What to expect when you’re expecting a dystopia

Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

I wanted to expand a bit on my thoughts about pop culture in the time of Trump, because this is a good time to have a conversation about some closely related but still separate concepts. Society right now is plunging into a dystopia: Things are collapsing, authoritarian systems we created are overthrowing the rule of order, and law, and we are experiencing a huge political shift that will change society forever. Think V for Vendetta, in which the social crisis is entirely self made. We are not plunging into apocalypse, a social breakdown triggered by an external factor, even if it’s a factor we influenced — Mad Max, for example. At least, I fervently hope we are not in the proto-apocalypse, because if we are, that means nuclear war or radically accelerated climate change are about to make things very ugly.

These distinctions are important because they result in different kinds of media, particularly when it comes to media that examines their nascent stages. The proto-apocalypse and the proto-dystopian are two different, slippery things — and each offers opportunities for redemption and hope, unless we choose to ignore their warnings, and lessons.

The Handmaid’s Tale and V for Vendetta are both firmly set in dystopian landscapes. Everything has gone to shit and everyone is trying to survive, whilst some are trying to resist. Both use the rhetorical tool of flashbacks and memories to give us glimpses into how things got so bad, the order of events that triggered the eventual moment of total collapse. When you are living in the midst of those events, at first, they suggest, maybe things aren’t so bad. You can see a way out of this, even if there are some causes for concern. At that point, perhaps you are already in too deep. Were we in too deep when Donald Trump entered the race? When he began doing well in the primaries? When he declared victory and took the nomination? On 8 November? On 20 January? These are things we don’t and can’t know because we are caught in the middle of them, with no room for perspective.

It’s also what I most want pop culture to explore, whether through thinly-veiled allegory or not. Because I am less interested in the after, the moment when everything is settled and people face the choice of either living with it or trying to resist it. I am interested in the now, the moment of formation, the precise lineup of dominoes that led to this exact moment. I am interested in media that explores the proto-dystopian with the wisdom and knowledge of so many moments like this one in history.

Not simply as a dire warning to alert people to the forthcoming inevitable. And not as a simple cautionary tale. But also as an instructive moment. People have been here before. They have done this before. They will be here, and do it, again. But now, in this moment, here is what we could be taking from their hard lessons to stop it from happening. To roll back what has already happened. To articulate a clear and powerful defense so this country doesn’t simply slide back along the tracks, inexorably rolling through gain after gain to settle itself in a mire of bigotry.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of high-handed ‘if I were in Germany in the 1930s, I would have…’ speculation, and I’ve pushed back on it for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that people didn’t know that they were in Germany in the 1930s, in a sense. And those who realised were often powerless to do anything about it, or didn’t know what to do. It’s not as simple as ‘those who fail to act are complicit’ when people can’t see a path to action — but might take one, if nudged. That’s what I want. I want pop culture that tells me what people would do in Germany in the 1930s and doesn’t rely on exceptionalisation to tell the story — of course people resisted with the tools at hand, but to look askance on those who did not is to assume that their limitations were easily surmounted. I want pop culture that probes into the rise of authoritarian dictators and social hellscapes, that looks at what enabled that, who fought, how, and what might have worked. I want the protodystopian front and centre, the media that doesn’t just speak to my anxieties, but offers its own interpretation and a way out.

I love dystopian and postapocalyptic media, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not what I need and want at this point in time so much as the moment before the disaster. If I were to skip back six chapters, to the setup, what would I read? If I could pop back, before the opening credits, before the dramatic opening sequence, what would I see? I don’t want to accept dystopia as an inevitability and cope with it by making it the centre of my universe. I want to rebuff it, to find the space beyond. If it sounds simplistic and naive to turn to pop culture for that, you’re not paying attention. And you’re not crediting a lot of people in the United States, or meeting them where they are.

They aren’t on your woke social media platform, they aren’t trolling through your favourite political websites. But they are turning on the television, logging on to Netflix, going to the movies, reading the latest bestseller. So I want to subversively reach them where they are, not where I want them to be. And maybe, just maybe, if I can reach them where they are, they’ll find a way to get where they need to go.