September 20, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, September 20, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
‘Will and Grace’ returns, but is it edgy enough?
If your cultural strategy is to stay on the moral edge, how long can you actually stay there? That’s the question raised in an article that appeared over the weekend. In the arts and leisure section of the New York Times, Brooks Barnes writes about the return of the show “Will & Grace.” It had been on NBC for a matter of years; now 11 years after the show came to an end, it’s coming back, and it’s coming back with 29 new episodes. As the story tells us, the big question isn’t whether Americans saw the show as being on the edge — back well over a decade ago now — but whether when it comes the show’s going to be edgy enough.
As Barnes tells us,Show Full Transcript
“Being gay on TV was considered so taboo [back over a decade ago,] that ‘Will & Grace’ writers waited until the second season to risk including a (modest) same-sex kiss. Now,”
“with the legalization of gay marriage and ‘Transparent’ and gay characters even popping up on the Disney Channel, the question is not whether ‘Will & Grace’ is too inclusive — too ahead of the culture — but whether it is inclusive enough.”
She goes on to say that,
“At a time when Hollywood is under intense pressure to avoid stereotypes and to promote diversity from every possible angle, ‘Will & Grace’ — once seen as the epitome of diversity on television — could actually find itself assailed for being behind the curve.”
I don’t know of a story that’s been more revealing in terms of cultural strategy and the velocity of the moral revolution than this. We’re not talking about ancient history; this was a television series on prime time that was considered cutting edge just 11 years ago, and yet, now, here’s a serious article in the New York Times’ art and leisure section asking whether or not the show is going to be criticized upon its return for being — not too edgy — but not nearly edgy enough. The moral revolution, that is to say, has plowed right through “Will & Grace” and it has kept going.
At least a part of the context here is the nation’s changing conversation about racial and ethnic issues related to diversity. As one of the critics of the return of the program pointed out, the very essence of “Will & Grace” is for privileged white people. Underlining the quandary that moral revolutionaries can find themselves in, one of the other critics of the program pointed out that the gay male character in “Will & Grace,” upon the return of the program, is likely to appear misogynistic, that is not fully in keeping with the feminist revolution in terms of its more recent turns. “Will & Grace” appeared before the “T” was envisioned in popular culture in terms of the LGBT revolution, long before what is known on academic campuses as intersectionality has taken over, and it also just points out that in this case, of all ironies, it may be the openly gay character who isn’t progressive enough just 11 years later for the return of the show.
Brooks Barnes continues in his report,
“Not everyone is hankering for more ‘Will & Grace.’”
He cites Eric Marcus, who produces the Making Gay History podcast — he’s one of the most influential historians of the LGBT revolution in America — he said in an email to the Times,
“The world has moved on … I’m left wondering what story lines these characters can possibly explore as middle-aged people that will seem as fresh as the original series.”
A couple of associated insights we should think about here; one is to do with the fact that at least one critic in this program pointed out that it’s not just the question, morally speaking, of whether “Will & Grace” will be edgy enough, but whether the Millennials will find the program interesting. They didn’t watch “Will & Grace” in its original form. The question is whether they’re even going to like it, not just in terms of whether it’s morally edgy enough, but whether or not its production values — even its camera angles and dialogue — fit what Millennials are looking for in terms of television entertainment. The other insight is this: The Millennials really matter. Why? Because they constitute so much of the audience that advertisers are looking for. To put the matter bluntly as Eric Marquez put the matter bluntly, the characters of “Will & Grace” are now going to be middle-aged, which means the Millennials might not find them, in terms of this kind of storyline, all that interesting.
But it’s also important to recognize that even this story about whether or not “Will & Grace” is going to be edgy enough for 2017, looks backward even as it looks at the present and the future. Looking backward, it goes back to 2012 when Vice President Joe Biden was in office, and when he was the most prominent advocate for legalizing same-sex marriage, at that time, in the Obama Administration. He pointed to the importance of “Will & Grace” saying that the program had,
“[done] more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.”
Now just think about that. Here you have the vice president of the United States saying that this single entertainment product, this single television program, had done more
“to educate the American public that almost anything anybody has ever done.”
Where do you see a politician, in this case the then incumbent vice president of the United States, indicating that a single sitcom had a bigger cultural voice even than the president and the vice president of the United States.
Before leaving this story, one additional issue: NBC’s motivation, as revealed in this story, for bringing back “Will & Grace,” is
“as a comfort food that viewers will gobble whole: pure nostalgia.”
The background of this is supposedly our current age of political upheaval, but the bigger issue here, I think, is something more telling, and that is this: NBC and other major networks and producers of contemporary stories aren’t really sure these days what stories they can tell. In this case it tells us that NBC must see it is safer to go back to the past, a formula that worked in the past, to tell a story because in today’s confusion with so many claims and counterclaims, it’s very hard to know how you can tell a story that will end up with a laugh line rather than a protest line.
