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"Forced Diversity", the Entertainment Industry and The So-Called "Woke Culture War": A Marxist Perspective

Posted on: 2022/01/20 | Author: Lian

This is something that has been bugging my mind for a long while, ever since the so-called "culture war" had started being quoted as a concept left and right in online and even offline conversations about the quality of today's entertainment media.

It is no secret that there is a public discourse about quality and politics of contemporary entertainment media. Most times a new video game releases or a new movie drops, there will be a lively and oftentimes heated debate about how the franchise involved has been pandering to this or that minority group, has "gone woke", has become generic or part of the Hollywood masses forcing political agendas into our entertainment.

Star Wars, Star Trek, various video game series like The Last Of Us, there is barely anything that has not yet been in the focus of this so-called "culture war".

The Debate

There are generally two sides which dominate the discourse:

I would like to posit a third position in this debate, as I feel neither are touching on the real issues -- and real tendencies -- within the very real motion that is happening in entertainment writing today.

My View

Let me preface like this: of course the inclusion of minority characters in media is not inherently wrong or "pandering" to any audience. Minorities exist, and unique stories involving them are valid to tell: they are stories like any other.

However, it would be disingenuous to pretend as if the conservative side in this discourse only had their completely baseless bigotry showing, that they were merely upset at the inclusion of minorities, and that otherwise the quality and purpose of media had stayed roughly the same.

From Star Wars to Star Trek, from the Ghostbusters remake to The Sims 4, media has undeniably changed somehow, and it does have to do with "inserting politics" in a way; but not how they think it does.

Something feels off about these modern iterations, something that the conservatives in this debate have clearly touched upon but didn't get remotely close as to why it is the way it is.

I posit the following:

What feels inauthentic, "forced" and eyeroll-inducing in these certain modern productions is that narratives no longer draw from real experiences, especially those of the working class, but instead are told from the artificial world view of (neo-)liberalism.

In that world view, minorities do exist, and oppression, social and political problems do exist, but their causes are nebulous as the writers deny that these issues have any kind of systemic or economic material factor. That would require an anti-capitalist world view, which they simply do not have; or if they consider themselves "anti-capitalist", what they actually mean is "somewhat social democratic criticizing individual actors within the financial elite".

The reason why modern (Hollywood) media feels forced, inauthentic and "cringy" is precisely because you can sense an inaccurate, far-fetched, surreal worldview bleed through the writing. There is no way to authentically touch on any kind of issues, conflicts and narratives without utilizing some kind of class perspective in writing and conceptualizing characters and worlds.

The same feeling that makes overly religious media hard to watch (such as explicitly Christian children's shows) makes modern entertainment sometimes cringeworthy, especially when it attempts to touch on political issues; which they constantly do.

Conflicts in media, arguably the most important puzzle piece in any plot, can not have a general political or systemic cause in this world view, because that would require them acknowledging these radical ideas. Instead, inequality and oppression are touched upon, but analyzed in an extremely moralizing, individualistic and identity-centric way.

Let us exemplify this at a piece of media heavily criticized for "having gone woke" among many other things by conservative proponents of the "culture war": Star Trek Discovery, one of the currently running series of the classic space opera which had its golden age in the 80s and 90s.

The Star Trek series generally considered the golden age of Trek today (The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager), in case you haven't watched them, were somewhat utopian, philosophical space adventures, where usually the narrative is a thinly veiled analogy for some kind of ethical dilemma, aspect of humanity, or, yes, a political issue. All wrapped in an enjoyable sci fi setting with a lovable and relatable and diverse cast.

Discovery tries to achieve the same thing, but falls flat as it does not allow itself to tell things from a real, materialist¹, working class world view. The originals did.

Because I don't want to get into spoiler territory for Discovery, here is an "anonymized" plot point: in Season 3, the series introduces a season-long overarching plot concerning something that episodes of the classics constantly touched upon: an analogy for climate change and wasteful production.

In a similar way to quite some episodes of the golden age of Trek, the warp network somehow gets eroded and cracked, with this environmental damage ending the means to produce and use infrastructure effectively as ships cannot go to more than light speed anymore. In earlier episodes such as TNG's "Force Of Nature" or Voyager's "The Omega Directive", this was touched on in much the same way.

