Entertainment Tribalism and the Loss of Common Ground

Aaron Nava
April 18, 2021
Politics may divide us, but what brings us together? With traditional cultural institutions such as religion in decline, sports and entertainment were filling the breach – generating a set of shared experiences crucial to a cohesive society. Lately, however, these pastimes have become poisoned with the same partisan rancour and division familiar to politics and the news media. But as conservative entertainers find themselves cancelled by corporate wokeism, their fans are finding new ways to push back. As right and left seek their own separate sources of entertainment, Aaron Nava ponders whether our future might even include a common culture.

Entertainment Tribalism and the Loss of Common Ground

Aaron Nava
April 18, 2021
Politics may divide us, but what brings us together? With traditional cultural institutions such as religion in decline, sports and entertainment were filling the breach – generating a set of shared experiences crucial to a cohesive society. Lately, however, these pastimes have become poisoned with the same partisan rancour and division familiar to politics and the news media. But as conservative entertainers find themselves cancelled by corporate wokeism, their fans are finding new ways to push back. As right and left seek their own separate sources of entertainment, Aaron Nava ponders whether our future might even include a common culture.
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Providing critiques of animated kids’ movies was not top-of-mind when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney set up the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) two years ago. The main purpose of this $12-million-a-year project, colloquially known as the “Energy War Room”, was to hit back at factually-incorrect anti-oil campaigns, largely funded by foreign environmental groups, by providing the truth about the province’s oil and natural gas industry. So how did Bigfoot Family recently find itself a target of the CEC?

Premiering on Netflix in February, Bigfoot Family follows the further adventures of a scientist and father who was transformed into the legendary Bigfoot creature in an earlier movie. Now he finds himself captured by the shady oil company Extrakt Oil while protesting its drilling operations in Alaska. Bigfoot/Dad later uncovers the firm’s scheme to extract the oil by detonating what appears to be a small nuclear device – wiping out all local humans, animals and mythological creatures in the process. This prompts the rest of his family to attempt a rescue, almost getting killed by oil company goons in the process. Ultimately the device is defused and the oil stays in the ground, where it presumably belongs.

CEC’s point of contention is not the stale plot or lack of sound geological advice. Rather it is the brazen way in which it “peddles lies about the energy sector.” Whatever one might think about resource extraction, attempting to blow up a valley while trying to kill Bigfoot Dad and his family can only be seen as capital-E evil. And fighting back against baseless accusations that the oil industry is inherently evil is the CEC’s prime directive. The war room’s protest against Bigfoot Family – which did not call for a boycott, but rather a letter-writing campaign to inform Netflix that “brainwashing our kids with anti-oil and gas propaganda is just wrong” – garnered substantial media coverage in Canada and Britain.

This being a movie, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley claimed the CEC campaign was “an international embarrassment” and alleged Bigfoot Family would have been far less popular if the government had just kept quiet. To which Kenney shot back: “Accusing oil companies of being the mafia, of conspiring to murder people including kids, I think that’s pretty darn serious.”

Despite the political hubbub, however, Bigfoot Family and its message about the oil industry cannot be considered unique or even remarkable. It is merely the latest example of how the North American Entertainment-Industrial Complex has been hijacked in the furtherance of political ends, and with often absurd results.

To pick another Netflix product not quite at random, consider the widely-hyped live-action Enola Holmes, released last fall. This movie imagines 19th century supersleuth Sherlock Holmes having a precocious younger

Going nuclear: Netflix’s Bigfoot Family presents an oil and natural gas industry that will literally stop at nothing, not even genocide.

sister and defiantly feminist mother, who (spoiler alert) abandons her young daughter to become a suffragist terrorist, furthering the cause of votes for women with the judicious application of dynamite. Like Bigfoot Family, Enola Holmes seems intent on signalling virtuously at every plot turn. It may be a well-paced, engaging and at times witty or even charming movie – but it’s also deeply infused with relentless woke political messaging.

