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Batwoman & "Woke" Hollywood — The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

by May 31, 2019

The drumbeat of “pop” progressive social commentary in mainstream movies and TV is becoming louder as Hollywood signals its conspicuous wokeness. This should be problematic for those who love good film and TV shows that put more effort into storytelling than curating a superficial brand of political correctness. But it should be even more problematic for those of us who believe media can be elevated to an art-form that challenges contemporary biases and can be a useful tool to bring awareness to real-world injustices.

Movies and TV may be drivers of pop-culture, but they’re also part of a larger media industry, owned by the same corporations that bring you the evening news. This has historically made it challenging for creators to seed big-budget entertainment with subversive or even revolutionary messages, because it had to be subtle, leaving much to interpretation. Network TV programming and movies on your favorite streaming service are designed to serve a commercial framework. This should draw our suspicion when we see overly-obvious moral messages and ham-fisted themes of social consciousness. It is by definition, exploitation.

But when it comes to storytelling, the social commentary has reached a tipping point today that is making popular entertainment too predictable. In the first act of a story produced by the Hollywood media machine and network television, you can make a fair guess at how the roles of various characters will play out based entirely on their demographics or markers of identity. Generally speaking, among newer productions intended for mainstream audiences, the older, whiter, heavier and more male any character introduced in act one is, the more likely the plot will require that character to become an antagonist. It's great that we've stopped using gross stereotypes and making minorities into reliable villains in our fiction. It's even better when minorities tell their own stories through media. But it's not really social progress, in a story about a white main character, to simply check a representation box by giving that white protagonist a person of color who is nothing more than a  one-dimensional sidekick, who is also a kind, noble person who inevitably sacrifices themself for the main character by the end of the story. It certainly is not social progress to simply take the gross cultural stereotypes from previous generations and reverse them. The names and faces may have changed, but the illiberal power dynamics remain the same.

Batwoman and Self-Brand Hostility

Batwoman, Kate KaneIn the trailer for the new Batwoman show on The CW network, Ruby Rose as Batwoman speaks to the perfection of the bat-suit being achieved only when it’s remade for a woman. A not-so subtle jab at the natural bias of the bat-suit belonging to a particular man, Bruce Wayne. The new Batwoman show is poised to present a reinterpretation of traditional adolescent male power-fantasies, a mainstay of comic books for generations, with that of a female empowerment fantasy. Many viewers have been alarmed by the implied hostility toward the new hero’s namesake, a consequence of the need to feed from an established brand instead of telling a new story. Based on the trailer, the new Batwoman seems to assume that crime-fighting is a zero-sum game, as if there isn’t room in Gotham for multiple bat-themed costumed crime fighters.

Bat-Fail of the Bechtel Test

The Bechtel Test is a longstanding measure of representation of women in fiction. Passing the test requires a scene with at least two female characters speaking to each other about something other than a male character. The implication is that the pursuits of women should drive the story forward.

Batwoman Trailer - there is a 5:1 ratio of thumbs down to up on this new series preview

The new Batwoman show will present a new take on the story of Kate Kane as she builds an alter-ego around a brand traditionally associated with a male character. But she attempts to assert her individuality with open hostility as she says: “I am not about to let a man take credit for a woman’s work” all while at the same time stealing the tech from the male she doesn't want to give credit to. Building Batwoman to be a feminist icon while co-opting the brand and namesake of a male character, while not technically addressed by the Bechtel Test, certainly fails the spirit of that test.

Storytelling can be empowering and Hollywood has come a long way in presenting the stories of the traditionally marginalized in leading roles. But, the new Batwoman trailer seems to present aspects of the main character’s sexuality as a novelty. It appears exploitative and self-congratulatory for the creators to use her sexuality, rather than her story, as a linchpin for interest and viewership. Conspicuous displays of a character's sexuality is not the same thing as character development. It is what author John Semley calls "wokeness as preformative", alleging that it is pretentious, didactic and even insulting. This is what woke Hollywood gets wrong, instead of subverting our biases to communicate human truths about diverse characters, it commoditizes their diversity.

An interesting story involves characters facing challenges and growth. Aspects of a character’s personal identity may present unique challenges, and this is perfect fodder for more inclusive stories. The need to overcome challenges, especially unique ones, is a shared aspect of our humanity and makes for the deepest, most moving art in books, television and movies. If the drama suggested by the trailer is any indication, it appears Batwoman will be indulging grossly simplistic stereotypes dressed in a costume of edgy social commentary.

