How Woke Caused Cultural Decadence
Explaining the triumph of remakes, and the decline of compelling art
In recent years, cultural critics have been getting depressed while looking at which movies are performing best at the box office. Instead of telling new stories, studios are increasingly relying on established franchises like Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Universe. This is often Exhibit A in the case being made that we are in an era of artistic stagnation or even decline. In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat spends quite a lot of time talking about what has happened to cinema. Throughout the media, the death of original storytelling has become something of a trope. See here, here, here, and here.
I haven’t seen much in the way of cultural explanations for what has happened. But I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the impacts of woke. Art reflects and speaks to human nature. When cultural and intellectual elites don’t like human nature and want to change it, they are less able to produce compelling works of fiction.
I’m not just talking about Summer of Floyd level of woke being poisonous to art. Even quite well accepted ideas about gender and sexuality, if taken to their logical conclusion, can wreak havoc.
Morality and ideals are inherently gendered. Men and women are so psychologically different that you should expect different kinds of stories to appeal to each sex. We also expect characters to behave in ways consistent with what are now called “sexual stereotypes.” One template of a male story is a hero goes out in the world and, through bravery and strength, tries to overcome some obstacle or challenge. At the end, through this process he finally saves or wins over the girl of his dreams. Think the original Star Wars, Super Mario games, or The Lion King (yes, it crosses species).
The female template is more passive. A girl wants to be pretty, and win over the hero. She might have obstacles in her way, but instead of showing physical courage, it’s more about resolving some interpersonal dispute in her favor. Think of Ariel in The Little Mermaid getting away from her overweening father, or Cinderella showing up her stepmom and stepsisters by marrying the handsome prince.
For obvious evolutionary reasons, males and females grow up fantasizing about having the characteristics that are desired by the opposite sex. People who talk about sex differences in things like interest in STEM or aggression are of course correct, but few take critiques of gender blank slatism far enough. It’s not just that we are different in terms of certain physical, cognitive and psychological traits, but the fact that men and women are so different means that we have separate moralities, values, and ideals. Under law, maybe we aspire to treat people the same. But in art, until recent decades, it was generally acknowledged that we could let natural differences flourish.
Sometimes, for fun, I like to think about what classic stories would look like if we reversed the sexes of the main characters. For example, you can have The Lion King, where the queen rules, and then she has a successor daughter. The daughter runs away and is discovered by an old male friend, who encourages her to go back and stand up to her aunt. So instead of an uncle-nephew showdown, we have an aunt and niece physically fighting over a kingdom, which is sort of a funny thought. Here we’re talking about animals, but that doesn’t matter. We experience the story through our anthropomorphized lens, and we sort of get lions because they’re patriarchal like us. The hyenas, who are matriarchal and somewhat gender fluid, are less relatable, and they’re of course the bad guys in the story, since it comes from a previous era.
Or try to imagine the first season of Breaking Bad through the same lens. The woman is the one who gets cancer, but she has too much pride to seek out or accept charity. So she cooks meth, while her annoying stay at home husband nags her about why she’s been acting so strange recently. I used to play Mortal Kombat as a kid, and when I picked up one of the later games as an adult, I saw that they did something like this. Part of the story was that a whiny Johnny Cage was harping to Sonya Blade about how she’s too focused on her career, and this caused problems in their relationship. Am I supposed to identify with the woman acting like a man or the man acting like a woman? Both options are unappealing.
We inherently understand the concept of the male as the provider, and the tensions that might cause. You can’t just reverse the sexes without destroying the essence of the story and why it speaks to us. A woman is not going to be attracted to a man who asks her to stop working so much but instead stay home and cuddle, any more than she’s going to have sexual interest in a male she has to rescue.
New stories need to avoid what are now seen as sexist tropes. Old ones, however, get grandfathered in. You don’t have to explain why The Lion King isn’t The Lion Queen. You can still make Spiderman movies, and you don’t have to justify why the lead is not a black lesbian. Or why a movie is called “X-Men” instead of “X-Persons.” There’s a subtle difference between the two titles. Think about what it means to say someone is a “good man” versus a “good person.” In the 1960s, you were free to choose either title, while today you would not only need new X-Men characters, but the name of the universe itself would have to pass a PC litmus test.
