Maybe it happened while you were at the movie theater, watching Jyn Erso lead a rebellion in Rogue One. Or perhaps the feelings hit when you decided to revisit The Hunger Games on Christmas Day, or, even more improbably, while sitting next to your niece during Zootopia and processing the racial subtext of a Disney movie about a cute bunny.
At some point recently, but especially in the weeks since Election Day, thoughts of the current political climate have probably crept in — if not staged an outright coup — while you were watching a film or television show. Such interference can be expected during a movie or series that overtly deals with government, or maybe even a not-so-distant-seeming dystopia. But these days, the specter of politics can cast a shadow at even the most unexpected times. Even the most benign piece of pop culture might trigger a Donald Trump–inspired panic.
We are living in a time of extremism that, while not unprecedented (or unpresidented), is striking for the modern era. During extreme times, any piece of art (including film and TV) is more likely to be viewed through the lens of that moment. Trumpism — a blanket term I’ll use in this piece to reference the election of the former Apprentice host, the struggle to come to grips with that election, and the ever-expanding list of concerns raised by his impending presidency — is such an overwhelming phenomenon that it’s not just hard to ignore while consuming pop culture. It’s hard to ignore in a way that’s so massive, it needs to be broken down into categories to be properly understood.
Let’s start with category one: Dystopia via Trumpism, which occurs when a post-apocalyptic-themed film or series acts as a harrowing reminder of what might conceivably happen, based on our worst fears. Abraham Riesman recently wrote about this with regard to Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film that imagines a near future marred by global collapse, widespread loss of human fertility, and mass deportation of illegal immigrants. Other examples include the aforementioned Hunger Games, 1987’s The Running Man — which coincidentally stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, new host of The Celebrity Apprentice — and the recent Netflix series from Brazil, 3%, all of which offer stunning and sobering collisions of reality-TV-style competitions and totalitarianism. Then there’s The Man in the High Castle, the Amazon series that essentially asks, “What if the Nazis won World War II?” Just try watching that one in light of the increased public attention around Trump supporter and white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Next, we have the Beloved Sci-Fi Franchise Turned Trumpism Commentary, which in some cases — see again: The Hunger Games — may overlap with works that fall under the dystopian heading. Rogue One’s war story of rebels attempting to halt fascism, restore freedom, and lay the groundwork for A New Hope certainly registers as a loose metaphor for resisting a Trump administration, though as Riesman noted in another piece, Star Wars can easily be projected onto almost any political situation and come out looking like a loose metaphor. Nevertheless, could you watch Rogue One and not, at least for a second or two, think about who’s headed to the White House? Maybe some people could. I was not one of them.
The same rules apply to the Harry Potter series, which inspired some fans to draw a line connecting Trump to the pure-blood ideology of Voldemort. The political timeliness of J.K. Rowling’s epic was cemented further with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a franchise offshoot that tackles xenophobia and features a character whose identity is stolen by Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who represents the rise of Nazism. (Lest these points be missed, Fantastic Beasts director David Yates told the New York Times, “Things are happening now that are extreme and extraordinary in some way, and to not reflect that or to explore those things seems to be a missed opportunity.”)
On the Political Pop Culture front, as I noted in this piece before the election, much of 2016’s D.C.-focused comedies and dramas dovetailed thematically with — and sometimes flat-out foreshadowed — the events that took place over the course of the campaign. Even those who walk, eyes wide open, into a binge-watch of Veep may be blindsided by its spot-on and wrenching satire in light of Trump’s win and Clinton’s defeat, while Shonda Rhimes loyalists may feel jittery about jumping back into Scandal when it returns — with the results of its recent presidential election — on January 26. Other less overtly Washington-oriented series, but ones that still have political undertones, may also bring Trump to mind, either by accident or deliberately.
HBO’s upcoming The Young Pope, for example, focuses on a seemingly erratic leader who wins a shocking election and destabilizes a political structure; hard not to be reminded of the president-elect there, no matter how hot Jude Law is or how funny all those Young Pope jokes are on Twitter. Both Netflix’s One Day at a Time, which tackles social issues including immigration, and Fresh Off the Boat, where Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) just became a U.S. citizen, are reminders of the cloud that now hangs over immigrants in America. The upcoming Black-ish episode “Lemons” will specifically address post-election tensions in our country, as will The Good Fight, the upcoming spinoff of The Good Wife. Michelle and Robert King, creators of The Good Fight, did some last-minute rewriting to address the cultural shifts brought on by Trump’s rise and its impact on Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart character. Meanwhile, season six of Homeland will focus on treatment of Muslim-Americans and unfold in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day, as a hard-line president prepares to take office. Ironically, that president — played by Elizabeth Marvel — happens to be a woman.
Which brings me to a fourth category: The Stuff That Triggers Post-Traumatic Hillary Stress. Despite insistence from Trump supporters that Democrats should “just get over their loss,” some of Clinton’s backers are understandably having a hard time moving forward. Stories with powerful women at their center, while encouraging, can make that even harder. When Clinton backers watch Arrival, in which Amy Adams plays a strong, intuitive linguist whose ability to communicate supersedes the abilities of her male colleagues, they might think about how differently it would have played if America were about to inaugurate our first woman president. When they watch Moana, in which a girl becomes the chief of her island village and finds the bravery to break a curse that hangs over it, perhaps they feel melancholy because American children still can’t look to this country’s highest office to find an example of female leadership that mirrors an animated Disney adventure. When they watch Ghostbusters — which, aside from the election, unleashed more online misogyny than anything else in 2016 — they might just see a group of fearless women being publicly maligned by government officials despite all the good work they’ve done. The last scene in that reimagined comedy, which shows New York City lit up with messages of love and thanks for the Ghostbusters, registers with a Pantsuit Nation sort of poignancy the film didn’t have when it was released last summer.
Finally, there’s a fifth and final catch-all category of Pop Culture Trumpism, and that’s The Sneak Attack. You settle in to watch something that seems like pure comfort food — like, say, This Is Us — and you realize that, comforting though it may be, it’s also only willing to tackle touchy subjects, like racism, in a way that feels safe, and ultimately, lacking in today’s world. Or you might decide to rewatch an old favorite — an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Simpsons, Gilmore Girls, or Sex and the City — and get smacked in the face by a Trump cameo or reference. I was actually watching an episode of Card Sharks on the Game Show Network over the holidays — don’t ask why, just roll with it — in which a batch of older white men were surveyed and asked whether they thought a woman’s place was in the home. A majority of the group, who easily could have passed for Trump’s cabinet, said yes. (To the credit of host Bob Eubanks, when one of them tried to explain why his wife shouldn’t work for a living, Eubanks told him he was a fool.)
So, what do we do? Stop streaming shows or going to the movies for the next four years? Turn off our brains entirely while we watch? Of course not. We should enjoy our TV and movies, because even when they don’t provide us with a full mental break from the political climate, they at least give us a partial respite. And many of us need all the breaks we can get.
But we also have to come to grips with the fact that we can’t afford to take breaks in the same way that, perhaps, we used to take them. Movies and TV shows that remind us of Trump or the cultural shifts caused by his impending presidency function as alarm clocks. They make sure we don’t fall asleep. In less than two weeks, we will become one nation, presided over by Donald Trump. As unpleasant as it is for Trumpism to sneak up on us while we’re trying to enjoy a movie or TV show, we should welcome it, because it reminds us to stay shook. We are living in a New Abnormal. Watch your films and shows accordingly.