Why Do We See Pop Culture As A Barometer For How The Country Is Doing?

Watching the Academy Awards a few weeks ago was a bit of a stressful experience.

I was obviously stressed about whether or not Emma Stone would finally win an Oscar, but the stakes were bigger than that.

From the very beginning of this awards season, the conversation was clouded by last year’s Oscar’s So White controversy, where the show’s 88th run was criticized for a lack of diversity among its nominees.

This year’s ceremony was definitely a test of the relevance and awareness of the Academy, but it represented something more.

The entire country watched this year’s Academy Awards with bated breath, with a sense the results of the ceremony said more about themselves than the actors.

Collectively, we tend to use pop culture as a barometer for how we’re doing as a country; is that really fair to either?

For the few (brief) moments La La Land was 2016’s Best Picture, I could almost see the furious typing of Buzzfeed opinion columnists, writing the think piece of the year about what La La Land’s defeat of Moonlight meant about race in America.

They appeared within minutes when Adele’s 25 beat Beyonce’s Lemonade for Album of the Year a few weeks earlier at another high-profile awards show.

It’s not an unfair criticism to make, it might even be a necessary one.

Commentary and discourse about the results of the biggest acknowledgement of excellence within the entertainment industry is what keeps it moving forward.

The problem occurs when we take it a step too far.

An interesting phenomenon has popped up in the discourse about Hollywood’s diversity: the application of that discussion for a wider purpose in the political sphere.

There looms a need to connect entertainment stories to more “important” stories, such as ones related to the political climate.

Everything that happens in the world of entertainment is played off to represent something bigger.

A perfect example of this was the inaccurate announcing of La La Land as Best Picture.

The unfortunate mistake saw Moonlight literally taking the most coveted award in the movie industry from La La Land’s hands.

The conflict between those two movies lasted all throughout awards season, and many saw it as a direct reflection of the political polarization taking place in America.

The trend of the underdog win has not gone unnoticed in the last several months, either.

From Donald Trump unexpectedly winning on election night to the Patriots’ fourth quarter comeback in the Super Bowl, many saw Moonlight as a reiteration of that same trend.

It provides an easy answer, and, in Moonlight’s case, it’s exactly the answer we want.

In a time of unprecedented political polarization, it feels good to think we can all be as accepting as Moonlight.

The reality is not that easy.

Pop culture isn’t really a direct reflection of our political climate.

In fact, it’s often the opposite.

One of the biggest reasons La La Land was so dominant this awards season was because of its sense of escapism – it was refreshing to see something so not important.

It wasn’t trying to reflect our current political climate, it wasn’t trying to teach the audience a lesson.

It was simply telling a story, which is what all pop culture really goes back to.

The age of Trump has turned everything on its head, however.

La La Land didn’t win Best Picture.

Moonlight did, and that’s whatever the opposite of what escapism is.

That detail may be indicative that people are looking for a more relevant pop culture.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.

Here’s what it comes down to: both entertainment and politics are a reflection of who we are.

Both take the struggles of real people and harness those emotions on a national stage.

There’s a fundamental difference between the two, however.

Politics is a direct reflection of who we are; politicians are elected by the people, after all.

On the other hand, entertainment is often a reflection of who we want to be.

The stories that are told, from Moonlight to La La Land and Lemonade to 25 represent where we want to be going, not necessarily where we are.

Using pop culture as a barometer is only somewhat effective.

Moonlight’s win at the Academy Awards does not mean racism in America is over, in fact it doesn’t even mean racism in Hollywood is over.

The Pop Culture Barometer as a construct is an oversimplification.

Hollywood’s failures are not America’s failures, their successes are not our successes, and vice versa.

Pop culture is a representation of everything we want to be, and it’s often a reflection of the very best of ourselves.

Using it to try to explain things like political polarization is where the comparison fails.

At the end of the day, understanding where we want to go is crucial to understanding ourselves, but it doesn’t do anything to describe where we are now.

So while it’s great to know we all want to be Emma Stone, it’s important to realize we’re not quite there yet.

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.

This is an opinion piece. It is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of RISE NEWS. 

Cover Photo Credit: La La Land/ Facebook


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About the Author
Ellie Konfrst is a junior in high school from Des Moines, Iowa. She is passionate about politics and public speaking, serving as the chair of the High School Democrats of Iowa and captain of her school’s speech & debate team. Aside from that, she plays on the tennis team, serves on student government, and loves to read and write whenever she can.
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