How dystopia can lead to pop culture resistance.
After nearly every US presidential election, we watched as soon-to-be presidents announced their nominations for Cabinet positions with relatively little fanfare. The media dutifully covered the biographies of these typical career bureaucrats and broadcast the minority party’s polite dissent, if there even was any.
Enter 2016, the year of the most expensive and dramatic Rose Ceremony — sorry, ELECTION — in the last 40 years. Now, Cabinet picks are the new Celebrity Apprentice and Donald Trump oversees the whole spectacle. The selection of Cabinet secretaries has played out in reality TV time, a parade of likely candidates photographed in grip and grins with PEOTUS at his New Jersey golf club or the gilded lobby of Trump Tower. And then there was the dinner Trump hosted with #NeverTrump leader Mitt Romney and newly appointed Chief of Staff Reince Preibus — awkward.
Trump is filling his Cabinet with very wealthy people who have long records opposing social programs, higher wages, public lands, veterans and the environment. In fact, many of the issue stances held by his nominees are at direct odds with those held by the majority of Americans — which makes sense, considering the majority voted for his opponent. 2.7 million votes later, how did we get here? Have we been blinded by the cheerful populism of movies from the 90’s like Dave which actually features a scene where the Cabinet balances the budget together in front of the press corps and then shakes hands? At what point did we go from The West Wing to House of Cards?
Perhaps we need to go darker. Is it possible that, far from distracting us, film and television actually predicted the rise of totalitarianism? Did we miss the signs? Let’s dive into our collective pop-subconscious for a look at what our stories have been trying to tell us, and add some glimmers of hope to stay positive. For every Mad Max about a future ravaged by climate change, there are moments of science and sanity on Madam Secretary. We’ve ranked them by release date and on a Voldemort scale, with five Voldemorts being the bleakest future we can imagine.
Harry Potter series (2001-2011)
Dystopia Rating: 4 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: The Harry Potter series is an old fashioned good vs. evil story, but unlike most stories aimed at children and young adults, the books and films get increasingly darker with each passing installment. There are themes and issues of income inequality, racism and government overreach. The Death Eaters with their vast wealth and obsession with racial purity may most accurately describe the current makeup of Trump’s Cabinet.
Pop Culture Resistance: The comparisons between the campaign and now the transition is not unnoticed by Potter fans, but we can learn much from the Hogwarts students’ ability to effectively organize and arm themselves against fascism. Watching the Harry Potter movies is an act of hope since (spoiler alert) they do defeat Voldemort in the end.
Black Mirror (2011 – present)
Dystopia Rating: 4 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: Black Mirror examines the near-dystopian future of technology and its societal implications. One episode, “The Waldo Moment,” follows a comedian (Daniel Rigby) who voices a blue cartoon bear named Waldo and runs a satirical campaign for Member of Parliament. Waldo’s campaign begins as a joke, but quickly gains popularity with citizens who are tired of the establishment candidate’s status quo. Sound familiar? Black Mirror thinks so too.
Pop Culture Resistance: Veep, a political satire that nevertheless values expertise and retains optimism in politics.
The Hunger Games (2012 – 2015)
Dystopia Rating: 4.5 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: The young adult series (followed by similarly dystopian Divergent and The Giver) follows a revolution led by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) against the authoritarian regime of Panem. Though she allies herself with underground rebels, Katniss finds that even those on her side do not always share her ideals, and must learn the difficult truth of compromise against a shared enemy. While the popular young adult narrative of teens banding together against evil is encouraging, it also hints at growing resentment against progressive projects for social good that have led to the US’s current anti-government mentality. Proceed critically.
Pop Culture Resistance: Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the story of a civil rights revolution founded in the principles of morality.
Incorporated (2016 – present)
Dystopia Rating: 5 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: The government has conclusively failed to protect its citizens from climate change, and corporations have stepped in to fulfill every human need – but only for their employees. The rest of society lives on the fringes as climate change refugees, eking out an existence in the crime-filled Red Zone. Incorporated represents the worst case scenario of a government that does not believe in climate change.
Pop Culture Resistance: Newly appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt should watch Before The Flood, a plea to politicians to understand the dire consequences of global warming and actions necessary to reverse it.
Designated Survivor (2016 – present)
Dystopia Rating: 3.5 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: When terrorist attack bombs the U.S. Capitol and takes out all three branches of the federal government, a Cabinet member (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes the POTUS. The plot twists around terrorism are enough to pay attention to, but there is another angle. Sutherland’s character was the the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While the position is downplayed as bureaucratic and unimportant, it reminded us of Trump’s recent pick of Ben Carson — who has no housing policy experience at all — for Secretary of HUD.
Pop Culture Resistance: Show Me a Hero, the HBO mini-series about the true story of public housing desegregation in Yonkers, NY in the early 1980s. Civil service is serious, detailed work affecting people’s safety and security, which starts with stable, affordable housing.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)
Dystopia Rating: 5 Voldemorts
What’s at Stake: In the future post-nuclear Gilead, a totalitarian regime has taken over. In an infertility crisis, fertile women are forced to become sex slaves or “handmaids” and bear the upper classes’ children. Birth control is illegal, and women have no civil or personal rights at all. Starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, this story bears eerie relevance as states are presently passing laws to take away women’s abortion and health care access.
Pop Culture Resistance: Trump’s Health and Human Services nominee Tom Rice opposes contraception access for women, particularly young and low-income. He should watch this episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where Paula has a guilt-free abortion so she can go to law school. Women have dreams, too!
The Circle (2017)
Dystopia Rating: 11 Voldemorts because this is currently happening!!
What’s at Stake: Our lives are already interconnected by social networks and mobile apps that track our every move and lure us to share every thought, experience and reaction, no matter how mundane. The Circle takes this current reality and imagines a company that subsumes Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, banks, shopping, government services – EVERYTHING – and encourages NO PRIVACY. Mae (Emma Watson) is an ambitious new hire who begins to make dangerous choices about the company mission: “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”
Pop Culture Resistance: Loss of privacy and thinking about the NSA is stressful, but the battle isn’t over. Watch Oliver Stone’s biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who uncovered classified government surveillance programs and sparked greater awareness of internet security. And maybe think twice before your next Facebook post.
— Justine Hebron, AndACTION Communications Manager