The Presence of “Progressive” Media: Awareness as a Prop
I write to you on a mostly sunny day. I am relinquishing my ability to correspond freely without the stress of academic deadlines looming over my back. This, of course, is the beauty of the summer season. However, despite the change in weather, like most teenagers, I have continued to spend my days online. I circle through the media sphere of apps and streaming platforms hoping to find something substantial, or at the very least something to hold my attention while I wait for the hours to wean away from the day. However, in my idle pursuits I was led to confront the idea that nothing is really made to last anymore.
“Art” is a non sequitur used to discuss trending topics that will fade quicker than a cheap car decal. Programs are dressed in concepts relevant to a specific class of people that can feel universal at the moment. General audiences say films from the past have not aged well (and therefore will not consume them) but what are the odds that something like Bojack Horseman will age well? It is a successful and critically acclaimed Netflix production that paved the way for millennial written and influenced hot takes on culture, politics, and mental health. Although, in spite of its current resonance, it is clear that the show will be outdated sooner than anticipated. The thematic approaches of discussing and portraying mental health, addiction, etc. will not be thought of as substantial because the plots revolve around the scattered and empty void of celebrity cameos, wonky aesthetic preference, and pop culture references.
Another more recent Netflix production that strikes the same tune is the comedy film Inside by Bo Burnham. Inside does not have a plot, nor does it have a satisfying structure that can be mapped. It just happens. It was not made for further analysis, deduction, or viewings. It was designed to trend quickly and generate revenue. On TikTok, artists are paid in royalties through posts. The amount of viewership doesn’t impact the financial payout, but it certainly helps spread the song's popularity across the platform. This, in addition to TikTok’s alleged use of monetary incentives to entice content creation, evokes the idea that Burnham’s motivation to craft topical pop-friendly songs, were not of wholesome intentions. There’s no shame in wanting to make money from your art, but it is discreditable when you posture yourself and your art as self-effacing, when really you are pandering to what is popular. Netflix, though once synonymous with streaming, has fallen to the wayside as competitors build their own platforms. To compensate for this, Netflix has oversaturated their platform with easy-to-consume, bingeable movies and tv shows that have a slight edge - enough to dominate the news and social media cycle for a couple days. All of this was accomplished, but what value does that provide for consumers?
Entertainment has been like this for quite a while now. Democracy is vulnerable in fully capitalized media. The class composition of the media leads to it being an ideological tool of the ruling class. Suddenly, it is enough for us to hear a thirty-some year-old comedian say that maybe our president isn’t as smart as they want us to believe, and that maybe corporations have too much bias and influence over things. To hear someone complain is seen as a replacement for actual demands of social restructuring. On a structural level, the media is a capitalist enterprise.
There’s many problems with this, such as the media’s ability to manipulate public opinion, but it also explains the drought in nurturing entertainment. In previous generations, there was enough of an illusion that real jobs were had and that art was being made. You’d see fingerprints of human civilization in movies and tv programs. You were made aware that someone cut the film reel, someone held the camera, someone dressed the sets, someone designed the costumes, someone wrote the script--that this was a craft that people were invested in. But now, something that is by definition a public good, has been altered to prioritize viewer retention. This in turn changes the pursuit of media to not be one of sparking mental or emotional stimulation, but instead one of gaining eyes. Every idea and pretension of creative integrity is suborned to gaining viewership, which no one in that industry will reveal because that will shatter the veil of relatability, trust, and confidence.
This is a hard pill to swallow considering the media sphere of the 60s and 70s seemed to be an arm of the ruling class; journalists, editors, and writers were mostly blue collar workers who, because of their heterogeneous class composition, were able to provide a dedication to an abstract notion of media, rather than the social entrepreneurship of celebrity. It imparted on a shared reality that allowed you to find and express more politically and/or socially vulgar ideas that weren't yet touched by the consequences of having a fully elite institution. Now, as we stand in a media that has been captured by such hands, the ecosystem fully revolves around social liberalism as an existential element. We see comedians whose routines embark on the idea of how they can incorporate being a comedian into their identity; as an expression of their virtue, of a way of living, of a job that is capable of making them feel like a good person. And as the state of the world grows worse and worse, these media figures will feel increasingly compelled to speak on it because their social liberalism is built on vanity. Things are said to be filed away, not to be engaged with. Media figures speak so that their words fall on deaf ears or already converted ones. People have fractured their realities so that when they encounter an idea, argument, or fact it is only judged by whether the media figure is on their side or not. And that is it. The specific contents are either rejected or accepted, and they are not engaged with any further. This is not the specific fault of anyone in particular, it is just the tragedy of a fully capitalized media.
