Won’t You Be My Neighbor: An Anti-Hate Pop Culture Syllabus

The closing fight scene of the 1988 martial arts movie Bloodsport has the Muscles from Brussels (Jean-Claude Van Damme) growling prehistorically, flexing his pecs, and kicking like Nureyev as he beats his Asian opponent while blinded by dust. A bottle blond cheers from the stands at this homoerotic display of outdated, pumped-up white masculinity and, surprisingly, it’s not Donald Trump. This corny alpha-male fantasy, one of the president’s favorite movies, is loosely based on the life of U.S. marine Frank Dux, who — fittingly — made it all up. Trump watched Bloodsport on his private jet because of course he did. Apparently, he fast-forwarded to the action scenes because of course he did. It’s since been spliced into a video game because of course, of course, of course.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace,” said the Bloodsport fan-in-chief after two mass shootings earlier this month. “Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.” In case you inadvertently bought that, remember the guy reading those words has based his popularity on denigrating virtually every human life that is not his own. Because Trump appears to continue to reside in the ’80s, it makes sense that he never got (read?) the memo that studies have failed over the past three decades to show that popular culture incites violence. But even a stopped clock is on point twice a day and as much as it pains me to say, Trump is inadvertently semicorrect: We do need a change. Certainly, individual games or movies or shows or songs don’t have the power to pull a trigger, but put all of them together and it’s a slightly different story. Popular culture has been defined predominantly by the white patriarchal society that also formed Trump, and all too often shares his xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. It established an assumption in which, while it may be frowned upon to shoot a movie theater full of people, it is also a man’s God-given right to bear arms, to dominate, to express himself with violence. So, sure, find comfort in the fact that including two accused rapists in a major international film festival will be unlikely to directly cause another man to behave the same way; perhaps less comforting is the realization that this perpetuates a climate in which it wouldn’t be so bad if he did.

Earlier this year, race scholar Ibram X. Kendi published two antiracist syllabi, one of which included a sprawling list of books “to help America transcend its racist heritage.” He cited titles like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Langston Hughes’s The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, works “that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.” (This month sees the publication of Kendi’s third book, How to Be an Antiracist.) His argument is that it is not enough to just claim you are not racist, you have to actively oppose racism. That gave me the idea of a syllabus for pop culture that is anti-hate: that doesn’t merely claim it doesn’t hate, but actively opposes it. These are the works — the movies, television, music — that don’t just offer representations beyond white male dominance but actively foster community and inclusivity, that normalize forms of gender and sexuality that don’t conform to tradition, that make space for anger while providing alternatives to its violent expression against the other. Individual shows or albums can’t kill or save us, but a critical mass either way shapes our cultural foundation.

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In the wake of last year’s Toronto van attack, I wrote in Hazlitt about how Mister Rogers imbued children’s programming with empathy — initially in the ’60s in Canada — by making feelings “mentionable and manageable.” The underlying mission of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was to encourage a sense of attachment and the idea that not only were the kids who watched cared for, but that they should care for others too. His was a guide to self-actualization within the context of community. As Karen Vander Ven, a psychology professor who went to school with Rogers, explained to me at the time, “When you don’t feel strongly attached then you try to find another way to be significant which is often to take the upper hand.” While there isn’t a strict profile for shooters, this is part of the primordial stew out of which they tend to form their pinhole worldview, which leads to some of them lashing out violently, often against women and people of color.

These men are the fullest expression of a cultural (and political) landscape we created, an extreme form of the everyday violence — from catcalls in the street to racial disparity in executive suites — that owes its normalization to this toxic marinade. The attackers at Dayton and Isla Vista and Toronto were misogynists, while the shooters at Poway, El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, and Charleston were racists, too. The reigning narrative of our time is the godlike hero, usually white, usually male, the embodiment of antiquated machismo, trouncing his enemies alone according to a combat-and-conquer plot, his personality and his emotions only significant insofar as they feed his weapon-fueled revenge. This is a story of male dominance, of white supremacy, of raging violence, told again and again and again. And this is the story of mass shootings. The hero wins the recognition he has always craved by emulating his chosen gods, men like him who use real guns to kill the real people they take for the fictional enemies inside their heads. Men who come from a place where the number one film of the year (so far) is Avengers: Endgame, which touts toothless representation while failing spectacularly to go beyond standard-issue good and evil.

