Popular art is not up for the fight

June 27, 2022

The Supreme Court’s recent rulings on abortion, guns, and prayer in schools have made me think a lot about popular dramatic representations of explicitly liberal political drama.

In many ways, “Hamilton” is the most Obama-era Democratic Party piece of dramatic art, in that it seems carefully calibrated to offend no one, and it suggests representation, itself, is good enough to inspire, enact, and maintain positive change against reactionary forces. But “Hamilton” was far from the first such drama to take that specific, self-defeating tack. While “The West Wing” has become a go-to object of scorn from leftists highlighting Bush-era liberal drama, I think more about a Bush-era stage musical that was turned into a Hollywood film that grossed more than $200 million worldwide that also presented racism as an obstacle that can be overcome with representation and wit alone.

I have not seen the original movie version of “Hairspray,” nor have I seen a stage production, but I’ve seen the 2007 film many multiple times because The Little One in our household is obsessed with it. The first time I watched it, I dismissed it as a mere missed opportunity — an attempt at wrangling a subversive story into fluffy family entertainment. But the next dozen times I watched it, truly listened to the songs, and thought about the movie’s themes, I realized its primary message is that good people will defeat racism because goodness is what the majority really wants, anyway.

The film builds up to a big set piece at the end that illustrates the bankruptcy of the movie’s politics. There’s a lot of plot, but, essentially, in 1962 Baltimore, a local daytime television show is running a call-in vote for the most popular teenage dancer, and the slimy pro-segregation station manager is trying to rig the vote in favor of her daughter. Not only does protagonist Tracy Turnblad, through sheer force of will — and a snazzy makeover — manage to get onstage and dance her ass off, she inspires the most popular boy that he should do what he knows is right instead of just going along to get along, so he pulls a Black girl onstage to dance, the first time the show has shown any mixing of races.

This opens the floodgates, and the old order breaks down because the mean old white lady just doesn’t get that she can’t stop the beat, and she can’t stop the inevitability of integration, which it turns out is what most Baltimoreans want, anyway. While the movie tries to operate on a heightened plane, that only works when it plays off a baseline reality, and what it’s trying to say about reality is actually pretty messed up. The nadir might be when a white girl and Black boy sing about how they’re going to be public in their relationship, because just as time ticks on, so does racial progress, and if “they” try to stop them, “we’ll call the NAACP.” But the nadir might also be be when the 1962 Baltimore television viewing audience votes for a Black teenager to be the most popular dancer on the show and everyone cheers that the show must, therefore, integrate its cast.

Suffice to say, this is all terrible advice for how to approach racism and oppression in the real world. The real Baltimore of the 1960s was, like much of the United States, stained by racist politicians and policies that were supported by a wide base of white people, with effects that last into the present. Fundamentally, the “Hairspray” musical film is almost completely at odds with, perhaps, the most iconic piece of Baltimore dramatic art, “The Wire,” which happened to air on HBO concurrent to the “Hairspray” musical’s journey from stage production to wide-release film. I actually gave up on “The Wire” early in Season 3 because I realized Chuck Klosterman was correct that the show doesn’t work if the viewer does not already agree with its political point of view, and because I couldn’t shake its copaganda tendencies. But if any piece of art directly refutes the hollow ethos of “Hairspray,” it is probably “The Wire,” which painstakingly depicts failing city institutions in early 2000s Baltimore, and how Black people were disenfranchised by those institutions.

“Hairspray” says that equal representation is the goal — it’s the central conflict of the movie’s plot — and racism can’t stand a chance when good people are allowed to demonstrate their goodness. In that way, it’s not far off from “Hamilton,” which stretched the limits of what one might consider “challenging.” The only parts of “Hamilton” that "challenge" anyone are formal — 60% of it is explicitly hip hop-inflected, with a whole bunch of references to the rap canon and, of course, the initial Broadway cast was mostly Black and Brown performers. But in 2015, anyone 45 years old and younger would have lived in a world where rap was a major facet of pop culture for the majority of their life. Moreover, having a group of Black and Brown people playing the nation's founders is only a challenge if you harbor antipathy toward Black and Brown people in the first place, and if you're going to have a hard time with that, you're not the audience for a hip hop musical.

The most challenging message “Hamilton” conveys is only brought up at the end, and almost feels as if it was tacked on because it would be too subtle if Eliza didn't say it out loud: Who tells the story matters. There are plenty of people who have suggested that when people of color tell the story of the Founders, it's necessarily different than when white people do, and that's part of "Hamilton's" genius. But "Hamilton" doesn't tell a story explicitly informed by being Black or Brown. It's telling the (then) less-told story of Alexander Hamilton in the same textual way white people had told his story before, only using formal sleight of hand to frame him as some kind of up-from-the-bottom hustler who had more in common with Jay-Z than John Jay. This kind of message could have come from Obama himself, who as president often framed the American struggle as a case of everyone failing to see our commonalities, and pointedly avoided saying white people actively take measures to maintain a caste system beneficial to them. The most generous interpretation of "Hamilton's" politics is that presence is important, and just having people of color onstage in a traditionally white space, telling a portion of the American origin story using a historically Black form, is tremendous progress. Never mind the actual story doesn't grapple with those difficult questions.

Mark my words: In just a few years, there will be prep schools that are 75% white aiming to mount productions of "Hamilton", and it will be mostly white kids telling the same story that has always been told about the Founding. Neither "Hamilton" nor “Hairspray” tells the audience we are wrong about something. Neither says we should change, because they assume their audiences already agree that racism is bad and we should not do it. They are also afflicted by the assumption that progress is locked in and immutable, and that they must assure their side they are self-evidently good and righteous.

Thus, it all feels so… impotent?... that this is what passes for popular liberal art, especially in the face of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions to overturn the decades-long era of a Constitutional right to abortion, restrict governments’ ability to regulate firearms, and allow government representatives more leeway to endorse religion. These decisions were the result of years of battles that are not worth recapping except to say that most national-level mainstream Democrats acted like they were engaged in a P.E. kickball game while Republicans recognized they were in a bare-knuckle brawl over fundamental rights, freedoms, and the expression of certain values via the law.

I know there is better art out there that properly expresses the stakes and emotions necessary to confront and defeat a conservative political movement that aims to subdue non-white-men and ultimately holds that individuals have no responsibilities for each other. But how do you popularize that art when the audience most likely to be ignited to fight has been trained for decades by their political leaders that fighting does not get results the way that acquiescing to opponents and gently guiding enemies into the light does?

(Photo: "2022.06.24 Roe v Wade Overturned - SCOTUS, Washington, DC USA 175 143219" by Ted Eytan. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)