I recently watched part of the first episode of a new Netflix show called Beef. Here’s the trailer.
It’s about a rivalry between an Asian male and an Asian female that starts off as a traffic dispute and snowballs into something larger. Under woke ideology, where people are just individuals, a male-female rivalry makes sense. But our psychology only allows us to understand a world where competition is intrasexual, and different for each sex. Male rivalries are more likely to involve physical violence and empire building, while female rivalries tend to be more personal and subtle. A male-female feud that turns violent isn’t a rivalry; it’s domestic abuse. Maybe I’m being unfair. I stopped watching the show pretty early, but that’s sort of the point. I’m a man and so I understand feuding with other men. I don’t know what fighting with a woman who isn’t a wife or girlfriend even means, and don’t have much desire to find out.
A few years ago, I checked out a well-publicized Prime show called Sneaky Pete. One of the early scenes of the pilot episode involves a skinny female bounty hunter trying to chase down and subdue a bulky fugitive.
The premise of this scene is that the main character has to pretend to bump into the bounty hunter in order to protect her because the guy is actually quite dangerous. But it’s funny that she didn’t know that based on the fact that he’s a man and three times her size. Was the plan to tackle him and put him in handcuffs? I didn’t watch much after that.
Race is another issue on which wokeness has killed art, particularly in fantasy worlds. To take one recent example, the new Little Mermaid not only has a black Ariel, but a multiracial cast of siblings.
The PC response to this is “you can believe in Mermaids, why not Asians, blacks, and whites all being part of the same family?” I remember Razib once explaining that this argument misses the entire point of science fiction and fantasy universes. They’re supposed to integrate the supernatural into a world where human nature otherwise remains constant. The idea that members of families look like one another is fundamental to our understanding of who we are as a species.
In other words, just because I know lions don’t actually speak English and get saluted by giraffes doesn’t mean The Lion Queen would be a compelling children’s story. Game of Thrones started out non-woke as long as the producers were sticking closely to the books that were published between 1996 and 2011. The later seasons, universally considered the worst ones, made the story revolve more and more around glass ceiling shattering female queens and warriors. Leftists responded by saying if you can accept dragons, why not cultural diversity and the dismantling of gender stereotypes? This meme captures the problem with such logic.
The new Lord of the Rings remake has the familiar species of dwarves, elves, etc., but makes them multiracial. Fantasy worlds not only appeal to human nature, but, crucially, often human nature as it existed in earlier eras. People holding a pre-enlightenment morality are sure to be “racist,” since they’d put a great deal of emphasis on the appearances of individuals and groups, and there are vast differences in how the human races look. Here’s a scene from the LOTR remake in which a white hobbit insults a black elf for his ears being the wrong shape, while carefully avoiding any mention of any other physical feature that differentiates the two beings. If creatures in a fantasy world did notice “race” in the human sense, however, the way the show handled the topic would be the only thing anyone noticed or wanted to talk about.
In the era of woke, everything having to do with race or sex is a potential minefield. So we have fantasy worlds where physical appearances matter, but race, the most salient collection of features that differentiate groups of humans in our world, doesn’t! Current racial politics require that we are sold a combination of an unchanging human nature, pre-Enlightenment morality, and color-blindness. Before the last decade or so, creators of fantasy universes like those of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings would solve the problem by making everyone white, but that does not appear to be an option today.
Among some horses, color is not breed specific. So you can have a horse community of all different shades. For humans or humanoids in closed-off villages and hamlets to maintain different races would require a completely new kind of reproduction. It would be as if writers felt it necessary to make the creatures we’re meant to relate to give birth by laying eggs. Sure, it’s fantasy, you can do what you want, but you’ve taken us one step away from having a compelling story and done so without any payoff except by making the whole thing seem political.
I don’t think that wokeness has strangled art only for conservatives. Liberals deep down understand all of this, which is why they agree that art is in decline, after having praised non-woke shows from the recent past like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Neither side, however, is able and willing to articulate what is going on. When conservatives complain about woke art, it doesn’t go beyond demanding that producers stick to the original material, meaning the book a show or movie is based on or the reality of the universe created in a previous work. They don’t explicitly say why you can’t just sprinkle in black women everywhere and expect everything else to be the same. Liberals are supposed to like this stuff, but don’t understand why they don’t, and focus their energy on the backlash to the backlash, attacking conservative bigots for fixating on such supposedly small matters.