In the older Trek series, this was an obvious, thinly veiled analogy for the dangers of overproduction and overindustrialization, warning of environmental collapses and making the case for conserving "nature" and living in harmony with it. It explicitly criticized the careless drive for infinite growth without a regard for environmental concerns.

But Discovery cannot do that, because it would require the writers to criticize capitalism and the ideology of endless production. It would require them to make a case for environmental preservation at the cost of profits, and it cannot, because that does not fit in the neoliberal worldview where capitalism and growth are forces for good, innovating all of our problems away. So what did they go with? (Spoilers!) They ended up making the entire thing the fault of an emotionally neglected alien child who cried so hard subspace eroded.

This is where it falls flat. Politics is indeed "forced" into narratives, clearly simply because the current zeitgeist demands some kind of big message about oppression. Which is good, as media is not apolitical; nothing is. From Fridays For Future to queerfeminism to Black Lives Matter, life in general is heated and increasingly politically charged. There is no way to tell stories these days that are considered interesting without touching on these topics.

But there is no way for big media conglomerates and upper class Hollywood hipster writers to really analyze the issues behind oppression. It would require them to question and practically attack what they themselves are, what they stand for. And of course, there is no big production value in independent media produced by the working class. There is a reason though that the rare daring director or screenwriter, such as the team behind the award-winning film Parasite, are pretty much guaranteed the status of a classic in film history: because they are portraying life and political analogies as they authentically are, not sugarcoated through an upper class world view.

When people complain about "forced diversity", they should not complain about diversity, but about that diversity being executed in a way that unnaturally represents the actual circumstances of real life people. It's inauthentic, because in order to represent minorities authentically, you'd need to allow yourself some kind of radical working class world view that the upper class liberal writers of these series simply don't have.

You cannot write a strong woman character without acknowledging that there are actual, real economic systems at fault for the patriarchy that influence the way women think and act. That women's oppression is not primarily a gender, but a class issue: the wage gap benefitting the capitalist class, the social oppression of women manifesting their "traditional" (e.g. unpaid) place in the reproductive sector (housework, child raising, cleaning, ...; anything a capitalist cannot exploit for money).

Without acknowledging these things, where does women's oppression come from in the mind of a neoliberal narrative writer? Naturally, the opposite identity: men, masculinity, oppressive language, evilness and bigotry that somehow just come from no place in particular. (Of course, all of these things are factors in, but not the root cause of, real life gender-based oppression.)

That is why those "feminist" messages fall flat and feel offensively forced into the narrative: because they are written from an uncannily isolated, fictional, romanticized perspective removed from reality due to the limited analysis of the authors. All men are wimps, all women are strong, telling the "machos" to mind their own business. It's removed from reality entirely because these characters exist in a vaccuum where only their identity and subjective experiences cause their actions, not material circumstances. That is how you end up with flat lectures about social issues in Star Trek that are meant to be "inspiring" but end up like a hollow rendition of a middle school drama play.

That is, by the way, also why all the suspense and narrative plots in Star Trek Discovery in the end all resolve around the obnoxious main character (or her extravagant emotions). The original series were about exemplifying humanity's faults and building analogies for ethical and political problems through the lens of the (very professional) crew of a utopian world's starship. But Star Trek Discovery, in its bland neoliberal world view designed to capture the biggest audience, does not dare ask any of these questions or explore the faults of humanity or ethical dilemmata. Their drama has to start and end with individuals, because in the neoliberal world view, individuals, their "ideas", "experiences" and "identities" are the driving force of society, not masses, economic interests or material circumstances. So, a lot of crying, interpersonal conflict, and not a lot of philosophical introspection or professionalism on the bridge.

The Sims 4 is another example. In the past, the popular life simulator games had a certain aesthetic that they more and more left behind as the series went on. Commonly, TS4 is criticized as a "young adult millennial simulator" even by progressive players and fans of the series. At arguably the golden age of the Sims, during The Sims 2, the game had an edgy charme to it: it was practically a sitcom simulator full of tropes and drama. Cheating spouses, scandalously conservative old hags, poverty, obscenely bourgeois Sims, wild family life.

