Pop culture in the time of Trump

Back before the election, I wrote a piece for Bitch Magazine’s Chaos Issue about the prevalence of dystopia in pop culture — old and tired, or something darker and deeper? It was an interesting piece to write because I adore discussing the intersections of pop culture and society, and I’m very interested in dystopias as a genre, as well as their evolution through the years. It was also a very challenging piece to write, and edit, because a great, unspoken unknown hovered over it: The magazine had to go to press before the election, but it would come out after, when one of the looming, unsettled, and most chaotic questions facing America would be dealt with. How do you write, I asked my editor, about an event that hasn’t happened yet?

Dystopia, I argued, gets a bad rap, because really, it’s one of the most powerful ways to explore our social anxieties. I’m not going to rehash the piece here (you should subscribe to Bitch and/or pick up a copy!), save to note that as the worries facing society have shifted, so too has the way dystopia has been presented. During the Obama Administration, for example, there was a great deal of high concept dystopia exploring issues like technology and surveillance, at times echoing the cyberpunk of the 1980s, when the rapid growth of the tech industry was causing some extreme social anxieties.

Black Mirror, Mad Max, The Hunger Games, and The Matrix were all iterations of dystopia, exploring different elements of societal breakdown. Not for nothing did dystopians bloom in YA during the Bush years, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq overshadowing the lives of many young people growing up in a post 11 September era. And they will bloom again now as the country attempts to cope with a Trump era in the way it knows best, through creative work and explorations of alternate realities and possible future. Expect more like V for Vendetta and The Handmaid’s Tale and less like Battlestar Galactica, though.

People sometimes say that suffering is necessary to create great art, and that the upside of times like these is that people will make amazing creative work. This is both a lie and a grave injustice. People do not need to experience pain and suffering to make things of beauty. Art is produced in defiance of those things, and no one should be told that what is happening to them is necessary for some kind of great personal development. When the times themselves feel dystopian, those who are driven to create in spite of the times, sometimes in defiance of very real dangers, make the world a more livable place, even at cost to themselves.

We are entering an authoritarian era. I don’t think this is a controversial statement or a stretch — if it is, you are likely not paying attention to the cascade of warning signs all around you. We can tell from the shape of the president’s cabinet, from the policies he and his administration want to advance, from the global culture surrounding us, that this is going to be a time of extreme governmental control over our lives and bodies. Particularly and specifically, the lives and bodies of those with less privilege and the least ability to fight back.

We already know that this is going to be a terrible time for women, with a slew of current and proposed legislation that would limit women’s rights — for that matter, multiple advisors and cabinet members have suggested extreme restrictions on women’s rights, like questioning why women are allowed to vote. It’s unlikely that this will come to pass, you say, enabling the very structures that allow things like this to come to pass. We know that this is going to be a bad time for people of colour, with white nationalists and white supremacists occupying key administration positions, with agencies like the Department of Justice being gutted and handcuffed, unable to make any moves to address civil rights concerns.

It is going to be rough for disabled people, who stand to lose their health care, social supports, and a good deal else besides. It is going to be terrible for trans people, who are losing civil rights protections and living in a society that wants them dead. It will be awful for LGBQ people, who will be facing challenges like FADA and the threat of legalised discrimination. It will be horrific for Muslims, who have been warned over and over again that they are not wanted here.

Our way of dealing with social anxieties and stress is often to explore them through pop culture, and the dystopian resonates strongly. Narratives of authoritarian states feel acutely real and personal, right now, and grow more so. Narratives of resistance embedded within feel even more empowering and important, more like guidebooks than simple stories. Last year at Halloween, I put up a draft of a short story about a young woman on a train, carrying political leaflets even at great personal risk, who is apprehended by authorities and taken to the tower — Trump Tower, that is. It was a cautionary tale, a dystopian snippet, a vision of a horrible alternate world. Or was it a prediction of a future?

For pop culture in the time of Trump, I anticipate another resurgence of the dystopian, and I predict that it will be about authoritarian governments and revolution, about institutional and societal control of the deviant, about resistance. It is through pop culture that we will live out our worst fears, but also how we will plan for them.

Image: Donald Trump, Gage Skidmore, Flickr