I am content to sit and write about my favorite sitcom quotes from this week, what Ewan McGregor movie I have seen 500 times, and even what show decided to annoy me for the last time. But in real life, I am very interested in the role that pop culture can play in changing perceptions and informing the general public. The use of popular culture in this way is not surprising and two news items from this week help illustrate my point (and after I get sad about the world, I attempt to identify some positive utilities): North Carolina and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibár. And I shoehorn The Whistleblower in at the end.
The majority of North Carolinian voters have agreed on an amendment to their constitution that bans same-sex marriage. Sigh. I only heard about this amendment a few days leading up to it (when various tweeters got to work to motivate voters) but I wish it had been more nationally newsworthy months ago. North Carolina needed help, clearly. But no, I am not surprised about the results, which in itself speaks to one of the many problems with U.S. regional politics. Winner for most frustrating remark, Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman for a pro-amendment group: “…you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”
One thing that is bothering me is the rampant disparaging remarks against “North Carolina” as if it is monolithic. It may be in part due to the fact I grew up in geographical proximity to the state, but obviously not everyone voted “Yes” to the amendment. Just think how horrible it is to love your state and yet, see that you are surrounded by people that disagree with your views on such a fundamental level. I am Virginian, I know a thing or two about this feeling.
Pop culture bright spot #1: Twitter really is a social media monster; it allows for loud, instantaneous reaction to any bit of news. Naturally, my feed was engulfed by outrage and disappointment over the results in North Carolina. Hopefully many apathetic individuals are slowly coming around to formulating their own opinions, based on outcry.
Pop culture bright spot #2: On the same day the New York Times discussed the North Carolina issue, it was also analyzing how vastly the entertainment industry has changed, in a mere decade, over portraying LGBT characters and storylines. Edward Schiappa, a professor at the University of Minnesota believes that “TV and movie representation matters.” He has found that gay characters on TV have decreased prejudice among viewers.
Pop culture bright spot #3: People like Jack Antonoff and his band fun. get to utilize success as a platform to discuss LGBT issues and highlight the optimistic romanticism of their lyrics. Seriously, seeing them live was a celebration of equal rights and diversity. They have deservingly won many fans not only in the LGBT community but from all walks of life. If their fans (and particularly the high schooler set) truly believe in the lyrics that they scream back to Nate Ruess, then we can chalk up another positive influence to kids these days.
UPDATED Overall life bright spot: President Obama has gone on record promoting marriage equality. I am impressed. It is almost Newtonian (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…) when viewing it with North Carolina’s vote. Never would I have dreamed this would come up before the election. So glad Obama got to finally back something he has likely been in favor of for decades. Politics.
In the wake of so many tributes to Maurice Sendak, his work with Tony Kushner on Brundibár (as a book and opera) has been mentioned a few times. Brundibár is a children’s opera originally conceived by Hans Krása at the onset of World War II. The show had begun initial performances at an orphanage in Prague before the Nazis came knocking. Being a Czech Jew, Krása was sent to the Theresienstadt (Czech: Terezín) concentration camp in1943 along with many of the children who had rehearsed for the opera. Brundibár was performed 55 times at Theresienstadt before Krása and most of the children were deported to Auschwitz; upon arrival, most of these prisoners were immediately killed.
I toured Terezín in summer 2009. It is a powerful, transformative place and it remains hard to pin down my emotions on the visit. I got to see what it meant to be a “model” concentration camp, if you pretend not to see the execution wall. The model was meant for the Red Cross, sent into the camp to investigate the treatment of the prisoners. There they found pristine looking bathrooms, a swimming pool and a cinema (with the pool and cinema being for German officers). An oasis in Central Europe during the height of World War II? Of course not, these things were for show. In fact, the bathroom was so pristine because it was never used. To avoid the look of overcrowding, many Jews were deported to Auschwitz before the tour. The Red Cross was also treated to a performance of Brundibár. In the ghetto I took a peek into the schoolhouse where the children spent their time and saw their drawings. The adults in the ghetto were dedicated to the children’s continued education despite their conditions. That night, I was a little more reckless, and embraced carpe diem as an escape. It is really difficult to wrestle with the terrors of a mere 60 years ago.
Pop culture bright spot: The opera contains many anti-Nazi sentiments and the Brundibár in the play is a stand-in for Hitler. While the opera was a vital tool in giving the Terezín children something to preoccupy their time, it also gave the adults a platform to remain resistant to their circumstances. Performances of Brundibár increasingly provide an opportunity to remember what happened at Terezín and to celebrate the lives that were lost.
A brief discussion on The Whistleblower:
This is one of the most depressing films I have seen this year. I only want to quickly mention it because I struggled with finding the bright spot here. The film is informative about human trafficking and the fallibility of organizations we put our trust in to defend universal human rights. A scant pop culture bright spot could simply be that this film exists; it is a gateway to discussion and enlightenment about injustice. But seriously, it wasn’t marketed to be a major film. It has been propelled via word of mouth, the Rachel Weisz fandom and possibly, the discount I got on renting it from Amazon Instant Video. I hope it makes the rounds because it is especially disturbing if you are committed to peacebuilding. Mismanagement and misconduct in missions is a problem facilitated by the “aid chain” and no one is close to finding a solution.
And just to lighten the mood, no, I will not neglect to mention that Benedict Cumberbatch is also in the film (the whole cast is basically Brits playing Americans, hello Liam Cunningham!). Benedict is literally in two scenes and effectively plays a douche. I got the feeling he was involved in the cover-up but the film provides no reason as to why he even exists. Maybe there are scenes on the cutting room floor? This is another issue – I have to applaud a first time female director, but the film needed polishing.
Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.
Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community.
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum on Arts and Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace as well as a working group of peacebuilders and theater professionals who discussed “Toward an Infrastructure for Strengthening Work at the Nexus of Peacebuilding and the Arts.”
In the forum, I was proud to see the Chief Programming Officer at my organization give a detailed presentation on how we utilize “drama” in our work. Drama shifts cultural norms and breaks through the world of the ‘other’; symbols and metaphors enable shifts and enable us to envision choices. Current hurdle: how can these programs be integrated into policymaking?
In the working group, I got to witness the natural fit between the peacebuilders and the artists. Everyone was beyond elated to be in the same room with each other and eager to find creative ways to widen the field of peacebuilding and the arts. What came out of it was a commitment to inform, reunite, and the attempt to document as much as possible in the future.
Interested? Check out:
- USIP’s Evaluating Media Interventions in Conflict Countries
- Media in Fragile Environments
- Acting Together: a peacebuilding and the arts initiative at Brandeis
- Theatre Without Borders