Sims 4 on the other hand, in its mission to be as inoffensive, generic and identity focused as possible, is as bland as no Sims game had ever been. Because if they actually did represent black, queer or otherwise oppressed people authentically, they would have to introduce some upsetting or serious themes to the game, such as religion, economic inequality, or systemic oppression. There no longer are any kind of (entertaining, engaging!) negative themes: poverty is non-existant, there are no real consequences, no random drama, no scandalous love triangles, no nothing. Only a selfie-taking, self-expressing, young adult, always-smiling, self-absorbed, obnoxiously diverse cast of nobodies.

And that's not because it has diverse gender options or is culturally somewhat sensitive (Remember though that the original release whitewashed a lot of the Sims traditional to the series): but because real problems are seen as inappropriate, and it's much more fitting with the modern corporate "wokeness" that any and all issues in the world are consequences of identity, expression and individuality. No more references exist to economic inequality, and instead, you end up with a cast of uncanny Sims with implausible personalities where nothing happens outside of the player's control. From a life simulator emerged a dollhouse simulator.

Absurdly, the Sims 4 constantly attempts to be political: they published an Eco Living pack focused all on living sustainably, but it's atrociously focused on "individual change" and an extremely privileged aesthetic of "tiny living", solar power on the roof, and "influencing the community" with voting. It screams liberalism. Even the voting board presents political issues as merely honest and well-meant disagreements on how to handle the problems properly.

In Sims 2 on the other hand, the Business and Politician careers were hilarious parodies of the bourgeoisie, and on-the-nose anticapitalist themes such as the name of the richest family in town (Landgraab) were ubiquitous. Punks existed in both Sims 2 and Sims 3, teenagers could be grounded and scolded and run away from home. People could go quite literally insane if their aspirations for life were not met. In Sims 4, it's all sanitized into an inoffensive, wholesome world full of bland, hipster-like individuals.

This ironically leads to terrible representation of minority groups: because for all intents and purposes, everyone in Sims 4 (and other media, mostly) is modelled after an "inoffensive" model of society, which more often than not means suburban middle class white cishet people. And even the queer people or Sims of color in Sims 4 end up acting the same (in a way I have never seen anyone from these groups act in real life); leading to really uncanny dynamics where depression, inequality, hardship or even cultural differences do not exist, making everyone an inauthentic, whitewashed representation of their identities. Minorities are, in modern media, for all intents and purposes just white well-off people in a minority themed skin.

Modern media lost its radical edge in criticizing and satirizing society by merely representing an idealized version of the real world, where all problems are merely disagreements and misunderstandings, differences in "experience" or "identity", or at most doings of clearly comically evil people. It's incredibly irreal and inauthentic, but it's the only way to make sense of the world without adopting a radical materialist¹ world view.

The problem with this entire discourse is that none of the two sides grasp the real issues as neither of them are arguing on a class basis. Conservatives and reactionaries keep pretending as if the cringeworthy forced political messages of modern media were the fault of progressivism, while liberals and progressives commonly ignore and deny that these even exist, and pretend as if this debate was merely about representation.

The truth is that there are political themes inserted into media, and while they have always been there, nowadays corporate media moguls have so much power over the creative direction of the narrative, that no world views critical of the system's status quo are allowed, and instead they keep falling into the pitfalls of meaningless identity politics and empty emotion as plot devices.

One can only hope that Marxism will once again be one of the leading schools of thought in the creative world. At least for the sake of our video games.

¹: Materialism in this case does not mean the popular definition of the word, but a philosophical movement that, in short, posits that the objective, material world is shaping our thoughts, concepts and ideologies, and not primarily the other way around. An easy example would be the strategy to fight sexism: materialists would argue that sexist language is a result of objective(, economic?) circumstances that create these mindsets (e.g. economical oppression of non-men leading to sexist language and ideologies), while non-materialists would probably attempt to fight these material circumstances with critiquing language and introducing "PC" language to influence the mindsets of people and therefore their behaviour (see for example: "Latinx", "People of Colour", ...). Marxism for example is a strictly materialist world view.

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