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The culture wars are back, and this time, everyone can win

L: Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown in 1992. (AP Photo/CBS TV) R: Media critic Anita Sarkeesian in 2013. (Photo by Alex Lazara)

The last culture war, often pitting movement conservatives figures against artists, was fought over whether culture was or should be decent. Concerns about decency could be broadly defined, but they often cropped up in reference to culture that reflected changing norms of family and sexual life.

In 1989, American Family Association founder Rev. Donald Wildmon, who had condemned shows like “Three’s Company,” threatened a boycott of Pepsi over a commercial the soft drink company cut with Madonna after the release of her “Like A Prayer” album, which Wildmon criticized as immoral and anti-Christian. The year after that, Vice President Dan Quayle famously took a swipe at Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown, star of the eponymous CBS show, for becoming a single mother. Quayle suggested that the mass media was contributing to a decline of family values that he credited with a role in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers charged with beating Rodney King.

Even Bart Simpson was a target. Schools banned t-shirts emblazoned with his snotty catchphrases, and he was seen as a worrisome beacon of disrespect for authority and academic achievement, condemned by a figure as powerful as then-Secretary of Education William Bennett.

Culture warriors concerned by decency were anxious that culture was changing too fast, and introducing too many new ideas, voices and means of expression to a population vulnerable to the power of suggestion. (These concerns also marked debates about whether the classics were being unfairly devalued in favor of multicultural and feminist literature.)

This position might have been rhetorically powerful in certain political settings. But the war for decency ended in failure. The message was radically misaligned with the entertainment industry’s basic incentives for testing certain boundaries, particularly those around sexuality and violence. Artists like Madonna and networks like MTV thrived even with, and often because of, the disapproval of decency groups. The rise of the fight over marriage equality diverted decency crusaders’ resources and attention from cultural campaigns to bruising state-by-state legislative and legal battles. And new distribution models gave decency-oriented consumers more options if they wanted to opt out of mainstream secular culture entirely.

The 2004 Super Bowl, when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s costume during the halftime show, revealing her nipple and prompting Congress to boost broadcast indecency fines, now seems like an end point to this epoch in the culture wars. The settlement between the two sides meant that the federal government would levy fines, and not small ones, for extreme incidents, but the culture industry would factor those costs and viewers’ disapproval into its business model and forge ahead. Today, decency-oriented groups may be able to muster large volumes of complaints when Miley Cyrus twerks on a teddy bear, but they have little impact on her bottom line or creative decisions once the news cycle moves on.

Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.

The fierce arguments of today often center on whether culture is changing fast enough, and whether change means chucking out old ideas, storytelling tropes and character types. 

Among the questions at issue: Are enough women, people of color and LGBT people represented on the page and screen and working behind the cameras and monitoring where pop culture gets produced? How much should sports leagues police the private behavior of athletes and team owners? What responsibility do storytellers have when they depict extreme violence? How does fiction influence our perception of American military and intelligence operations? And what is the relationship (if there is one) between the quality of a work’s politics and the quality of its art?

Many of the flash points in the new culture wars are the same issues of identity politics that roiled universities in earlier decades. But rather than slugging it out in academic presses through works like Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena,” which situated classical civilization’s roots in Africa, or polemics like Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” the battlefields are low culture and the combatants are consumers, mass media critics and creators.

One medium where the earth has been most deeply scorched is video gaming, which has been riven by painful arguments over the representation of women, whether as the objects of rescue and extreme violence, or as playable characters. These are ongoing issues, of course, but they flared up in 2012, when the critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series that would cover common tropes involving women that appear in video games. She was subject to a persistent campaign of violent harassment that continues to this day; the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating some of the threats that have been made against her.

More recently, game developer Zoe Quinn became the target of a ex-boyfriend who accused her of trading sexual favors for positive coverage of her game “Depression Quest,” an allegation that is not substantiated. (A note: he later edited the post and denied the implication.) The attacks on Quinn were more sophisticated than the campaign against Sarkeesian, commingling salacious accounts of Quinn’s personal life with expressions of concern about the way video game journalists conduct themselves.

The ability of gaming coverage (as with many kinds of entertainment reporting) to be independent of the influence of individual developers and big gaming companies is certainly a significant issue. But the argument that Quinn was being targeted simply because of clear ethical issues also gave respectable cover to some people who saw figures like Sarkeesian and Quinn as interlopers purely on the grounds of their gender.

The combination of these constituencies, one focused on ethics, the other on feminism, united under the title #GamerGate, has been a powerful one. Computing giant Intel suspended its advertising with Gamasutra after hearing from consumers who were infuriated about a piece the site had run critiquing gamers’ responses to feminist commentary and female game developers.

