Timely. Relevant. Resonant.
These are the promotional watchwords for must-see TV and movies in our politics-saturated pop culture today. The New York Times recently published a piece about the “timeliness” of the new Amazon series American Gods, because of the show’s pro-immigration theme. The Times also advertised Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale as “newly resonant,” because of the widespread, unhinged fretting that President Trump is going to usher in a misogynistic theocracy in which women are stripped of their rights and reduced to being childbearing livestock.
There is more. Director Ron Howard revealed that a Nazi character in his Nat Geo series Genius was modeled after President Trump, and that an episode with an immigration theme had “vital resonance” with current events. The alt-history Amazon series The Man in the High Castle is seen as relevant because of the absurd fear-mongering over imaginary, “deeply disturbing parallels” between the Trump administration and the show’s depiction of a fascist America. Not even kids’ movies can escape this hysteria: analogies are actually being drawn between Trump and the titular character from the animated film The Boss Baby.
The list of examples could go on and on, but while the trend seems ubiquitous, it did not begin with the rise of Trump. Hyping the topical nature of a book, movie, or TV series is a common, longstanding promotional strategy, particularly if the story being advertised also promotes a particular political agenda. Every story that can be politically weaponized is marketed breathlessly as “timely.”
Though a connection to current events may draw us in on one level, it is a very limiting and unfulfilling way of appreciating story. Reducing a tale to its political relevance immediately divides viewers and precludes our appreciation for any other perspective on a story – namely, seeing the more enduring human values in it that unite us. Yes, exploiting political controversy sells, but politicizing a movie or TV show or song or painting or sculpture or dance or any other art form in this way is rarely enlightening; on the contrary, it is inevitably divisive, not to mention usually inartful. It changes few if any minds; instead, it largely preaches to the choir and hardens resistance among the unconverted, leaving little flexibility for viewers to question themselves and be seduced by other possibilities. It stirs no emotions except self-righteousness on one side of the political aisle and outrage on the other.
Worst of all, there is no transcendence in such storytelling, because politics is not a realm of the spirit. Politics is grounded in the struggle for temporal power. While it provides endless possibilities for plots both tragic and comic, the political element alone cannot provide us with that emotional catharsis Aristotle saw as the key to great storytelling. This is not to say that stories with political settings cannot move us, or be spiritually or morally elevating, or contain deeper themes and meaning. The problem comes when we view it through the narrow lens of the political “timeliness” of any given story. Robert Penn Warren’s political novel All the King’s Men is a classic not because critics of Donald Trump might find some timely parallel between him and the novel’s protagonist Willy Stark that confirms their opinion of Trump, but because the book addresses themes of sin and corruption (among others) which connect us all (indeed, Warren has said that All the King’s Men was never intended to be a book about politics).
To rise above the petty, transitory conflicts of politics, look beyond the timeliness of a story to its timelessness. Seek out tales that speak not to the specifics of our moment, but that put a spotlight on our common humanity (or inhumanity, as the case may be). Look for classics, like All the King’s Men, that have stood the test of time. From Aeschylus to Zola, these are stories that still touch our souls not because we can superimpose today’s headlines on them but because they address eternal themes about the human condition; not because they confirm our self-righteous political biases but because they humble us and leave us wiser.
From Acculturated, 5/7/17