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Column: It’s Hard to Tell Who Won the Culture Wars

  • This publicity photo released by Walt Disney Studios shows Chris Evans as Captain America from Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the production commences principal photography in preparation for the April 4, 2014 film release. (AP Photo/Walt Disney Studios/Marvel, Zade Rosenthal)

    This publicity photo released by Walt Disney Studios shows Chris Evans as Captain America from Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the production commences principal photography in preparation for the April 4, 2014 film release. (AP Photo/Walt Disney Studios/Marvel, Zade Rosenthal)

  • Singer Miley Cyrus performs at the Barclays Center on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in New York. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

    Singer Miley Cyrus performs at the Barclays Center on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in New York. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

  • This publicity photo released by Walt Disney Studios shows Chris Evans as Captain America from Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the production commences principal photography in preparation for the April 4, 2014 film release. (AP Photo/Walt Disney Studios/Marvel, Zade Rosenthal)
  • Singer Miley Cyrus performs at the Barclays Center on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in New York. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The “culture wars” have been a feature of American politics for almost a century, but recently a number of commentators have declared their end. Conservatives have lost, swept aside by a wave of enthusiasm for marriage equality and sexualized mass culture, and so liberals, the reasoning goes, must have won. But conflating the lessons of a winner-take-all political system and the state of pop culture obscures an important point: in television, movies and music, just because conservative ideals are receding does not mean that liberalism has actually carried the day.

“Liberal social values are deeply embedded in our culture, from pretty much everything on TV outside the Christian channels at the fringe of the channel lineup, to any movie of note,” Markos Moulitsas wrote on April 14. “ Captain America has grossed nearly half a billion in 10 days, with its overtly civil-libertarian and anti-neocon message. I mean, Captain America is saying that a fear-based (read: Republican) foreign policy is not the ‘American Way.’ For a crowd that flinches at any notion of sex, it’s gotta be impossible to escape sexual imagery, from advertising to media to Miley Cyrus’ latest whatever-the-hell she is doing.”

In a long piece in New York Magazine published in 2012, Jonathan Chait made a similar argument:

“You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism. Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago. The liberal analysis of the economic crisis — that unregulated finance took wild gambles — has been widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and the Wall Street sequel. . . . The muscular Rambo patriotism that briefly surged in the eighties, and seemed poised to return after 9/11, has disappeared.”

What makes Miley Cyrus liberal other than the fact that she drives family-values conservatives crazy? Moulitsas never makes the case. How liberal is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, really, given that the movie’s conclusions support the very policies and principles the movie’s directors said they were eager to indict? Are the sexless gay couple on Modern Family the actual destination of the gay rights movement, or an illustration of the limitations of some of the vehicles that carried us on that journey? What of Homeland, which Chait cited as an alternative to hyper-patriotism in 2012, but has since circled back to the idea that oversight is ridiculous and we ought to just trust our intelligence bureaucracies? Does it matter if a number of indie movies and one big-budget production blame conservative policies for the financial collapse, if mass culture as a whole still conflates wealth and goodness? All of these cultural artifacts are not conservative. But an absence of reactionary sentiment is not the same thing as the presence of progressive values.

It is not just liberals who look at the surface of pop culture and claim the conflict has been settled. Over the past several months, my friend, the conservative writer Matt Lewis, has filed a number of briefs on the same idea: The culture war is over, and conservatives need to accept that they lost, and liberals won. I am not sure how many converts he is winning for that argument, but the very terms of it seem to me to be more interesting than any attempt at actual score-keeping. Matt is, I think, conflating debates over culture writ large, which includes norms about pre-marital sex and equal marriage rights, and cultural artifacts, which include movies, music, and television. “While politicians won elections, our young people turned to Hollywood for guidance,” Lewis wrote in The Week in January. “For every Republican elected, there were 10 films or songs (many of them quite good, actually) selling sex, drugs, and violence.”

When it comes to policy and politics, the tradeoff between a conservative view of culture and a liberal one is often quite clear because they are the only competing options in the arena. The alternative to the conservative attempt to define marriage as a legal recognition of partnerships between men and women, for example, has been the swift advance of bills and court decisions that extend the protections and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. There may be periodic discussions of getting government out of the marriage business altogether, but that proposal is hardly a serious third contender to this particular debate.

In actual mass culture, a far more complex and protean space than legislatures and executive offices, conservative loss does not automatically usher in a liberal victory.

Yes, many of the people who make popular entertainment are prominent Democrats. But pulling a lever or writing a check to advance a policy outcome is not the same thing as creating a liberal, or even forward-looking, view of the world. Capitalism has something to do with this, and the assumptions about markets that guide Hollywood, which include the ideas that any woman over 35 might as well be dead, and that international audiences hate black actors who are not Will Smith. And narrative conservatism may be an even greater limitation than the pressures to be profitable. Superhero franchises need to keep us invested, so they can only critique their •bermenschen so much. Romantic comedies still hew to their Elizabethan conventions in structuring their payoffs: Marriage, or at least a boyfriend, remains the end goal. A well-landed punch or an artfully-arranged explosion that takes out a bad guy is more pleasurable to watch than a trial, whatever our convictions might be outside the cinema. In culture, the most powerful orientation is neither left nor right, but rather, towards what kinds of story arcs and character beats are satisfying.

That hardly makes culture apolitical or unimportant. Rather, it suggests that we need very different terms to understand what actually winning the culture war would look like, for either side. Conservative culture has receded into joke status not simply because the country has shifted on issues like equal marriage rights or vigilante justice, but because conservative filmmakers, documentarians and television producers often expect values and ideas to carry the day even in projects where production quality is low, dialogue is clunky and characters exist only to mouth talking points. Similarly, liberal creators have done a good job of advancing progressive ideas that can be easily expressed in ways that audiences will find pleasurable. But they have been less successful when advancing their principles might require them to train their audiences to approach familiar archetypes, like anti-hero dramas, in new ways.

The culture war may be real. Yet liberalism and conservatism are hardly the only forces engaged in the battle, and they are not the most experienced or powerful players in the arena of mass culture. I do not blame conservatives who feel that they have lost. But liberals really ought to set a much higher bar for what a substantive, consistent victory for our ideas might look like.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.