It cannot be overlooked that nearly every female character in the movie is a defiant over-achiever raging against a monstrous conspiracy of men. At one point, brother Sherlock is lectured by the black female owner of a tea shop, who also runs a women-only self-defence studio on the upper floor, that the white patriarchal world he inhabits is about to collapse under the weight of its own inequity. “You don’t know what is to be without power,” his fully-empowered BIPOC interlocutor scolds him. “You see the world so closely, but do you see how it is changing?” The great detective is suitably chastened by this dressing down. Should any viewer overlook this subtle messaging, another character, a wealthy property owner, conspires to murder her own grandson in order to prevent him from voting for one of Britain’s Reform Bills (which among other things greatly extended suffrage among the “lower” classes).

No Downton Abbey: Historically inaccurate and politically tendentious, Enola Holmes is fast-paced, engaging and witty, but sanctifies feminism while seething with contempt for men, tradition and the wealthy.

Given how neatly Enola Holmes intersects with Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the rest of the progressive Zeitgeist, it seems reasonable to expect similar scenes of ahistorical wokeness to be included in future Netflix releases. The same goes for Bigfoot Family’s take on The Great Reset. There was no letter-writing campaign directed at Enola Holmes (perhaps because there’s no public agency charged with calling out excessive 21st century progressive moralizing when portraying fictional Victorian heroes?), although the estate of Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did try to sue its producers over the addition of some “significant new character traits”.

And these are just two examples of many. Whether it’s Young Wallander, Yellowstone or Peaky Blinders, baked-in left-wing politics has become a near-ubiquitous, comprehensive and relentless aspect of contemporary TV shows and movies. It is not just in the overt messaging, but pervades less obvious 

aspects of plot, dialogue, sets, mannerisms, speech and dress of the characters. In crass terms: left = good, right = bad.

Cancel Culture Shock

What is a conservative movie fan to do when confronted with such poppycock? Go elsewhere, of course. The entertainment world comprises a cornucopia of options, and anyone unsatisfied with the offerings at one outlet should have reasonable expectations of being better served by another. This is how any market should operate. The problem is that Hollywood no longer operates as a proper market in which all tastes are respected and catered to. 

 Losing the common culture: While the entertainment industry has fed the public progressive ideology since at least the 1960s, only recently did it begin serving a near-uniform left-wing diet.

Where the CEC merely demanded that Netflix acknowledge the obvious mistruths Bigfoot Family was peddling about the oil industry, the forces on the progressive left have proven themselves far less forgiving of art or artists that fail to live up to their political expectations. Increasingly, the tribalism that characterizes politics and media is taking over the broader entertainment world as well. Movie stars and singers who disappoint the left are now as vulnerable to cancellation as New York Times’ editorial page editors or the CBC’s Wendy Mesley. Unlike the casualties in the news media world, however, conservative-minded fans and creators are engaging in apparent demonstrations of political solidarity to support those cancelled entertainers.

A prominent example of this intriguing phenomenon is Gina Carano, a former mixed martial arts competitor turned action-movie star. A key role in the first few seasons of the hit Disney+ show and Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian recently sent her fortunes soaring. But Carano’s character of bounty hunter Cara Dune was abruptly eliminated from upcoming seasons after complaints that her social media postings were offensive – or, to put it another way, overly conservative.

Transgender activists were outraged when Carano jokingly said her preferred pronouns were beep/bop/boop. A later post she shared about the role of government propaganda in Hitler’s Germany was also wildly exaggerated as inappropriate. As is standard in cancel culture pile-ons, Carano was then swiftly condemned for all manner of horrible thought-crimes and random associations. Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, without any proof, called her “a Nazi” and said she “hangs with white supremacists.”

Ditched by Disney: Purged for a few tweets, Mandalorian star Gina Carano refused to grovel.

What makes Carano’s case different from previous cancellations, however, is that she declared she would not go quietly into the night. “They can’t cancel us if we don’t let them,” she shot back on Instagram. She then announced a team-up with Ben Shapiro, founder of the conservative online news source The Daily Wire, to develop a “new movie project” that will supposedly appeal to fans of The Mandalorian who share Carano and Shapiro’s political point of view. Or at least have a thicker skin when it comes to social media postings. “Hollywood cancelled Gina Carano for being conservative,” Shapiro tweeted. “So we’re fighting back.” 

