Since World War II, Americans have been caught in a struggle between optimism and faith, fear and paranoia. Distrust toward institutions and authority became the norm during the 1960s as a younger generation began to reject the values and traditions of its elders. Popular culture symbolized this struggle. From Where the Boys Are and Gidget to Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones; from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and the Temptation’s “My Girl” to Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” America was in a state of flux, uncertain of its future. Beneath the struggle was the underlying fear that things were not what they appeared to be, demonstrated by the social and political upheavals of the ‘50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Hollywood addressed the underbelly of paranoid fantasies as early as 1962 with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Based on the novel by Richard Condon and starring Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra, the film laid the foundation for government conspiracies that would follow only a year later when President Kennedy was assassinated. During the late sixties, a new generation of filmmakers, many of whom were recent graduates of the nascent film school departments, went behind the camera to explore issues that preoccupied the baby boom generation. Countercultural films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde thumbed their noses at the establishment. Anti-authoritarianism was well grounded among baby boomers, particularly through rock and roll, but films began taking the lead and soon a cinematic oeuvre was established, dominating theater screens and generating healthy box office revenues for a cash-strapped industry. Easy Rider of the 1960s and later Three Days of the Condor, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The China Syndrome, and others reflected a distrust toward government and authoritative figures in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. Even seemingly disparate films like The Godfather Parts I and II, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver, by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese respectively, explored the corruptible nature of power and the gullibility of a public in search of quixotic anti-heroes striking a blow against the “system.”
Science fiction like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Soylent Green used the conventions of the genre to explore totalitarianism, secrecy, and conspiracy. In Colossus, the unity forged between two supercomputers from the United States and the Soviet Union mock the ideal of international cooperation and diplomacy when the very technology the two superpowers designed were used against them to create a totalitarian regime. Soylent Green was a nightmarish take on the mystery meat joke, preceding the concerns of biogenetic foods and engineering. Horror films like Rosemary’s Baby also questioned the same assumptions of our faith in medical expertise.
By the 1980s, due to the success of blockbuster films Jaws and Star Wars, and bloated by the excesses of the times, the auteur movement died. Yet there was an undercurrent of a backlash toward what the films of the 1970s represented––the rebellion, independence, cynicism, conspiracy, and anti-authoritarian attitudes that were the ramifications of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. The ascendancy of Goldwater’s conservative movement reached its apotheosis in the election of former actor Ronald Reagan, who, during the 1960s as governor of California, was a vigilant opponent of the antiwar movement. Successful 1980s franchises like Rambo and Rocky, both starring Sylvester Stallone, the Max Max and Lethal Weapon sequels, as well as conservative-oriented films like Red Dawn, reflected this change. Action films, starring such muscle-bound actors as future California Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and others, demonstrated the audience’s lust for hyper-masculinized entertainment featuring as many car chases, explosions, and daring stunt work as Hollywood was capable of churning out. These films had a decidedly conservative and authoritarian bent, though their protagonists were often mavericks who bucked the system. But bucking the system in these films meant breaking laws that were designed to protect civil liberties, all in the aim to “get the job done” and catch the bad guys. A willingness to use force as a means to solve problems or as a form of law enforcement mirrored the “get tough on crime” attitudes of the 1980s.
Unlike film and music, television stayed largely out of the fray. Few references about world events outside the evening news made their way to nightly television shows. Programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island were lighthearted fluff meant to mindlessly entertain audiences in between commercial breaks. Heavily restricted by commercial interests, television producers had to find subtler ways to address these issues. During the 1970s, iconoclastic figures like Columbo and Baretta bucked the system by fighting the bad guys their own way, but were nonetheless champions of the “system,” rarely questioning authority except as a means to establish an eccentricity of character. They allowed audiences to think they were cheering on characters who were attacking the system, but gave them the comfort of knowing that by episode’s end the moral code that separated the good guys from the bad were still in tact. The system wasn’t attacked because it’s very paradigmatic values were questionable, but because it was too bloated and inefficient to deliver the kind of justice that coddled audiences. Like the films of the 1980s, these shows adhered to authoritarianism, not against it.
