The Way We Were (Represented)

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Newsweek, of all places, has a fascinating intellectual exercise in which they ask several of their film and media writers to name one popular culture text that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.”  Obviously, the idea of capturing the zeitgeist of eight often turbulent years with a divided electorate and a fractured media landscape is an impossibility.  No single text can encompass the tragedy of September 11, the war in Iraq, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and collapse, and our news media’s often vacuous response to all of these events.  But the Newsweek writers offer some interesting choices, ones that collectively seem to move toward capturing some sense of Bush-era culture.

To be sure, Bush’s presidency will be remembered, in part, because of the Iraq War and the subsequent revelations that torture was used against a number of suspected terrorists.  To that end, Joshua Alston nominates the SciFi Channel TV series, Battlestar Galactica, arguably one of the best shows of the last decade.  While 24 often played out fantasies of the single, rugged individual hero, Jack Bauer, fighting to protect the American Way of Life, Battlestar offered a subtle exploration of the use of torture (among countless other questions).  In a similar context, Evan Thomas nominates Black Hawk Down, which actually came out just a few months after  9/11, because it seemed to anticipate many of the challenges we would face after the attacks.

But I think that both of these choices omit much about the Bush administration and the cultural texts that came to define it.  While American Idol’s unapologetic patriotism–the show was called Pop Idol when we stole it from the Brits–could have existed at any time in recent history, the show’s minimal interactivity, allowing viewers to call or text in support of their favorite performers, helped to usher in an emergent 2.0 culture.  At the same time, the show was symptomatic of a music industry that was imploding, to put it mildly, in the face of Napster and its imitators (isn’t it odd to think that people were worried about Napster during the early years of the Bush administration?).  And, arguably, as Mark Peyser, argues in choosing American Idol, the show was also symptomatic of that red state-blue state divide that dominated our political landscape for most of the decade, even if the ivide itself was a media construction.

David Ansen nominates Borat because of Sacha Baron Cohen’s unique skill in using the mockumentary form to reveal America’s cultural id. As he points out, Cohen’s naive Kazakh journalist manages to provoke his subjects into quickly removing their veils of political correctness.  The fact that Borat is engaged in a cross-country journey to learn more about the United States–and to meet Baywatch star, Pamela Anderson–makes it easy (too easy, in fact) to read Borat as symptomatic of the Bush era.

While I find elements of Ansen’s argument persuasive, I’m contrarian enough to want to offer another alternative.  One of the things I noticed about the Newsweek list is that it is devoid of any viral videos.  Couldn’t Chris Crocker’s voyeurism-inducing diatribe against the paparazzi, “Leave Britney Alone” (viewed 23 million times on YouTube alone), be the ultimate representation of the Bush Era and its embrace of all things interactive?  While the gossip rags have existed for some time, the fascination with the private lives of celebs has been central to the last decade, a seemingly safe distraction from Bush’s missteps.  Crocker also exploits the confessional form of the YouTube form, at least the old, more televisual form, as well as anyone.

But, at the risk of appearing overly presentist, I’m tempted to argue that the raw videos of an Iraqi reporter throwing his shoes at President Bush may very well be the text that most captures the last eight years.  The video cited here is fairly typical, opening with Bush standing at a lectern next to the Iraqi president.  It’s yet another pseudo-event, a final attempt for the Bush administration to put a positive spin on a war that has lasted nearly six years.  Bush, who apparently has Matrix-like reflexes, manages to duck both shoes, and the journalist stumbles to the ground where he is arrested.  As we have read pretty much everywhere, throwing a shoe at someone, in Arab culture, is just about the worst insult possible, but Bush’s actions, and his response make the gesture seem–at least on one level–seem utterly innefectual.  At first, Bush smiles nervously, obviously uncomfortable with what has just transpired, but he quickly recovers, and by the time order is restored, he jokes that the shoe is a “size 10,” using affable mockery in order to try to defuse any remaining tensions.  In some sense the video seems symptomatic of the inability to truly respond to the actions of the Bush administration that have left a country utterly devastated.  The video captivates me not only because of the powerlessness of the gesture, the insult essentially lost in translation, but also because it seems to capture, in something approaching real time, the Bush Bubble as it forms.

I don’t think that a single text can possibly encompass what it has meant to endure the last eight years of the Bush presidency.  I have strongly considered writing a book about film, TV, and video in the Bush era, in part because I’m fascinated by the high-profile failures of so many “political” films (Redacted, Lions for Lambs, etc).  But also because I think that the Newsweek question is an important one that needs to be asked repeatedly, even if there are no simple answers.

Update: It’s not showing up in my trackbacks, so I’ll go ahead and mention that Gerry Canavan has some great choices, too.  While I’m not a huge fan of The Dark Knight, it seems to capture the disillusionment and malaise of the last eight years as well as anything on the big screen.  Gnarls Barkley is an interesting musical choice, as well.


  1. newcritics - » The Way We Were (Represented) Said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 12:53 am

    […] Cross-posted at The Chutry Experiment. […]

  2. McChris Said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    The first thing that came to my mind was !!!’s album Louden Up Now. I gues I was listening to it the other day, and I wondered if it would hold up a few years from now. I don’t think a lot of Clinton-era indie rock makes much sense when you consider what followed. I guess an indie record is probably not mass enough to encapsulate the era, but in that sense it’s perhaps appropriate, since it seems like the past eight years have seen what was once the mass media erode to the point that no media is mass anymore. (Broadcast TV ratings would certainly support this notion.) Newsweek’s exercise seems to be one of trying to recapture a sense of mass-ness, which only makes sense in the context of how it understands itself as a media institution.

    Whatever, I’m pretty sure what I’ll remember the most about the Bush administration will be the opposition and outrage to Bush’s actions and policies. It’s probably a function of living in Austin and my own political perspectives, but that !!! record’s sense of chaos and decay sums up the time for me.

  3. Chuck Said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    I really like what I’ve heard from that !!! album, so I should check out the whole thing. Your suggestion of an album also points out the fact that none of the commentators mentioned music at all (to be fair, they seemed more focused on explicitly narrative media).

    I also like your observation about their emphasis on mass-ness. To be sure, even broadcast TV cannot really be described as “mass” anymore. Even American Idol ratings would not stand out *that* much during the network era.

    Like you, what I’ll remember most about the “Bush era” is the opposition and outrage (or at least the divisiveness, having spent some time in red states), which is probably why I find the shoe video to be an odd epilogue to the last eight years. While the gesture itself is laden with so much passion, it also seems so ineffectual due to Bush’s reflexes and his Teflon personality.

  4. representing the zietgeist of the last 8 years | A Collage of Citations Said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    […] Tryon discusses the recent Newsweek special The Way We Were, which asks some cultural critics to pick a single […]

  5. The Chutry Experiment » Media Favorites 2008 Said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    […] were what I believe to be among the best films or TV shows.  In others, I’m searching for something slightly more elusive: texts that seemed to reflect the zeitgeist of 2008, at least as I experienced it.  There are a […]

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