Column: Adrift in the mainstream

By Brian Pierce

One of my favorite lines from the Oscars this past Sunday was from Jon Stewart’s opening monologue: “A lot of people say [Hollywood] is … a moral black hole where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed. I don’t really have a joke here; I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that.”

Hollywood has become a big part of the “culture war,” an ongoing conflict in American society that everyone from political pundits to TV personalities have been talking about for some time. The only thing is, I’m not entirely sure it really exists.

For all the discussion over “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie that centers on (gasp!) a gay couple, how many protests did you see staged over it? I’ve read a lot of debate over whether “Brokeback” really penetrated the American “mainstream,” whether people in small towns in Kansas could possibly accept a gay-themed movie.

I’m not sure that if I were a citizen of a small town in Kansas I wouldn’t find such talk anything but condescending. Do we really think the American “mainstream” is so totally unprepared and backwards?

If “Brokeback” has failed to be a blockbuster, it is because it is a quiet, slow-developing movie that requires its audience to be patient and thoughtful. Any number of artistically celebrated movies fit that description and have failed (or succeeded) at the same level “Brokeback” has. It has less to do with homosexuality than it has to do with the attention span of moviegoers.

But what concerns me more than the so-called culture war is the fact that we care about what “mainstream” America likes and dislikes.

It makes sense for Hollywood executives to care: mainstream America is whom they’re selling their movies to. But why are the top 10 movies in the box office so accessible to readers of the entertainment section of the newspaper instead of just the business section? Why are art critics writing about how well or poorly “Good Night, and Good Luck” fared on its opening weekend?

There’s this disease in our society that makes ordinary citizens want to be insiders in the entertainment industry. We know what TV shows get the highest ratings and whether musicians are carried by major labels or independent ones. We don’t just hate “Gigli” because it was a terrible movie, we care about it because it was a miserable flop, and we all formulate our individual hypotheses about what effect it’s going to have on Ben Affleck’s career.

It’s not just the entertainment world either: remember the 2004 Democratic primaries when voters decided they would stop voting for candidates they agreed with and instead try to determine which candidate was the most “electable”?

We’ll never know which candidate best represented the mainstream, because voters were too obsessed with voting for whomever they thought represented the mainstream to just vote for whomever they damn well pleased.

The media, through all of this, fails us on a near-constant basis. We are fed unending analysis of what products Americans like based on recent sales, or what political proposals Americans are buying into based on recent polls.

Why do we care what products are and aren’t selling or what proposals are and aren’t politically popular? Is the need to feel connected to a national community so compelling that we actively choose to sacrifice our own judgment for the judgment of the “mainstream”? Has the footing we’ve each established on one side or the other of the invented “culture war” made it so that we need to know what’s popular at a given time so we can decide where to stand on it?

I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if a solution exists, or if there’s even a problem. Perhaps society has always been this culturally aware, and there have always been people like me worried about the denial of independent thought.

I hope it’s much ado about nothing. I’m just not so sure.

Brian Pierce is a junior in LAS. He firmly believes Daniel V. will win Project Runway. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]