It wasn’t until the debut of The X-Files that a television show would address the underlying cynicism and distrust toward our government. The X-Files came two years after Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which sparked more questions and suspicions about the government’s involvement in the president’s assassination. The X-Files followed roughly the same path, revealing in a series of mythological arcs about the government’s cover-up in its knowledge of extraterrestrials and its complicity in aiding a possible alien invasion. Its two heroes, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) worked for the same government that was keeping secrets, but unlike TV heroes of the past, they truly did buck the system in their quest to find the truth. The fact that they were often thwarted from their goal was less a sign of their unwillingness to change the status quo, than from a powerful and untouchable foe that always kept two paces ahead of our heroes. Mulder and Scully’s willingness to seek the truth against all odds earned them the love and respect from audiences for whom such heroes were few and far between in the real world.
After 9/11, though, authoritarianism returned as more Americans began to trust the government in its war against terrorism. Americans were now asked not to question the government. Those who did so were met with outright punishment. After comedian Bill Maher contradicted conventional wisdom when he claimed that the nine Saudi nationals who hijacked planes and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center weren’t cowards, then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that “Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.” Maher’s long-running ABC television show Politically Incorrect was canceled shortly thereafter.
Debate and dissent were enemies of the state in this new era. When Natalie Maine of the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the president while overseas, stating that she wasn’t proud that Bush was from her home state, her comments set off a backlash against the band in the largely conservative country music community. The Dixie Chicks later released an album that addressed the backlash. Hip hop artists the Coup released an album not long after 9/11 that featured the bandmates on its cover setting off a bomb outside the WTC. The cover and the CD were created before the events of 9/11, but that didn’t mitigate the criticism the band had gotten over it. Hollywood, on the other hand, offered to lend its hand in creating work that validated this new authoritarianism. A slew of films released during this period replicated the sense of fear and paranoia in American society, not toward an authoritative government, but toward the unknown, using horror and comic books as a means of validation. Films like the Saw franchise, as well as remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were nicknamed “torture porn” for scenes that eroticized the torture of mostly female characters by the films’ villains. These films allowed audiences the chance to experience their worst fears about terrorism in the safe environment of a movie theater (though ironically, when news of the CIA’s use of waterboarding at black sites like Abu Graib became known, these movies took on an entirely different interpretation in hindsight). Comic book movies became a cash cow for Hollywood as Americans flocked to see their favorite superheroes vanquish evil and bring order back to the world. Like those TV iconoclastic renegades who fought evil while thumbing their noses at authority, comic book heroes, like Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, were vigilantes bucking a system that had grown too bloated to do the job right. Therefore, it isn’t a coincidence that three months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, President Bush landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier and announced “Mission Accomplished,” mimicking the comic book heroism of the big screen. Heroism and a faith in the authoritarian father figure found its ultimate representation in Jack Bauer in the Fox TV series 24. His willingness to use torture and to break the rule of law became a model among Republicans on how the War on Terrorism ought to be fought.
Another interpretation of authoritarianism––albeit a nobler and more liberal version––came in 1999 when NBC premiered its popular series The West Wing, the first primetime drama to directly explore the lives of the people who work in government, specifically the White House. Though the series was supposed to follow the men and women who work on the president’s staff, it quickly included its fictional president, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), among its regular cast. Aaron Sorkin’s drama presented a romanticized version of politics with the Bartlet administration representing the ideal rather than the reality of governance. The president was presented as a father figure, though a very flawed one. Its second season ended with a presidential scandal: Bartlet, his wife, and close political allies kept the president’s MS a secret from his staff and the national public. Unlike real life political scandals, The West Wing allowed viewers to see how an administration and its staff professionally, emotionally, and legally tackled theirs. As viewers, we emphasized with Barlet as he worked to restore his public standing, even though he lied about an issue that voters had the right to know about before entering the ballot box. President Bartlet validated the notion of a benign and enlightened authoritative figure, one who used government to positively affect American lives. In this way he was the polar opposite of George W. Bush and became a fantasy onto which many liberals latched following the disastrous 2000 presidential election.