Racial representation in popular media, which has long lagged behind the changing demographics of the American population, is also the subject of innumerable skirmishes. When Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy “Girls” premiered in 2012, it launched perhaps as many thinkpieces about the whiteness of the show’s stars and writers room as the show had viewers. Dunham responded in subsequent seasons by creating more characters of color, to mixed results. And the reaction to “Girls” helped bring into the mainstream a conversation that has been taking place for years through groups like Racebending, founded in response to the casting of white actors as characters of color in the live-action adaptation of the cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

In the years since, debates about race and media have become routine. Dan Snyder has come under increasing pressure to change the Washington professional football team’s name not just from activists and media outlets (including this one) but also the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which cancelled six trademarks on the team name earlier this year. (An appeal is pending.) The Federal Communications Commission is considering making on-air utterance of the name a fineable offense.

After sending an out-of-context tweet that referenced an on-air sketch using tropes of anti-Asian racism to mock Dan Snyder’s attempts to rehabilitate the name, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert found himself the target of a hashtag campaign that called for his removal from the airwaves.

And debates over identity politics in culture often dovetail with questions about how mass culture represents public policy. Fox’s popular terrorism franchise “24” came under criticism both for its depiction of Muslims and for its repeated implication that torture is an effective intelligence-gathering device. “Homeland,” the war-on-terror drama about a mentally ill CIA agent and a war hero turned sleeper agent (co-created by Howard Gordon, a “24” veteran) has become a similar target.

The fights over these shows have sharpened the tactics of Muslim and Arab advocates concerned about how Hollywood depicts them. Earlier this year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations rallied protests against a planned ABC Family show called “Alice in Arabia,” which would have told the story of a girl transplanted from the U.S. to live with her Arab relatives. The network cancelled “Alice in Arabia” before it went into production. Consultants from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, among other organizations, are working on Gordon’s most recent show “Tyrant,” a drama about the dictatorial ruling family of a fictional Middle Eastern country.

And even when advocates do not spring into action, mass culture has responded to America’s conduct of its wars. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the CIA analysts who tracked down Osama bin Laden, was a sharp, grubby rebuke to the glamorization of torture and America’s detainee program (though not sharp enough for some viewers). Action movies, including the most recent installment of the “Star Trek” franchise, the “Iron Man” movies, “Man of Steel” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” have all tried to grapple with the implications of America’s drone program; the forthcoming drama “Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke as a troubled drone operator, comes closest to rejecting it entirely.

As these examples should make clear, as the new culture war has widened, it has also fragmented, turning less into a clash of great powers than into a series of intractable guerrilla conflicts, marked by shifting alliances and the rapid emergence of new players.

Some of this dynamic is driven by the simple fragmentation of American mass culture. Variety reported earlier this year that since 1999, the number of scripted television series being produced for cable networks alone has risen more than 1000 percent. The number of video game titles arriving on shelves every year has grown dramatically since the early days of the medium. After New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis looked at the number of movies arriving in theaters (not to mention going straight to video on demand or outlets like Netflix) earlier this year, she pleaded with distributors to slow down because “there are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience.”

This bounty means that more people than ever before have opportunities to see themselves represented on screen, or to consume only culture that neatly meets our specific tastes, whether we yearn for sexy vampires or flinty lady detectives. But it also means that more shows, games, books and movies are competing for a still-finite number of honors like the Emmys and Academy Awards and for cultural prestige. The existence of more great culture means more opportunities for your favorite story or performance to get snubbed.

The profusion of passionate cultural fandoms, where fans feel about their enthusiasms the same way they might about political party registration, also means that clashes over what counts as great and what other people ought to love and champion are more frequent and more intense. A show like “Parks and Recreation” may have a tiny fraction of the audience that a massive hit of an earlier era used to draw. But if every single one of those fans is intensely passionate, when other viewers tune in to other shows, it may feel less like a statement of mere preference and more a pledge of allegiance to a competing tribe.

Both fans and self-interested creators sometimes turn to politics to defend the values of their favorite programming and to try to leverage distributors. Netflix’s prison drama “Orange Is The New Black” is exceptionally funny and well-acted, and showrunner Jenji Kohan deftly balances a huge cast of characters, but one of the reasons it has become a social media phenomenon is a sense that its portrayal of women in the prison system, and especially transgender women, is groundbreaking.

Rallying support for expressions of marginalized perspectives is a practice hardly limited to the left. Conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza successfully pressured both Costco and Google to give his most recent book better play after complaining that he had been sabotaged on the grounds of his politics.

And the creation of new opportunities to tell new stories is not an end point, but the beginning of a potential revolution. Shonda Rhimes’s success as a television creator and showrunner does not slake the appetite for black voices on primetime, but instead prompts questions about why there are not more of them. The mainstreaming of gay characters in film, television and literature leads to searching conversations about why those characters are so often white, male and affluent, and then to a debate about the representation of transgender people. When doors get wedged open, even a little, the sliver of light that comes through fuels the ambition of everyone who ever dreamed of kicking down the door altogether.

Just as culture itself is wildly diverse and fragmentary, the drive to examine culture through a political lens comes from a huge number of different constituencies, each with its own set of interests, priorities and internal debates.

Some critics and fans have taken up these debates as facets in their larger discussions of pop culture, motivated in varying combinations by political conviction and a simple hunger for variety.

