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There’s a saying – “Get woke, go broke.” If a media franchise, like a television or film series, adopts a social justice tone, things will go poorly. The saying draws attention to two issues. Being woke can alienate the fanbase and might also lead to reduced quality. The woke-broke hypothesis isn’t just idle internet chatter. Many in the business world worry about woke-broke because some brands have faced serious backlash over woke advertising or products. This Chartered Institute of Marketing website article has a succinct discussion of the issue. They note that there are definitely cases of woke-broke but other brands have done fine.
But is Woke actually Broke? Future marketing research will tell, but here I will make an argument about why woke is not always broke. The gist of the argument is this. Businesses are about giving something people want, especially cultural products like television, film and comics. What people generally want is escapism, not (too much) politics. Most pop culture franchises are not political in the ordinary sense of actively promoting a particular ideas in a very direct manner. Rather, the politics of the author is either cleverly integrated in a way that is seamless and undistracting or the author just assumes the politics of the society they live in.
Take the Matrix films. By any standard, the Wachowski’s and their films are incredibly woke. Still, their work is produced in such a way that the main thrust of the films is entertainment. The politics is obviously there, but it’s second fiddle to story telling and action. An appreciation of the film’s politics deepens the film. The politics does not compete with the film itself. The original Star Wars films have their politics as well, but it just seems to be the standard political stances of White dude 1970s film makers. Most of the action focuses on White people, Big is Bad, and the Small Guy is the hero. A great example of “assumed” politics.
At the same time, we can find lots of successful Woke works. For example, it’s safe to say that the Black Panther is a very woke film. It’s Black conscious and even has a speech about colonialism. Instead of being a failure, Black Panther is probably the best MCU film, a global hit, and cemented Chadwick Boseman’s status as an iconic actor of the 2010s. Another super woke success is HBO’s Watchmen show.
So why are some Woke franchises, like Disney era Star Wars, epic failures while others do just fine? It helps to start with George Carlin’s lesson: anything can be funny. Art isn’t about the topic, really. It’s about how you approach the topic. An equally important issue is understanding that art is not a college classroom. People don’t watch MCU movies, or read comics, to be lectured. Entertainment and emotional connection is always the #1 priority. Still, if you can pull that off, you can slip any politics you want into the brew.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is an amazing example of the idea that anything can be funny, including Black Feminism, if you actually put in the effort to make good, appealing art. The show, which debuted in 2019 and released a new season in 2021, stars an all Black female cast and relentlessly focuses on the lives of Black women. The show has obvious politics, but I never felt that the politics of the show displaced entertainment. Instead, the writers emphasized clever premises for jokes, hysterical caricatures, and an almost endless supply of physical comedy. But that doesn’t mean the show isn’t obviously political.
Here’s a golden example of the “anything can be funny” rule in A Black Lady Sketch Show. In the second season, there’s a sketch about women at a dance club. A woman is twerking her heart out and her boyfriend is just bored. She twerks harder and harder hoping that he’ll get interested. Each time she twerks harder, they turn it into a meme. At the end, the woman is literally twerking in her boyfriend’s face and he’s asleep. Captions: “The needs of Black women” and “White feminists.” I swear, I never thought I’d laugh so hard at a twerking/intersectional feminism joke. The idea that good art can contain politics isn’t limited to the Left. The Keynes/Hayek rap video is hysterical libertarian comedy
Social justice ideology represents an important shift in our culture. At the very least, it motivates a push for more inclusion in popular culture. Done badly and you’ll get Woke and you’ll get Broke. But good art knows no boundaries. A performer, or writer, or artist, who puts the audience first can always succeed in making space for their politics, and that’s a good thing.
Please check out my books:
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter
A theory book you can understand: Theory for the Working Sociologist
The rise of Black Studies: From Black Power to Black Studies
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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