What do the following things, among others, have in common? Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, seasons 11 and 12 of Doctor Who (the ones with the female Doctor), Terminator: Dark Fate, and the CW superhero TV shows (Supergirl, The Flash, Batwoman, etc).
Besides the fact that they’re all in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, these shows are “woke,” but what exactly does that mean? They feature female and gay protagonists and are meant to be feministic and progressive, or “awake” to issues of social justice and diversity.
The deeper question, though, is whether identity politics is compatible with excellent storytelling. In other words, are woke movies and TV shows stories at all or just works of propaganda?
Stories versus Propaganda
Let’s reflect on the difference between those two things. A story can be about politics but it can’t be purely political in the author’s method of telling the story. A narrative that’s presented entirely for political reasons is propaganda. Propaganda is designed not to explore ideas or to invite the audience to identify with the characters, but to push a political agenda at the expense of plot, characterization, dialogue, plausibility, verisimilitude, and other elements of fiction.
Stories are works of art, not just in the trivial sense that they’re artifacts, but in that their creators strive to express their “imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill” so that the works can be “appreciated for their beauty or emotional power,” as the Wikipedia article on art puts it. Of course, the authors can succeed or fail in that endeavour, so some stories are better — more entertaining, compelling, or profound — than others.
Propaganda isn’t art, but a tool for manipulating the audience, the greater good being political or economic rather than artistic. Propaganda is a soulless, calculated, committee-driven exercise in cynicism. Governments and corporations, in particular, are infamous for their propaganda. Virtually everything said in public debates between politicians is more or less fraudulent, and all advertisements are blatant works of hype and disinformation. Mind you, a politician can accidentally tell the truth, as in a “gaffe” which those in the political profession consider a foolish lapse on the politician’s part, and sophisticated ads can have artistic elements.
But the key to propaganda is that its producers don’t have artistic goals in mind; they’re thinking about how to control their audience to win an election, say, or to earn a profit. By contrast, the artist means to explore the depths of her unconscious or the potential of an artistic medium, or to tell a realistic or otherwise compelling narrative that entertains and enlightens the readers or viewers without violating their trust.
In short, propaganda is produced in bad faith; its producer necessarily lies to her audience — not just by telling a fictional narrative that obviously amounts to a shared pretense, but by pretending to be concerned with conveying deeper truths rather than with manipulating the audience for the producer’s private gain. The artist can use techniques to represent reality in simplified ways, but she doesn’t outright lie about the nature of her product.
The story-teller intends to entertain or to educate and she stands by the artistic merits of her work. The propagandist intends to manipulate her audience, which requires that she withhold crucial information and eschew reason and honest explanation in her narrative. Any truth in propaganda will be subjective, at best, since it’s presented with flagrant fallacies and exploitative rhetoric.
Assuming the woke shows are propagandistic, what exactly are their nonartistic aims? The intention isn’t just to spread a progressive political message, although that may be how the woke propagandist will publicly defend her work. The more apparent goal, though, is to sabotage established works of art that are assumed, on the contrary, to be wholly patriarchal.
The woke propagandist may not even believe there’s any such thing as nonpolitical art; there’s only propaganda, she might think. In any case, her objective is to take scalps, to “repurpose” patriarchal stories, to bastardize and vandalize them to deprive the hypermasculine dominators of their symbols of oppression, and to replace white male-centered propaganda with female and minority-centered kind.
This is why woke shows tend to be unoriginal and to take the form of a new direction in an established franchise. A striking example is Jodie Whittaker’s female version of the Doctor character from Doctor Who. After decades of being a man, the Doctor regenerates and becomes a woman. Not only that, but the current showrunner Chris Chibnall seems to be retconning the show and adding an entire lineage of regenerated Doctors that began before the canonical lineage, the prior one perhaps consisting solely of women. So the Doctor might originally have been a woman, even before the first known Doctor from the first season of 1963.
What makes Chibnall’s Doctor propagandistic rather than artistic is that the social-justice agenda overrides artistic considerations. For example, the goal isn’t to think hard about how a female Doctor would behave and to explore such psychological themes in the writing, to critique masculine and feminine mentalities.
There’s no such depth in the escapades of Whittaker’s Doctor. Whittaker’s performance consists of an impression of David Tennant’s Doctor, and there’s not even a hint in the writing that women sometimes think or feel differently than men. The femaleness of Whittaker’s Doctor is only skin deep. Instead of intriguing new story lines, there’s virtue-signaling.
In particular, the writers now show only a perfunctory interest in what was most universal in Doctor Who, namely the science. Whittaker’s Doctor hardly has any chance to demonstrate her mastery of science, technology, and the ins and outs of alien life, because the writers aren’t interested in science fiction. So however the BBC propagandists may rationalize their work, the effect is evidently the termination of Doctor Who, the replacement of a more universal story with shallow, small-minded propaganda.
Notice that if a woke writer’s goal were to tell stories from a minority’s authentic viewpoint, the writer could conceive of an altogether new show with original characters instead of piggybacking her agenda on an established intellectual property. Effectively, Chibnall is trolling Doctor Who fans, rubbing their nose in grubby politics disguised as science fiction, just as Kathleen Kennedy and Rian Johnson did with Disney’s Star Wars and just as Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman are doing with Star Trek.
