For about a week before the election, I was as preoccupied by two fictional characters as I was by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When I wasn’t obsessively refreshing the maps on fivethirtyeight.com, I was talking to anyone who’d listen about Molly (played by Yvonne Orji) on HBO’s Insecure and Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes as an adult) in the new film Moonlight. A jokingly self-described “hood rat” who became a corporate lawyer — and based on Insecure creator Issa Rae’s real-life best friend — Molly taught herself how to belong anywhere and now feels undone by the isolation of being the only one who’s known other worlds. I’d been thinking of Molly for weeks, actually, for she reminded me of a part of myself I’d forgotten.
The hunched and quiet Chiron, on the other hand, is a character I initially found difficult to relate to. But I gained a new appreciation for him and for Moonlight in the days since my screening, as black and queer friends and acquaintances have told me how accurately and intensely Chiron represents their experiences of being bullied, of withdrawing, and of living in an economically disadvantaged part of Miami that we rarely see. And so Moonlight’s luminous specificity has haunted me, based as it is on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical work (which writer-director Barry Jenkins has adapted). And it occurred to me once again how a progressive and inclusive pop culture is so crucial and urgent for women, people of color, queer communities, and other underrepresented groups’ struggles to find peace with and validation of ourselves, especially in these dark times when it feels like the world is turning against us.
Art and entertainment are how many of us of us simply stay sane, but they also play a huge role in how we’re groomed to look at the world — with largely affluent, able-bodied straight white men as the center of the world, saving the planet, falling in love, taking care of their families, enduring hardship. That’s fine, but also: Fuck that. Nobody is the center of the world, and we need to create a mass culture that reflects the truly mind-boggling diversity of humanity that exists in this world. Politics failed us in 2016. Culture doesn’t have to.
The mainstream film and TV industries are still riddled with bias and bullshit, but on the other hand, there’s literally never been a better time for people who have traditionally been shut out of power (and thus excluded from screens and stories) to have their say, to assert our lives and our differences and our complicatedness as worthy of time and concern. We deserve a pop culture that reflects America, and we should fight for it one film, show, and song at a time. Culture won’t erase the violence we’re already seeing with Donald Trump’s election, but we should prioritize it as how we heal ourselves, promote understanding, and change the future. Don’t mistake choosing woke programming for activism; there’s no substitute for voting, marching, and donating. But what we see shapes so much of what we think of as possible. And what we should see is America in its entirety — not just the tiny sliver that’s monopolized the megaphone and the spotlight for most of this country’s history.
The thing is, it’s easy. Watch movies and TV shows about experiences outside of your life, since stories are one of our most reliable paths toward empathy. If you’re a man, put yourself in a woman’s shoes (Broad City and Orange Is the New Black are great places to start). If you’re straight, watch a queer film (like Moonlight or the delicious The Handmaiden) or TV show (you can’t not like Please Like Me, and Transparent will have you laughing and crying simultaneously). If you’re white, see the world through a person of color’s eyes (Atlanta is brilliant, while Jane the Virgin is consistently terrific). And you’re not off the hook if you’re a minority. Teach yourself about other groups’ oppressions and how they’re similar or dissimilar from your own. Pay attention to which voices and opinions you keep hearing — and which ones you don’t. Don’t forget that there are certain people we seldom see as protagonists — Native Americans, Muslim Americans, trans and poor and disabled Americans — and support projects about them if/when they do emerge.
If something bothers you about a movie or a TV show, say so — to your friends, to your family, to your social-media followers. Pay attention to what bothered a group of people that you don’t belong to. Learn about the (frequently unjust) history and present era of film, TV, music, books, and whatever other art forms interest you. Share clips that taught you something. If you can, pay for content. Injustice is a mistress of a muse, but artists need to pay the rent, too.
Educate yourself, and never stop. Keep up with the news. Political comedy and satire make it a breeze, from intellectual firebrands like John Oliver and Samantha Bee to gentler but no-less-smart gadflies like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. If you wanna laugh with some clued-in-as-fuck POC, check in with the “Another Round” podcast or our very own “Speed Dial.” If you can’t deal with the day-to-day political pageantry, stay suspicious about how you’re being lied to and taken advantage of through Adam Ruins Everything. Don’t ever be satisfied with how much you know. There are always new worlds: ones you’ve never heard of, ones in places you’ll never visit, ones that you never noticed were right next to you your whole life. Go out and discover them, then create new ones. Our faces are currently being shoved into the dregs of a hateful past. Look up and around. Reach for more, and reach out for each other.