Films have always been political in how they mirror a world marred by contemporary politics and history. When done really well, viewers leave the cinema feeling intellectually engaged and entertained. When done poorly, audiences feel condescended to and become restless. Propaganda disguised as entertainment tends to be either really boring, annoying or unintentionally funny; there are very few exceptions.
As much as people like to complain about today’s progressive Hollywood elites, it is easy to forget about a time when Hollywood also celebrated conservative values and jingoistic pride. Even in the 1960s—as Hollywood began gravitating more towards the cultural left—they did so without completely alienating moderates who fell on the other side of the political spectrum. Take the top-grossing films of 1964 for example: While the family-friendly Mary Poppins was number one, the always “problematic” James Bond was playfully seducing Pussy Galore in Goldfinger at number three. That same year would see the release of some edgier mainstream productions such as Columbia pictures’ Straight-Jacket, which opens with a scene of its protagonist (played by Joan Crawford) decapitating her husband and his mistress with an axe.
I have no problem with violence, sleaze, or transgression in film. Art should be liberal in the sense that it explores a diverse array of ideologies and even social taboos. I cannot think of anything more boring than a steady diet of nationalistic propaganda or moralistic family-friendly schlock. I feel privileged to have been a teenager when both Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction were receiving praise from critics and audiences; when the most sanctimonious film of the year was Steven Seagal’s environmentally conscious slobberknocker, On Deadly Ground.
Even my college years saw the release of many edgy films that managed to be transgressive without being overly preachy or boring. Then, around 2016, I noticed something changing in both mainstream culture and entertainment. As the social justice movement and “wokeness” became more mainstream, the witty subversiveness, humour, and overall quality of films began to wane. What would rise in the ashes of good cinematic entertainment would be a new subgenre that can best be described as wokesploitation.
While the classic exploitation films of the past compensated for their low budgets with gratuitous sex and gore, wokesploitation films make up for their lack of quality by overtly pandering to the ever-changing whims of the woke mob. For example, in today’s wokesploitation aesthetic, it is not enough to have a strong female lead like Terminator 2’s Sarah Conor. Today’s woke heroine has to chastise the patriarchy and constantly reminds others of their privilege while dominating a horde of cartoonishly evil white men to the tune of No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’.
The golden rule of good storytelling—‘show, don’t tell’— doesn’t apply to the wokesploitation subgenre, for moral grandstanding and empty virtue signalling are the langue and parole of its target audience, whose constant fear of cancellation has apparently stunted their abilities to appreciate subtlety, nuance, and humour. But when this naked virtue signaling translates into film, it cannot help but come off as completely contrived. Such blatant political messaging ruins the suspension of disbelief, thereby reminding viewers that they are watching a movie made by people who are either detached from reality, pandering for cash or who wrongly believe they are smarter than their audience.
For example, while recently watching Netflix’s Rim of the World with my young son, I couldn’t help but cringe at a scene depicting two African American camp counsellors sitting around a campfire discussing the racial and political implications of Pixar’s Toy Story. The scene struck me as completely out of place for a science fiction film starring children; as if it were written by a recent film-school grad who just completed the first chapter of Cultural Marxism for Dummies. According to one portly camp counsellor in the film, Toy Story reveals the “ruling class justification of the inferior conditions of the working class.” Such blatant appropriation of a Black voice leads me to suspect that Rim of the World’s screenwriter has never actually sat around a campfire, let alone had a conversation with working-class men of colour. Furthermore, the scene isn’t particularly witty or radical; nor does it further the actual narrative in any way. What it does represent, however, is wokesploitation’s version of gratuitous sex and gore.
Within this new subgenre, there are many notable examples to pick from, but no film checks all the woke boxes quite like 2020’s The Craft:Legacy. This film has it all! Irredeemably evil straight white male characters, a transgender heroine who reminds us that not all women can birth children, magical spells that make non-consenting young men become social justice warriors, conversations about white privilege, and even an evil villain inspired by none other than Jordan Peterson.
If you are a self-loathing white male looking to impress that blue-haired feminist in your life, this is definitely the film for you, but if you are a sensitive guy who doesn’t despise all members of your gender; if you felt that Gillette’s 2019 We believe commercial was too heavy-handed, please avoid The Craft: Legacy at all costs. If, however, I have sparked your curiosity and you would like to ease your way into this growing subgenre, look no further than Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel (2019), Amy Poehler’s cringey feminist masterpiece Moxie (2021), or pretty much anything found under Netflix’s new Black Lives Matter category.
Sanctimonious artistry and vacuous virtue signalling aside, what is perhaps the most tragic thing about wokesploitation is that it is yet another example of corporate interests capitalising on a social trend. Keeping this in mind, it is very likely that wokesploitation films will inevitably meet the same demise as mullets, 3D movies, pet rocks and the Macarena; but in the meantime, one can certainly laugh at (not with) these sometimes unintentionally funny examples of contemporary schlock.
W. Alexander Bell is an American expat and academic living in Sweden.
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