The technique is familiar from Gay Pride parades and from other forceful means of social normalization. Whereas great stories could feature homosexual protagonists, the injection of such characters into all manner of narratives, with no respect for realistic proportions and having the unintended consequence of reminding the audience that the endeavour is mainly political turns the narrative into propaganda.
The point of such inclusion isn’t to exercise artistic integrity and dive deeply into minority perspectives. Instead, the underhanded aim is to popularize minorities on the cheap, with Mary Sue pseudo-characters and awkward intrusions of the author’s issues on what’s supposed to be a freestanding fictional world. The “progressive” goal is to vicariously avenge minorities against their erstwhile white male oppressors. However laudable that may be, none of it has anything to do with art.
That vengeance is taken by undermining beloved characters such as Luke Skywalker and the Doctor, and destroying fictional universes. To be clear, there’s no battle here between opposing artistic visions. No, the culture war at issue is between those who are interested in genuine works of art and those “progressives” who seem to deny the possibility of such works and who cheer on the proliferation of feel-good propaganda that has no literary depth.
The Preference of Propaganda to Art
There’s another nonartistic agenda which is more complicated, namely the economic one. Perhaps Kennedy, Kurtzman, Chibnall and the other woke propagandists are just appealing to new markets that prefer progressive propaganda to authentic, compelling stories. Assuming the target audiences here would be the Millennial and Z generations, the questions are whether the content producers’ assessment of those young people’s shallowness is accurate and if so, what the cause of that shallowness might be.
The culprits here would have to be the new technological and social media environments, which spoil their inhabitants. If you grow up with the internet, you’re used to having the world’s information at your fingertips and you’re able to publish content on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. If you grow up with social media and a smart phone, you’re in the habit of talking to people from around the world; more specifically, because of the proliferation of niche contents, you’re likely to join a likeminded tribe.
I remember the ordeal of obtaining pornography as a teenager in the early nineties. You’d borrow your dad’s credit card and rent an adult movie on a VHS tape from a big machine at the local convenience store, to enjoy the grainy footage that would take forever to rewind and fast-forward. Needless to say, teens today are swimming in HD porn.
What this means is young adults in postindustrial societies are no longer used to being challenged. In theory, they have a world of entertainment to explore, since there are indeed far more novels, songs, television shows, and movies produced thanks to the greater availability of the relevant technologies and to the digital delivery systems. If you want to watch a science fiction movie, you can scroll to that category on a streaming platform. If you want to watch only movies in which a particular actor appears, you can search Google while you’re sitting on the toilet. If you have a hankering only to view specific scenes, you can jump to them in a second with your media player.
None of which is conducive to art. True, the new technology allows genuine artists to produce and publish their art, but this is evidently a double-edged sword since the technology also removes the economic incentive for doing so, by disinclining the audience to engage with art in the first place.
Art is supposed to be challenging. Great art is meant to change the way you think, to have philosophical bite, not to be disposable and forgettable, not to pander to you and to reinforce your naïve prejudices. If you’ve been spoiled by First World Problems, if you’ve been coddled by overprotective parents and by the neoliberal world order which has largely eliminated war and crippling poverty, you have no interest in being challenged. On the contrary, you define “progress” as the elimination of hurdles.
Young adults today may indeed, then, prefer propaganda to art, just as they prefer the self-help and happiness industries to philosophy and religion. The latter don’t suffer fools, but subvert conventional dogmas (mainstream Christianity excepted). Those who have been spoiled by the internet culture would rather take the easy way out. They don’t want to ponder the unnaturalness of the ideal of social equality or whether they’re being hypocritical in pretending to care about everyone equally while relying on cheap labour abroad for their selection of disposable merchandise.
Indeed, this anti-art audience will have no complaints when the old franchises implode after being sabotaged by propagandists, because they’re used to a fresh round of goods replacing the last one faster than they could even begin to formulate a criticism. There’s no time to reflect on that program you just watched, since there’s a surfeit of programming. Be fickle and dip out when you’re the least bit offended by anything that’s supposed to entertain you! Jump ship to the next offering and spare no tears for the fallen, since there’s always plenty more where that one came from.
The situation is comparable to the Trump technique of gaslighting with a blizzard of lies and misdeeds that drains his enemies’ energy. There’s no time to let any of his malfeasance sink in, since the unholy volume of the fathomless totality normalizes venality and psychopathy in general. Similarly, the internet deluges us with content so that we can’t hope to care much about any one tale or character, not like we used to when we weren’t the beneficiaries of such an embarrassment of riches. Again, we’ve obviously been spoiled rotten.
Technically, therefore, “woke art” is a contradiction in terms. The wokeness in content-creation makes only for propaganda. But we care less and less about what we’re losing in the sacrifice of art to political correctness and spin, because we no longer want to be challenged. We don’t want to engage with art to improve our sensibilities, because we’re “progressive” and have already arrived at the Pearly Gates.