Since the 1960s, the energy of activism went where it could be accepted and that was in the arts and social institutions. As political avenues closed, people sought jobs as writers, educators, and researchers. The mark of being active political reformists died when you could gain profit for penciling a sketch or sitcom with vaguely progressive themes without feeling the breath of the FBI down your neck. The fight moved away because the fight had been lost in a way that nobody could really recognize at the time. By the end of the 70s, the political fight as an element of America’s working class and social reality, had foreclosed. But we are still fixed to live under a world where class conflict has been detached from our social conceptions and are only reproduced by a culture that is generated by rich institutions.
There is the outlet of alternative media, which can be categorized by podcasts, youtube shows, newsletters, etc. but those forces are often co-opted and sometimes coveted by the traditional media. Enter: Inside by Bo Burnham.
Bo Burnham is a Youtube comedian turned writer/director. He started posting videos online in 2006 and his first feature film “Eighth Grade” was released in 2018 under the production company A24, garnering widespread critical acclaim and accolades. More recently, he acted in a supporting role in the 2020 film “Promising Young Woman” which received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, along with additional nominations. All signs point to Burnham doing alright, but with the release of his solo comedy special Inside he’d lead you to believe otherwise.
The gimmick of this special is that it was created all by Burnham while he was quarantined to his home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no audience, it is just Burnham, and you the viewer. This intimacy feels reminiscent to what good Youtubers are able to accomplish, and given Burnham’s background (and that you can watch the entirety of his special “what.” on his youtube channel) you might find yourself opening a tab to search for this film online. However, it is not free to watch. He formed a partnership with Netflix, and they commissioned him to make this special. Already, the glass casing of relatability has a crack in it.
In the special, Burnham speaks to an alienation that was only felt by people with financial wealth. The majority of the population were not given the choice of staying home vs. exposing themself and their loved ones to the virus, as the amount of savings needed to sustain oneself an entire year while unemployed is a rare possession among the working class. The presentation of being depressed from being stuck inside a year is tone-deaf. The “awareness” does not negate the fact that your struggle is not comparable to those who were made to bring your groceries to your door, cook your take-out, and rig the drones that delivered amazon packages to you at your convenience. In quarantine, the rich had taken it upon themselves to complain and try to make social commentary (while taking time to cry about their personal problems) whilst in their huge luxury houses. I do not need an upper class millionaire telling me that life is hard, while underpaid doctors and nurses, students and teachers, and retail and food service employees worked their fingers to the bone.
Because of his background in alternative media, Burnham believes he is a socialist, communist, or some sort of FDR liberal, when really he is living and operating within the cutthroat edge of the capitalist media class. An inescapable factor of our economy is that existence is dependent on generating capital. The media empire is shrinking, so the fight for viewership is still very real, but Burnham thinks he is doing it on the behalf of the human race when really he is doing it for his own advancement, and has confused the two. Burnham’s hot takes won’t move the needle, and it certainly isn’t being consumed by the politically consequential people in this country--older voters, for example. They are disengaged with both the alternative media sphere and the traditional media sphere that masquerades as performing to the audience who views alternative media. Therefore, other alienated subjects of capitalism in America who might be the soil to a new radical political mobilization will not receive this information either. These products serve the same class of media consumers, parroting what we want to hear. The audience is viewed as an object that does not need to extend beyond an echo chamber. Words are not said as something to consider or act on, they are just vibrations to fill the air and filter through your mind. There is no attempt at persuasion or reframe, only a distraction to keep people from analyzing the conditions of their lives.
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