For some mainstream television critics, annoyance about the predominance of troubled, middle-aged white men as the main characters on cable television is animated both by frustration with the idea that the experience of such men is the most important question of our time, and the sense that after hundreds of hours with Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper, there cannot be much else to say about them. For conservative critics at sites like Big Hollywood and the Washington Free Beacon, the monotony manifests in an absence of conservative or religious characters, or the constant treatment of fathers as useless lummoxes.

More traditional interest groups like CAIR and GLAAD see a political critique of culture as an opportunity to exert leverage by shutting down depictions they find offensive, creating opportunities for the entertainment industry to hire them as consultants, or pushing for more jobs for their constituents both behind and in front of the camera and monitor. Research organizations, including the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, which collaborate on censuses of female characters and creatives in the U.S. and abroad, do so in part in service of the idea that media may not directly inspire people to act, but that it shapes our sense of what is possible.

Within the entertainment industry, appearing politically engaged and responsive is an emergent marketing strategy.  Singing about issues like date rape and sexual orientation has become something of a strategy for up-and-coming country singers hoping to distinguish themselves as the genre as a whole tacks away from politics. Fourth-place broadcast network ABC has revived the strategy that Fox and Showtime used to build themselves into major players in the 1990s and early 2000s, putting forward an exceptionally diverse slate of shows to cater to underserved audiences, like the African-American viewers who have helped make ABC’s “Scandal” a hit and asked for more of the same commitment to broader racial representation.

Critics who are broadly aligned under political labels may have hugely differing interpretations of the same piece of culture and offer very different solutions to the problems they have identified. On the left, to take one example, a vigorous 2012 debate over jokes about rape and sexual assault brought out arguments including, but not limited to: calls for a ban on rape as subject material; arguments that rape jokes can be effective if the comedian targets perpetrators rather than victims; suggestions that if a joke is funny enough it can be targeted anywhere; and defenses of comedians’ rights to workshop absolutely any material at any time. This is not even the full spectrum of the conversation, but just a partial representation of the positions taken by self-described feminists of both genders.

The ongoing convulsions in the video gaming community have provoked two very different responses on what might broadly be termed the right. Some, including Milo Yiannapolis of Brietbart London, see the clash as one between a largely apolitical video game fandom and a group of interlopers. “The war in the gaming industry isn’t about right versus left, or tolerance versus bigotry,” he wrote. “It’s between those who leverage video games to fight proxy wars about other things, introducing unwanted and unwarranted tension and misery, and those who simply want to enjoy themselves.”

And the fight against feminist analyses of video gaming has attracted gestures of support from movement conservatives who are eager to weaponize discussions of mass media in an entirely different direction–and to reassert their relevance in the new culture wars in the process.

Where decency-oriented conservatives past might have positioned themselves as appalled by the violence and graphic sexuality in some popular video games, anti-feminist provocateur and American Enterprise Institute analyst Christina Hoff Sommers recently recorded a video suggesting that outside agitators with an agenda–“gender activists and hipsters with degrees in cultural studies,” in a recycling of old-school swipes at the academy–are trying to undermine a distinctly “male video game culture,” a claim that defenders of the political neutrality of gaming might be hesitant to make themselves.

However these debates play out across the political spectrum, they are really about fundamental questions. Do politics or craft determine culture’s worth? How do values and aesthetics work together? And how can they work on each other to take our political debates beyond where the language of campaigns and public officials can carry them?

For all these debates can be wearying, the new culture wars have been a tremendously exciting time. And I think it is no mistake that they come at a time of incredible growth and technical and creative innovation in pop culture.

Culture warriors on both sides of the aisle who want to wipe out the things that they find offensive seem poised to be as badly disappointed as the decency crusaders before them. And partisans across the political spectrum may just create new opportunities for artists to test boundaries. Just as decency crusaders did not deter Madonna before her, left-leaning critics of the racial politics of Miley Cyrus’ recent videos did not exactly convince her to shake up her tour arrangements.

But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter.

The diffusion of television audiences into a profusion of new programming means a low-rated and much-loved political show like “Parks and Recreation” can survive along a massive hit like CBS’s “NCIS” franchise. An insurgent company like Netflix, which bases its business in subscribers rather than total eyeballs for any givens how, can simultaneously bring in viewers with “Orange Is The New Black” and a four-movie deal with Adam Sandler, that avatar of politically-neutral, low-brow comedy.

New distribution platforms for movies, including video on demand and streaming services, could extend the reach of films aimed at politically-oriented or faith-based customers. Conservative cultural entrepreneurs and entertainment companies are turning out projects like a three-part adaptation of “Atlas Shrugged,” Dinesh D’Souza’s documentaries about President Obama, and a forthcoming drama about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case from the Rick Santorum-led EchoLight Studios. And companies like the game store Steam and Amazon allow independent developers and writers to submit their own work for sale, creating new opportunities for artists to reach big audiences.

As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them. The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.