Pushing back against cancel culture. (Sources: (left) Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; (right) Canadian Press)

Taking on the Star Wars franchise is a big leap for an online news and opinion outfit like The Daily Wire, but Shapiro clearly sees a niche to be filled. Disney willingly tossed Carano overboard due to complaints from a few activists on social media. But what if there are far more potential viewers who actually support Carano’s perspectives? Or at least support her right to hold them?

For a glimpse of how Carano and Shapiro’s gambit might shake out, consider Morgan Wallen, a country singer. In February Wallen had the misfortune to be caught on video using the n-word during what he called a “72-hour bender.” Despite an honest apology once he sobered up, the cancellation machinery moved swiftly against Wallen, as it always does. Spotify and iTunes immediately removed Wallen’s songs from playlists. His record contract was suspended indefinitely, hundreds of radio stations dropped his music and he was disqualified from competing for this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

You might think such a rapid guillotining would be the last anyone heard from Wallen. Except that now he is more popular than ever. After his fall from grace, his album hit number-one on the Billboard 200 album chart and stayed there a remarkable 10 weeks, putting him in company with such legendary country music names as Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and The Eagles. Fans petitioned radio stations to play his music again and paid for billboards in Nashville calling for his reinstatement. It was an entirely grassroots rehabilitation effort. And it has paid off spectacularly. Success is the best revenge, it is said. And Wallen’s recent success was apparently triggered by a great many fans seeking revenge on the faceless corporate bureaucrats who decided the world would be better off without him. 

Bouncing back from his “bender”: 27-year-old C&W singer Morgan Wallen was ditched by corporations, then saved by fans.

This massive fan-based reaction to Wallen’s attempted cancellation, as well as Shapiro’s proposal for a new Carano action-movie project, suggests a new system at work. If progressive forces continue seeking to silence certain artists, then conservative fans are prepared to will them back into the spotlight. Consumers throwing their weight around in this way represents a significant push-back against cancel culture. With mainstream entertainment becoming relentlessly left-wing, we are seeing a parallel path to success created for and by conservatives.

Wrapped up in Cable

In terms of matching consumers with art, this process seems a good and necessary thing. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, an incipient bifurcation of the entertainment world into right and left poses a substantial challenge for society at large. Will we eventually see the televisual and music industries split into distinct partisan silos with no overlap between them? And if so, now that politics itself is bitterly divided and religion (such as it remains) is also largely politicized, how without entertainment and sports will we find a way to talk to one another across political boundaries?

Syracuse University’s Thompson believes the entertainment industry is still providing a host of apolitical offerings.

“There are so many more venues for the distribution of entertainment and news and ideas, and that’s both a blessing and a curse,” says Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York, of the multi-channel universe we now inhabit. When there were far fewer outlets than today, Thompson observes, entertainment studios naturally gravitated to appealing to the broadest possible audiences. Regardless of their political views, everyone was essentially “forced” to watch The Love Boat and Dallas if they wanted to watch anything at all.  

This communal experience also made it possible for The Mod Squad and Lawrence Welk Show to coexist on the same channel in the same time period without triggering demands that one or the other be made to disappear. While this era is often dismissed as catering to the lowest common denominator, such shared experiences at least gave everyone something to talk about at work or school the next day. Now, with an explosion of niche channels, it is possible to target much smaller audiences with ever-more diverse shows. As a result, there is no longer any expectation that any two people from different backgrounds will have had the same experience watching shows the previous night. It is another manifestation of cultural atomization.

While technology has helped drive entertainment tribalism, Thompson notes that Hollywood and other entertainment purveyors have always been heavily influenced by the politics of the day. “I don’t think there has ever been such a thing as pure entertainment,” he says in an interview. The Blacklist era of the 1950s, for example, purged Hollywood of suspected Communists in order to satisfy partisan pressure from the government. Is the same thing going on today with conservatives?

“There are certainly types of entertainment that are directly made along partisan lines,” Thompson admits. But given the sheer volume of shows on offer, he optimistically figures there’s still just as much content available without any obvious political intent or expectation. Thompson offers three examples as evidence that a non-partisan common culture can still thrive in today’s 999-channel, cancellation-obsessed world: NFL football, the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and the game show Jeopardy. It’s not the most convincing list. The Big Bang Theory’s storied run ended two years ago after 12 seasons, while the future of Jeopardy is very much in doubt following the death of long-time host Alex Trebek last year.

