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Today is the inauguration of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States – a historic event that will no doubt see huge changes to the American economy, race relations, and policy initiatives.
And, of course, we’ll see a cultural shift in television and film too.
It happens with every new president – the sort of social change that prompts an evolution of the cultural zeitgeist, and a reappraisal of how we approach our entertainment. Tracking it backwards, you can see these shifts across presidencies develop, often quite starkly – most obvious is perhaps 24 during the Bush years, a programme directly influenced by both 9/11 and that administration’s response to it.
Trump the man has always lived his life flitting around the edges of the silver screen; guest appearances as himself on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Home Alone 2, and most notably his years as host of The Apprentice, are all demonstrative of a man who’s largely been defined by his media presence. But as Trump the president prepares to take to the big stage, it’ll be interesting to see just how the world of media begins to treat him; certainly, it’s clear enough that opinion is far from favourable, with satirists John Oliver, Trevor Noah & Samantha Bee regularly criticising Trump, Meryl Streep recently gave an impassioned speech denouncing him. The question posed, then, is this: how will this affect the media we consume, and the art that we view?
In the short term, it’s difficult to say; many of the cultural shifts we see will be defined by the policy initiatives Trump (or perhaps more accurately, Mike Pence) puts forward, and while we’ve certainly got some idea of how that might develop from Trump’s campaign promises, much remains uncertain.
Black-ish is an interesting early example of how TV is beginning to handle the idea of ‘President Trump’, having recently aired an episode dedicated to the aftermath of the election. Lemons, the thirteenth episode of Black-ish’s third season, takes on a series of different responses to Trump; disbelief, anger, and indeed outright rejection of the result. By the same token, though, it also espouses the need to love, and the need to listen; star Anthony Anderson turns in a note-perfect performance, emphasising both the frustration and sense of helplessness the election prompted, but also the need to carry on. Indeed, the programme makes deft use of Martin Luther King’s famous address at the Washington March, noting both the struggle but also the ideal to strive towards; it’s an intelligent and sensitive response to the anxiety and agitation caused by the election, with a crucial look towards the healing to come.
Much as Black-ish is notable – at least in part – for its representation of African American communities in America, we can perhaps expect to see TV & Film under Trump to become more diverse and representative – no doubt to the frustration of those inclined to denigrate such programming as “racism at the highest level”.
Shonda Rhimes, writer and executive producer of critically acclaimed shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, has recently reaffirmed her commitment to giving a voice to those who “believe they’re going to be silenced”. As Rhimes put it, “A lot of people right now are scared, nervous or worried: people of color, any woman who values her body and her choices, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities”; in response to this fear, she explicitly referred to the power of the platform, noting how writers “sit with you in your homes, you spend more hours with many of my characters than you do with members of your own family”. It’s clear that Rhimes understands the influence that media can have, and her work will undoubtedly reflect her thoughts on Trump’s administration.
Equally, it’s similarly likely we’re going to see more television focused on disenfranchised rural working class white people, who are oft credited with giving Trump the election because of their economic concerns. The president of ABC Entertainment, Channing Dungey, has said that the company’s drama line-up will be more reflective of the lives of blue-collar workers, commenting that “in recent history we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.” Dungey highlighted programmes such as The Middle of being a good example of a series focused on individuals of a lower socioeconomic background, and indicated an intention to create more dramas with a similar focus.
Both Rhimes and Dungey are touching upon an issue highlighted by renowned British filmmaker Ken Loach, who recently garnered much critical acclaim for his working-class movie I, Daniel Blake. Loach commented that “the truth can be subversive”, going on to say “those in power always try to distort reality, to suit their needs and keep things safe. So just to show us what’s happening — people are dying because they’ve got no healthcare, for example — is subversive.” One of the most important aspects of the media, then, is its ability to illuminate certain issues and to hold a mirror to society – how it can shape the public consciousness. With a president who’s already shown a propensity for mistruth, and an inclination to try and control the press, the ability of film and television to reflect society may now be important than ever.
Of course, not all of the television & film landscape will be so overtly anti-Trump; indeed, certain segments will no doubt come out in support of him. The Fox News Cycle will no doubt further revere him, with individuals such as Sean Hannity and Tomi Lahren likely becoming figureheads for Trump supporters to focus on. It’s difficult to say how Trump and his supporters will be treated in fiction; seemingly a majority of creative figures in this industry appear to oppose Trump, suggesting it’s unlikely we’ll see a particularly sympathetic depiction of both his most dedicated sycophants, and those who grew to regret their vote. However, it’s necessary for TV & Film not to be dismissive of such individuals – it’s the feeling of disenfranchisement and of being silenced that drove many to Trump in the first place. Refusing to listen to any group will only prompt further division; it’s only though debate and discussion that America can perhaps begin to come together once more.
It’s also worth paying some thought to how Trump will respond to this media treatment – after all, we’ve all seen the outrage on his twitter feed each time Alec Baldwin turns up on SNL. (Perhaps the most damning occasion of all was when, a mere forty-five minutes after SNL mocked Trump’s twitter feed, Trump tweeted complaints about the sketch.) It’s unlikely to expect that the new President will be particularly responsive to any critical depictions of him, or any of the satirical perspectives he happens to understand – if his time as President Elect is any indication of his term as President, one can expect regular such responses. And yet it’s important not to let Trump’s tantrums take focus from the scandals that he’s trying to hide – while it’s fun to mock Trump, it’s more important to hold him to account.
It’s clear enough that our media landscape will develop and evolve in unprecedented ways over Trump’s term, and will no doubt too begin to play an even more important role in society. Hopefully, then, the resounding impression we can take from TV & Film during the next four years will be a positive one; a force for good that can help not only with healing division, but rebuilding in the wake of it.
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