were hoping to tune out for an hour or two.
That said, Hollywood is very liberal. That’s no mystery. Perhaps you watch “Game of Thrones” on HBO? Many of the actors there are pretty liberal. Or maybe your kids like the “Avengers” movies? They’re pretty darn political and liberal at that, too.
But who cares?
I can still enjoy “Game of Thrones” as fun regardless of what goes on off the set, because I find what goes onto the screen to be extremely well-written, produced and acted, and otherwise I love the medieval genre. Besides that, it has almost nothing to do with contemporary politics. Overall, if there were a message, I suppose the arc the show is on now has many things to say about factions of people needing to unite against an existential threat. That might carry a lesson about what it could take to avoid nuclear war with all of the weapons proliferation going on right now for example.
Even when a medium is a little more overtly political, it can still garner widespread appeal. The past season of “Homeland,” the “Snowden” film or even “Captain America: Winter Soldier” I thought raised many compelling issues for us to consider in real life vis a vis government surveillance and the breadth of our nation’s intelligence services. Again, I might not share much in common with the creators of these stories, but despite that, they produced something intelligent I thought handled these real-life political issues rather well.
Along the way, as with all media, there are other subtle messages often injected into these and other shows that might carry some political overtones but that’s where artistic license comes into play.
Those who are good at it, can include these small messages to consider without overwhelming the audience. Those who I’ve found to have excelled at it on-the-screen, such as the “X-Files,” “Firefly,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “X-Men” or even “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” will often include a variety of perspectives that different segments of the audience can identify with. That way there’s something in it for everyone. If utilized in a manner that adds depth to the characters or advances the story, the audience will tend to give a certain allowance for characters with divergent viewpoints.
Sometimes the politics can lean the other way. The last “Batman” trilogy by Christopher Nolan comes to mind, which came out very much in favor of law enforcement and was very well received.
One who took the apolitical path, despite being begged to get political by many liberals to stick it to Trump, was Lady Gaga in the most recent Super Bowl halftime show in February when she sang “God Bless America.” She took a pass on politics and just stuck to her songs. The performance ended up being well-received and even praised by many conservatives including Pat Robertson. That’s the approach I far prefer and I thought she made the right call.
In the end, the 2017 halftime show might end up being an example for other pop culture icons, including the athletes and teams of the NFL, to follow going forward. At the end of the day, that’s how and when the national anthem and other controversies end, which is when the political statements stop.
There are not enough things right now that unite us. Politics will always be polarized. So, will the culture war. If sports and all other aspects of entertainment become hopelessly politicized, too, there won’t be very many avenues for escapism left for those who can’t filter it out. And that would be a shame, because that will mean those industries are less successful and there will be fewer options available for consumers.
Which is why the boycotts this time might actually work. Right now the backlash over the national anthem saga is as bad as I’ve ever seen. Time will tell if it hurts the corporate bottom lines including the NFL’s salary cap that directly impacts the players, or not. It might also affect the NFL’s billions of dollars of tax subsidies plus security costs by local governments.
So, there could be financial pain. If there isn’t then there’s little reason to expect the politicization of everything, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board has called it, to end. If there is, then it might.
In the meantime, accepting that the current climate will likely continue to be extremely political, viewers are left with the choice to ignore it or to tune out. Everyone obviously makes up their own minds about this sort of thing. You can tune it all out because the actors, musicians and creators don’t share your politics in real-life, or you can filter it out and still appreciate what goes on the screen and judge it on its merits. But you can’t do both.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.