September 21, 2022

Bursting the bubble: Art and audience in the age of Trump


During the course of 2015 and 2016, I wrote my first book, Retcon Games: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America. That book, published in early 2017 by the University Press of Mississippi, was a history and analysis of the literary technique called retroactive continuity. “Retconning,” as it’s called, is a process by which creators of a fictional work revisit and change the history of that work by, for example, altering a significant event in a characters’ origins or inserting a new, important character into their back story.

I saw the ascension of retconning in an increasingly significant amount of popular culture —in comic books, literature, television, and film franchises — as a positive occurrence, one that signaled an increasing sophistication on the part of the American public to understand how tenuous and debatable our understanding of history is.

To my line of thinking, the more that audiences were able to understand a mutable past in their popular media, the more able they would be to approach the past through a nuanced lens, a lens that allows for multiple narratives to compete in a way that creates a more complex tapestry of history.

In between writing that book and its publication, something happened that blew my thesis to hell — the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Photo courtesy the author.
The New History

At first blush, there might not seem to be a direct correlation between retconning and American politics. Generally speaking, though all politicians are known to bend the truth, no American presidents have tried to completely rewrite history in the way that authoritarian dictators in Soviet Russia or North Korea have. There have certainly been different politicized attempts to claim and re-claim the narrative of history and its meanings, but outright falsehoods (and easily proven falsehoods, at that) have never been the order of the day.

The Trump administration, unfortunately, has proven to be a bitter exception to that rule. Rather than the traditional “talking points,” “spin zones,” and slanted news stories we’re now faced with such neologisms as “fake news” and “alternative facts,” with bald-faced conspiracy theories peddled as support for official policy decisions.

Rather than seeing through these lies and falsehoods for what they are, a significant portion of Americans seem inclined to fully believe the deceptions of the Trump administration, and discount any criticism as biased “fake news.”

For example, the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily,” on Oct. 20, 2017, interviewed Nancy McEldowney, the former Director of the Foreign Service Institute and the National Foreign Affairs Training Center. McEldowney explained how, upon Trump’s inauguration, she was told that she and her colleagues could make no reference to the policies of the Obama administration in any of their training materials. She explained that, “I think it was simply an attempt to state that history started on the day the Trump administration walked into office.”

So much for a more complex tapestry of history.

My utopian vision of the power of pop culture to save the world had crumbled before my eyes. And right before the book was to come out, to boot! To quote Hillary Clinton, what happened?

Bubbles Go Beyond Politics

Like most of my fellow liberals and Democrats in the days and weeks following the election, I constantly questioned how we had gotten things so wrong. I was ready to weep on election night out of joy that I would be able to tell any future daughters that they could grow up to be president, and instead I found myself sobbing out of fear for the actual safety of my family.

As a Jew, I have been raised to be aware of the long history of anti-Semitism in the world in general, and in America in particular. While driving cross-country on family vacations growing up, my parents would never stop in small towns because they worried our New York accents, tinged with inflections inherited from several generations of Yiddish-speakers, would make us unwelcome. But personally, I’ve only ever lived in places with sizable Jewish populations. Moving to Austin was the first time I ever became aware of myself as being a member of a minority, though in central Texas’ “liberal bubble” that was never a threatening thing.

When visiting my wife’s family in small-town Texas, though, I make sure to not be so loud. To not make certain self-deprecating jokes. To cross to the other side of the street when I see a pro-Trump yard sign. Because in the past year I’ve seen marchers on TV clearly stating that they want to kill “the Jews,” and I don’t know if somebody supports Trump because they lost their factory job or if they support Trump because they want to send me to a gas chamber. In practicality, for me and for people like me, there’s no difference.

My bubble of safety was pierced by the election. As was my bubble of white privilege. I was given just the tiniest glimpse of what it’s like to suddenly not be a white person in America, a life full of warranted paranoia, fear, and guardedness. And that’s speaking as somebody who can still “pass” as white; I can’t even imagine how frightening this country has become for people who wear their identities on their skin.

As I thought about these things, I started to realize that I had been living in other bubbles, too, besides the political and social bubbles everyone’s been talking about. I surround myself with savvy, smart, snarky, pop-culture-obsessed people who believe that popular representation matters and who take their movies, television, video games and comic books as seriously as they do their politics. We fawn over Parks & Recreation while derisively snickering about The Big Bang Theory. We analyze the ins and outs of Stranger Things and find ourselves surprised to hear that NCIS is still on the air.

This was the bubble within which I had written my book. It was a book by a geek, about geeks, for geeks. My thesis, I believe, still holds true . . . for geeks. Complicated narratives that are rewarding to unravel make for smarter audiences who are able to similarly unravel complexities in history, society, and politics.

But what I neglected to realize is that that’s not the majority of American audiences, it’s just the majority of the people I know and interact with.

Audiences Aren’t Universal

In addition to my academic studies of popular culture, I’ve been a freelance theatre critic since 2015. When I first started reviewing shows in Austin, those works seemed to cover a variety of unique themes from family dramas, to love stories, screwball comedies, and complex looks at contemporary social norms.

Now, when I see a show, it always seems to fall into “about Trump” or “deliberately avoiding being about Trump.” Every show that has a political message suddenly feels incredibly poignant and resonant in the current political moment, while shows that eschew politics in order to entertain feel like they’re chosen to be a breath of fresh air amidst our collective cultural obsession with the potentially waning days of our democracy.

Who’d have ever thought that “The Sound of Music” would be so relevant again?

Given the historically liberal leanings of the American stage, and of the Austin theatrical community, I feel relatively good about the fact that when I pick up on the anti-Trump stance of a production that it was intentional. However, is this something that will speak to all audiences? Sure, within the Austin bubble, that’s likely to be the case. But are these shows, and myself as a critic pointing out the nuances of those shows, merely preaching to the choir? Are we merely fitting a tighter bubble around ourselves? Shows that truly challenge how “liberal” that bubble really is for artists of color are often neglected by the Austin critical community, so are we only comfortable singing in that choir, ourselves?

I don’t have an answer to this. Nor do I have answers to how I could have been so off base in the thesis of my book. Perhaps the conservative pundits are correct that we liberal, academic and artistic “elites” merely see our own selves reflected in our media (social or traditional) and forgot that there’s a larger world out there with different beliefs, views and content.

Con Games and Retcon Games 

If there’s anything that those of us who work in the media have learned from Trump’s election, it’s that we need to do a better job of questioning our base assumptions.

We thought that Republican primary voters would recognize Trump’s joke candidacy for what it was and choose a sane, reasonable candidate. We were wrong.

We thought women of all races would reject voting for a man who has stated he would happily, casually, and unapologetically sexually assault them. We were wrong.

We thought that the strands of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and misogyny in America were getting weaker, and not just gathering their forces for a mass resurgence. We were wrong.

I thought that understanding complex narrative tropes about mutable fictional histories would make all Americans more able to understand how facts are compiled into the narratives that construct history. I was wrong.

I thought we had advanced to an era of playful, postmodern retcon games, but instead we fell for the most shameful totalitarian con game in American history.

If we want to win that game, if we want to survive it, we need to learn how to better understand our audiences. Let’s continue to make complicated media and pointed political art, but let’s also make those stories attractive and available to everyone, not just our own bubbles.

Instead of focusing on retroactively changing the past, let’s get to the hard work of proactively shaping the future.

Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal is writer, an editor, a cultural scholar and historian, based in Austin, Texas. His book "Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America" is published by Univ. of Mississippi Press. He is regular contributor to Time Out Austin and the Austin American-Statesman.

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