Yet elsewhere on television, a different vision of government, authoritarianism, and rebellion was taking place. While The West Wing sought to romanticize institutions, cable television sought to demolish them. They also created indelible anti-heroes that not only bucked the system but often won. In the same year of The West Wing’s debut, HBO premiered its runaway hit The Sopranos. Starring the late James Gandolfini, The Sopranos redefined television and made anti-heroes a perfectly reasonable subject for series treatment. Each season, viewers were left with the question of whether Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey crime syndicate, was either going to get “whacked” or arrested by the Feds for his crimes. And each season, Tony got away. The series’ finale was the ultimate “fuck you” to audiences who wanted the moral order to be neatly put back in place. In an era where Americans were still awaiting news that Osama bin Laden had been captured or killed, Tony’s escape from karma was not only anti-authoritarian, but rebellious as well. The Sopranos proved that American society was the system that needed to be rebelled against, especially when it came to pop culture.
Another series that was the antithesis of The West Wing was also an HBO cultural milestone. The Wire, while not as popular as The Sopranos, likewise rebelled against cultural expectations in a number of ways. The series took place in Baltimore, featured a cast half of which was African American, and attacked issues that were rarely addressed in mainstream media: the war on drugs, poverty, racism. The series offered an unsentimental look at institutions and their indifference toward the people who worked within them and who were often subject to their care. Each of its five seasons tackled different aspects of these institutional divides, whether it be the police and drug trade, labor, politics, public schools, and the media. Where The West Wing sought to validate the role of institutions to positively affect people’s lives, The Wire revealed the ways in which institutions destroyed them. Yet unlike the rebels of the past who fought against the law or fought within the law to “get the job done,” The Wire offered no such palliatives, for even its own rebels––be it Det. Jimmy McNulty, Maj. Bunny Colvin, or Omar Little––became casualties of a system that treated individuals as mulch for its survival. In its way, The Wire was deeply anti-authoritarian.
Following the success of The Sopranos, HBO and other cable channels began churning out series with anti-heroes as their subjects. FX’s The Shield, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Weed, and others featured anti-heroes as their protagonists. The popularity of these programs perhaps brought to bear the squeamishness many Americans were starting to feel in the post-9/11 era as the War on Terrorism gave rise to warrantless wiretapping and the infringement on civil liberties. Their characters fought against systems that forced them into boxes, often breaking the laws or committing extralegal actions in order to prevail. They provided a catharsis for audiences who wearied of the boxes they were being forced into.
Breaking Bad’s Walter Walter (Bryan Cranston) became an ersatz spokesman for workers who found themselves unemployed in a capitalist system that continued to flourish after bankrupting the American economy and receiving a bailout at the workers’ expense. Following the election of President Barack Obama, he also prefigured the tea party which, angered over a political and social system that was marginalizing them to a perceived victimhood, rose to prominence in reaction to Obama’s electoral win. White, both a victim of the private health insurance industry and the economy, fought against that perceived victimization by turning his natural talents as a chemist into cash gold in the meth industry. The series was a critique against white male privilege even as it allowed audiences to vicariously follow his exploits and quote him endlessly. When the series ended, White had gotten his just desserts, but not before beating the system that marginalized him and taking control of his own destiny. In that sense, Walter White ironically symbolized the American dream in all its connotations, revealing why anti-authoritarianism will always play an important role in American pop culture.
- How the JFK Assassination Kicked Off the Rise of Paranoid Thrillers (thewrap.com)
- The Ghost of Authoritarianism in the Age of the Shutdown (truthdig.com)