Conspicuous Consumption of Feel-Good Social Commentary

Creature From the Black LagoonFrom Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water in 2017 and retconning of Star Trek to 2019’s new Twilight Zone, a deafening tone prevails in today’s science fiction. It screams of superficial characterizations around a new hostile form of progressive identity politics.

Science fiction, fantasy and horror have long been genres that let writers seed stories with subversive ideas that challenged prevailing cultural norms, safely couched in fictional realities. For the original Twilight Zone of the 1950s, Rod Serling used subtly to get progressive social commentary past production execs that would censor anything remotely controversial in the service of network advertisers.

In The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro creates his own heavy-handed social commentary in a movie that cleverly borrows from an old horror film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. In that classic slice of 50s American cheddar, we get a suspense thriller on the surface, complete with rubber monster chasing around pin-up beauties and scientists on a geological expedition to uncharted regions of the Amazon. But below the surface, we get subtle messages about colonialism, the scientific conquest of nature and its unintended consequences.

Award winning director Jordan Peele helms a new Twilight Zone, a show that had once mastered the art of subverting the expectations of its day through boundary-pushing analysis of cultural mores. Peele himself has been masterful at striking a fine line between comedy, horror and serious racially-charged topics in his 2017 film, Get Out.   

Unfortunately, today’s Twilight Zone renders itself too predictable with its goofy parodies of modern injustices the viewer is expected to recognize from contemporary news coverage. In one episode of the new sci-fi anthology series streaming on CBS All Access, we’re presented with an antagonist in a balding, overweight and middle-aged, racist white cop who wears a private stripe (single chevron), indicating a not-so successful law enforcement career based on his relative age. The cop’s only contribution to the story is to be a relentless avatar of racist evil. It’s a goofy stereotype, possibly played tongue-in-cheek for not-so subtle humor. Unfortunately it renders the story one-dimensional, predictable and lacking in the kinds of insights Jordan Peele seemed capable of writing into his rendition of the venerable Twilight Zone brand.

In another episode, after tediously dramatizing every classically sexist incident you might see in an HR sensitivity training video, heterosexual men expose their true selves as buffoonish, violent sociopaths. What is the surprise Twilight Zone twist, revealed by the end of the episode? It turns out that the men's behavior was not influenced by the meteor shower after all, apparently we naturally behave as if we’re performing an Andrew Dice Clay act. The on-the-nose commentary is anything but subtle, as each episode comes with predigested moral conclusions. The balance between parody and social commentary just feels too half-way.

Woke Hollywood

To be woke is to be awake and aware, to have insights and understanding about where some of our biases and prejudices lie. But in the modern pop-art of media today, wokeness has become a commodity designed to make the viewer feel safe in the notion that they believe the right things. In this modern mode of storytelling, we instantly recognize clearly defined systems of alienation and oppression, subverted only by their superficiality.

Twilight Zone ReplayInstead of challenging and unsettling the viewer by cleverly exposing our own unconscious biases, the social commentary formula opts to make us feel safe. Simply by identifying with the right characters, the viewer is reassured they’re on the right side of history. It consistently misses the opportunity to dramatize the often subtle or hidden real-world bias, prejudice, racism and sexism of today, in the ever-evolving reality of injustice in our modern world. It doesn’t wake us with truths about ourselves. Instead it puts us to sleep, wrapped snugly in the knowledge that we must be good people, because we liked the right things that we saw on TV.

Movies and TV today are big-budget media that’s at its best when there’s a natural push-pull between the creative and the commercial. Occasionally we get watershed works like the original Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek that distinguish themselves from the majority with subversive commentary for their day.

What’s come into fashion today is safe and purely commercial, for all its sanitized virtue-signalling edginess, it’s no more insightful about systems of oppression, alienation and bias than corporate nightly news on network TV. It serves a system that has grown infinitely better at filtering out disruptive or revolutionary messaging from its art. Instead it borrows elements from the edgy, and the truly revolutionary and feeds it back to us as system-friendly, empty calories for the mind.

Rather than woke, much of today’s entertainment is audio-visual Ambien, crystallizing the truth once told by the socially conscious master-poet Gil Scott-Heron: “The revolution will not be televised.”


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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