Are You Ready for some Football?

Not throwing too many passes: The NFL has managed to keep Colin Kaepernick’s political activism from throwing the entire league off the rails. Fans appreciate it. (Source: Canadian Press)

“The NFL is watched across the board by a lot of people,” observes Thompson. “Football still gets huge ratings.” He is right about that. Football remains a remarkably – perhaps uniquely – successful pursuit. The league recently signed a mammoth US$113 billion broadcast deal that lasts to 2033. Unfortunately, the sport’s ability to bring people together may best be considered the exception that proves the rule rather than a pathway to greater unity.

Back in 2000, when medical drama ER was still the most popular show on TV, NFL games accounted for two of the 20 most popular individual programs over the entire television season, according to a recent report by Associated Press. Last year, football accounted for 12 of the 20 most popular shows. Football thus occupies a singular place in American culture. It appears to be the only thing everyone can still agree on.

How has it pulled this off? Over the past several years, the NFL has eagerly embraced many of the tropes of progressive causes, such as emblazoning Black Lives Matter on its fields and taking the same sort of performative actions now expected of all businesses and institutions. In doing so, it earned short-lived backlash from Republicans and a temporary decline in ratings. But it appears to have avoided any truly transformative changes. Keep in mind that Colin Kaepernick, the black quarterback who famously “took a knee” during the singing of the national anthem in 2016 to protest institutional racism in America and the NFL, still hasn’t played a game since that controversial season ended. And the NFL has lost none of its gladiatorial nature, despite complaints from non-fans that it’s too violent. If Canadians can still agree on hockey, Americans still agree on football.

 Does absolutely everything need to be politicized? Following Major League Baseball’s blatant interference in Georgia’s new election reform bill, many fans are outraged, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (left) is holding firm, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (right) has backed Kemp by refusing to throw the baseball season’s opening pitch. (Source of right image: J Dimas, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This doesn’t mean, however, that all sports are immune to self-inflicted political damage. Consider Major League Baseball’s recent decision to move the 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado to protest a recent state voting reform bill that was characterized by U.S. President Joe Biden and others as “Jim Crow 2.0”. (The claim is false and outrageous; Colorado, for example, has already implemented many of the same voter registration rules.) Despite the heavyweight support, the move did not come without cost. Many fans called for a boycott of baseball, and some commentators vowed never to attend another professional game. “Major League Baseball caved to fear and lies from liberal activists,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp opined. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott declined to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season.

A recent poll shows opinion on moving the All-Star game among self-declared “baseball fans” is split evenly: 45 percent for, 45 percent against. And more baseball fans expressed support for Georgia’s voting law than opposed it. (Americans as a whole heavily support election integrity laws, including mandatory voter identification, despite left-wing claims such measures are racist). Earlier polls have also shown Americans are deeply split on whether sports leagues should take political stances. The same bifurcation ongoing in movies and music may be infecting sports as well.

The recent surge of political tribalism in the entertainment world is a sign of how quickly the toxic demands for ideological purity have spread from academia to politics to media to other, once-benign aspects of society. And this in turn has spurred a growing reaction among conservative consumers: if their viewpoints are not welcome in the mainstream entertainment world, they’re prepared to take their eyeballs, ears and wallets elsewhere. Soon, the right and left may spend their leisure hours in entirely separate silos, free from any possibility of mingling or sharing experiences with those who may hold different opinions.

While this reaction may be entirely understandable and logical, it should also be lamented. It will have profound implications for the long-term health of society and culture – and for civilization itself. Communal entertainment experiences are a way for all people in a society to come together, regardless of political or other beliefs. This forms an important foundation for a common culture or bond. Without these shared experiences – be they movies, songs, sports or bounty hunters in galaxies far, far away – it will become even harder to maintain a coherent society. If Star Wars can’t bring us together, what can?

Aaron Nava is a writer, social media and political manager living in Ottawa.

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