The stories we need, the ones that promote inclusivity, have begun to arrive — they’re just less pervasive. Though it made significantly less at the box office, last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the rare anti-hate superhero movie. The electrifying animation revolves around a 13-year-old superhero, Miles Morales, with a black father and a Hispanic mother, who is unsure of how to get a hold of who he is. This is a story that supplants a fictional moralistic binary with a more realistic take on the elasticity of identity. It shows how family and friends — in this case, a bunch of misplaced Spider-Men from parallel universes — form who we are, but also how the strength we pull from them allows us to create our own narratives, making us more valuable to our community and vice versa. “I’m Spider-Man,” Miles says, “and I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.” Outside the world of genre, the storyline is reminiscent of GLOW, the Netflix series based on a group of real women wrestlers from the ’80s. This motley crew of various races, classes, and sexualities — and in one case, species — establish a loving community nonetheless. The violent torching of a drag show that happens toward the end of the latest season — “Die Fags Die,” reads the graffiti left behind — is a counterpoint to the safe space that the women provide for one another to self-actualize and that the drag community itself offers to Sheila the She-Wolf, who ultimately becomes closer to the group after throwing her disguise into the fire: “It was getting in my way.”

That sort of collective boost is reminiscent of the Tik Tok community that danced their Wranglers off to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” The viral country rap star was rejected by Billboard’s 75-year-old country chart — because it did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” — only to have his twangy hip-hop tune become the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single after a bunch of suburban kids turned it into a meme. What must it be like for a fan of country radio to hear a gay black man, side by side with Billy Ray Cyrus, doing it better? Earlier this year fans also assembled online after Netflix canceled One Day at a Time, one of the rare series to explore the complexity of being Latinx, which, considering the administration’s continued dehumanization of Hispanic immigrants, was a definite choice. “There’s so many people that the story resonates with,” cocreator and showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett told Vanity Fair last year, “about just being the ‘other.’” (CBS’s Pop channel eventually picked it up for 2020.) A growing number of black filmmakers has also been laying bare America’s history of white supremacy, from Jordan Peele’s social thrillers about the many ways the black community has been marginalized to Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America on the many ways they fought back. Meanwhile, Donald Glover’s “This Is America” single and his series Atlanta, play on the absurdity of your own home rejecting you. The FX series subverts tropes around black fatherhood, which, despite the main character’s shortcomings, constantly has him striving to provide for his daughter.

A more fully formed expression of anti-hate masculinity is Shoplifters, one of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s many films about the various configurations a family can take. The husband in a poor household of six provides all the support he can — through shoplifting, but still — without claiming dominance, without being cold or sexist or violent. He chooses instead to be emotionally available, reinforcing the harmony the adults scrounge together, and setting an example for the kids despite also teaching them how to steal. As Kore-eda told the BFI, “Crime is something that we, as a society, own collectively; I think it’s something we need to reclaim and accept as our responsibility, rather than the individual’s.”

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“Don’t send in a man to do a woman’s job” is the kind of cheesy line I would expect to hear in a remake of Bloodsport (which is apparently happening). But it does make sense that if you want pop culture to be anti-hate, that if hate has notoriously been embodied by white men, you go to the women. And it’s true, the women have been kicking ass in a way that Van Damme could only dream of. From Phoebe Waller-Bridge dismantling the power of the self in Fleabag to Janelle Monáe fucking up sex with Dirty Computer so much so that sexism can’t even get a handle on it anymore to Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, cocreators of Pen15, using surrealism to expose the most realistic depiction of racism a coming-of-age show has ever seen to Charlotte Madelon’s The Rose Garden, a zen antidote to first-person shooter video games that softly encourages you to wind down instead of loading up. And then there’s Rebecca Sugar, who rolls all of this anti-hate into one for the children like a latter day Mister Rogers. Steven Universe, the first animated series created by a woman, has been coined the “most empathetic cartoon” ever made. Miss Sugar’s Cartoon Network series dismantles the idea of the lone powerful white male hero before it has the chance to take root, replacing it with an open universe that lets everybody in, including actual aliens. “We need to let children know that they belong in this world,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “You can’t wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done.”

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