The success of prestige TV should be understood in this context. Franchises get grandfathered in, but one way for new works to avoid wokeness is to be placed in circumstances where a lack of diversity or unenlightened views on race and gender are tolerated. It’s not an accident that some of the most well-regarded shows of the last two decades either take place in the criminal underground, think Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Wire, and The Sopranos, or in an earlier era, such as Mad Men, Rome, and Deadwood. Sometimes, like in Mad Men, the show can critique a less progressive era, but I think honest viewers know that part of the appeal is that we long for what has been lost. Don Draper can smoke and drink whenever he wants and ogle the secretaries, without worrying about being called in by a fat HR lady or trending on Twitter. Succession was set in the modern world but it could make almost everyone white, patriarchal, and sexist because they’re all Republicans, which ironically made the show more compelling.
The peak of the Golden Age of TV was about 15 years ago, and I think that by now you can’t make the same stories that you did back then, even if they are set among criminals or in the distant past. The Shield is in the minds of sophisticated viewers perhaps the greatest cop show of all time. I don’t watch any law enforcement shows that are on today, but I sometimes get a glimpse of one on TV, and it’s always a thin pretty Hispanic woman leading a SWAT team. This isn’t reality, and you can’t make us pretend that it is. I was dreading The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos prequel that came out in 2021, and it was indeed a nightmare. The Deadwood movie from 2019 managed not to be that bad, and although it had a racism angle, it was mostly realistic, not preachy, and with very few exceptions not too reactive to the Current Thing. I was very grateful for that.
Douthat in his book writes about one notable exception to the decline of original works of art, and it’s a quite telling example.
Wakanda is particularly interesting because Marvel’s fictional sub-Saharan hidden kingdom is so resolutely different. Different from the stereotypes of African backwardness that it was invented to rebuke, obviously, but also strikingly different from the modern liberal order as we know it, with technologies that exceed our own but a politics and culture that are proudly illiberal—indeed, monarchical and theocratic.
The obvious reason for this is that the Wakanda universe tells a story of black empowerment. So in addition to franchises where problematic material is grandfathered in and placing a story in the past or in the criminal underworld, we have blackness as permission to create the kind of art that would otherwise be difficult to make. It’s sort of like how only trans women are able to say that when they were growing up, they knew they were female because they wanted to wear makeup and put on dresses. Maybe in the future we’ll get new stories in the tradition of Snow White and Cinderella with all-LGBT casts. Note how the trans activist who just got denounced by the Biden team for showing off her boobs was perhaps the most feminine presenting woman to get invited to the White House under this administration.
Unfortunately, it requires established studios and a lot of money to make blockbuster shows and movies, which prevents the market correcting for these failures. Industries with low barriers to entry end up reflecting human nature more than woke ideology: think Instagram models, pornography, dime store romance novels (i.e., Fifty Shades of Grey), and the world of political takes. Meanwhile, when barriers to entry are high, then wokes are shielded from competition and activists have targets on which they can focus their attention. In addition to the costs involved of making movies and TV shows, copyright law creates artificial monopolies. Disney can buy Star Wars and give it to JJ Abrams, and he becomes the only one who can make movies benefitting from the name of a franchise with a half century of success behind it. If conservatives are interested in doing something that can own the libs, enact good policy, punish their enemies, and improve the arts, all at the same time, they might want to consider reforming copyright law.
I don’t think the woke revolution is permanent. We’re already seeing indicators that we’re past the 2020 peak, and if conservatives are smart enough to listen to me on civil rights law, I think we’ll eventually see downstream effects on the larger culture. Human nature wins when choice is still allowed, even if barriers to entry sometimes make markets less efficient than they otherwise could be. AI in particular might cause disruptions that lead to less woke art. One way or another, we’ll eventually get beyond all of this. In the meantime, enjoy old movies and TV shows. They may be the best you’re going to get for a while.
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