Breaking ground is harder than it sounds, especially if a work of art must also appeal to millions at the box office in order to earn millions for investors.
A group of screwed-over women pull off a perfect heist. Great acting by Viola Davis, fast pacing, a good script, and the bad guys get it in the end. Steve McQueen’s latest blockbuster, Widows, has art critics effusive. What’s not to love?
If we don’t believe that Hollywood’s products and our own entertainment choices have the power to shape us and our society, then absolutely nothing.
If we do think that entertainment matters, that it moves us not only emotionally but conceptually, that in aggregate it modifies our assumptions about the world around us, our dreams, priorities, empathies, or sense of self, then maybe it’s worth looking a little closer.
In an age in which tribal identity dominates the politics of both the left and right, Widows strikes all the right notes to appeal to the millennial left. The protagonists—all female—include a strong black lead, a Latina, a white woman who’s done being abused, and a beautiful dyke. The movie reprises Driving Miss Daisy with a loyal white chauffeur serving a black woman. It includes a tragic death-by-cop.
But on a deeper level, Widows elevates the very cultural dynamics that have kept queer people, females, Blacks, and Latinx down in the U.S. and made death-by-cop more common. In fact, by woke-washing these dynamics, I might argue that it reinforces them. People who may see themselves as woke or progressive get to relish greed and violence guilt-free.
Widows is far from the only “ground-breaking” movie that just beneath the surface reinforces traditional power and wealth hierarchies. The same mixed messages pervade Black Panther and Wonder Woman, for example; and Crazy Rich Asians is a start-to-finish greedfest that pokes fun at conspicuous consumption without really challenging it. I single out these four only because they were hailed for upending the status quo—and I saw them for that reason and was disappointed. Breaking ground is harder than it sounds, especially if a work of art must also appeal to millions at the box office in order to earn millions for investors.
Traditional social and cultural patterns that promote inequality build on a foundational premise—might makes right and on a common corollary: If you can get away with something, then it’s OK. Wealthy people make deals and economic rules that advantage themselves at the expense of the poor; men lord it over women or even, in some times and places, own them; parents beat children with divine sanction; ethnic and cultural majorities marginalize minorities; holy wars install one god or another; industrialized societies conquer and enslave iron-age societies; empires drain resources from subject territories; corporations squeeze suppliers and employees to the brink of destitution, and beyond; humans exploit and extinguish other species—all of these, at their root, are justified by might makes right, the equivalence of power and entitlement; of can and should; of successful and good.
Winners don’t write history by themselves; we all are prone to help them out with the project because as hierarchical social animals we are attracted to power. Not always, but more than we want to admit, we admire winners (and fantasy heroes) even when they are vacuous or worse and even when their winnings are ill-gotten. That opens us up to being shaped by people who are morally bankrupt. Cue The Art of the Deal.
Those of us in the center and on the left can see this happening on the right. We have watched in dismay as otherwise decent or once-decent friends and relatives attached themselves to a narcissistic idiot savant whose superpower is knowing and playing his audience, which makes him a winner. We continue to watch in dismay as this feeds the uglier parts of their own personalities, shaping them in his image to the point that we mourn who they once were.
But all of us, regardless of political orientation, tend to be—as the Bible writer put it—blind to the speck in our own eye. And so, when we ourselves are relishing some of the very same social dynamics underlying Trump-love and social inequality, we often don’t even notice that’s what’s happening.
In Widows, the bad guys couldn’t be more vile. All male, they indulge in intimate lies, marital infidelities and partner violence, gambling of family resources, theft, graft, blackmail and murder. The worst aren’t above casual torture—or burning to death long-time associates. And so, by contrast, we don’t notice that the female protagonists we are rooting for are, themselves, morally vacant—or that their singular triumph is that they all end up rich with money they didn’t earn except by stealing it from people who didn’t earn it.
Musing to myself after the movie, I couldn’t think of a single person, among the hundreds I know, who is as lacking in moral core as the least bankrupt of the film’s protagonists. Three fall into the same category of women as Melania Trump—those who live well by partnering with men who cheat and steal and exploit the vulnerabilities of others—women who know this but choose not to look too closely, wives or kept women of mobsters and military dictators and genocidaires and common swindlers who chose to drape themselves in the cloak of cultivated ignorance because it goes so well with diamond earrings.
To repeat myself, if our fantasies—fed by the visual and performing arts—don’t shape us, then there’s no problem here. But if art does influence the real world, then it matters how artists exercise that power, no matter how well-crafted their masterworks may otherwise be, no matter how beautiful, ingenious, or novel. It matters whether the tool forged by the master blacksmith is a sword or a ploughshare, whether the gleaming wood polished by the master carver is a gunstock or a talking stick, whether the characters and themes in a movie inspire us to simply flip traditional power structures or to dismantle them.
And it matters which of these we choose to buy, because artists and audiences pull on each other, hard.
In their highest ideals, progressives believe that we are all in this together, that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, that no-one is free until all are free. That is what so many find appealing about a movie that checks those identity boxes; it’s why woke-washing works. But if each of us truly counts, that doesn’t just mean our suffering or wellbeing; it also means how we use whatever agency or power we have. And that includes the power, however big or small, that we wield as artists and patrons of the arts.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author ofTrusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.