Rolling Stone magazine for sale: How cultural artifacts quickly become more of the past
Next, a related story about cultural change and how cultural artifacts quickly become more of the past than of the present or the future. The business day page of the Times reported yesterday that Wenner Media is selling Rolling Stone magazine as the subhead says,
“A magazine turned counterculture Bible.”
As Sydney Ember reports for the Times,
“From a loft in San Francisco in 1967, a 21-year-old named Jann S. Wenner started a magazine that would become the counterculture bible for baby boomers. Rolling Stone,”
says the report,
“defined cool, cultivated literary icons and produced star-making covers that were such coveted real estate they inspired a song.”
The cover of Rolling Stone. The reason for the story becomes evident in the second paragraph of the article were Ember writes,
“But the headwinds buffeting the publishing industry, and some costly strategic missteps, have steadily taken a financial toll on Rolling Stone, and a botched story three years ago about an unproven gang rape at the University of Virginia badly bruised the magazine’s journalistic reputation.”
“after a half-century reign that propelled him into the realm of the rock stars and celebrities who graced his covers, Mr. Wenner is putting his company’s controlling stake in Rolling Stone up for sale, relinquishing his hold on a publication he has led since its founding.”
This business page article tells us that Mr. Wenner had been trying to keep his magazine independent for some time, but effectively ran out of options. One of the background realities here is the change that has come to the publishing industry. Change here’s an understatement, and in this case Rolling Stone is just a part of that publishing environment. In an interview last week, Mr. Wenner said
“Publishing is a completely different industry than what it was.”
“The trends go in one direction, and we are very aware of that.”
It’s worthy of our note that the trends he is speaking about as going in one direction are going at the expense of print media in general, but in particular of magazines. Print magazines used to be amongst the most influential and popular cultural products, staples of American life, right there at the cash register of the grocery store, and virtually ubiquitous in terms of the male. But that’s no longer the case, print media has been in decline for a long time, and this is especially the case in frequent periodicals — both newspapers and magazines.
But even as we mentioned nostalgia when it comes to “Will & Grace,” there’s an incredible amount of nostalgia in this article. Mr. Wenner speaking of his magazine and its role in the culture, even the cultural revolution said,
“Rolling Stone has played such a role in the history of our times, socially and politically and culturally.”
He went on to say,
“We want to retain that position.”
That we have to say is unlikely, not so much because Rolling Stone and the counterculture represented has run out of steam, but precisely because in the larger sense they won the war. To put the matter bluntly, you do not need Rolling Stone magazine in order to be represented on the front lines of the culture and the cultural movements of today. But in terms of its role in the culture the New York Times is quite blunt,
“Music coverage in all of its forms — news, interviews, reviews — was the core of Rolling Stone, but its influence also stretched into pop culture, entertainment and politics.”
The report goes on,
“A bastion of liberal ideology, the magazine became a required stop for Democratic presidential candidates — Mr. Wenner has personally interviewed several, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and it has pulled no punches,”
says the New York Times,
“in its appraisal of Republicans. In 2006, Rolling Stone suggested George W. Bush was the ‘worst president in history.’ More recently,”
says the report,
“the magazine featured Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, on its cover with the headline, ‘Why Can’t He Be Our President?’”
Now here we simply have to note that that wistful cover story on Justin Trudeau asking why he can’t be our president, indicates something of the superficiality of the liberal ideology of Rolling Stone. When you look at Justin Trudeau you’re looking at someone who is largely a media creation, an airbrushed media creation, there in Canada — by the way, his political popularity as a leader the left and the current Prime Minister in Canada isn’t something of a freefall. But you also see the fact that what people are looking for at Rolling Stone magazine, in terms of a president, is someone they would like to put on the cover of Rolling Stone.
But even as when we look at “Will & Grace,” the question is whether or not, when you want to be on the moral edge you can stay edgy for very long; this points to the fact that if you are in the 1960s and 70s, the quintessence of cool, it’s really not so likely you will be the very essence of cool in the 21st century. Cool never stays long in one place; cool is itself a rolling stone, culturally speaking, and cool has clearly moved on, not only to media platforms different than print media, but to media authorities different than the Rolling Stone.
To its credit, the New York Times went straight at the fact that a part of the peril of Rolling Stone is the fact that it ran a massive story in 2014 in which it ran claims about an entire system of rape, and that has to do with gang rape at the University, Virginia, that turned out simply not to be true. Sydney Ember in the article in the Times referred to this story as a botched story, and the article goes on to say that the incident,
“badly bruised the magazine’s journalistic reputation.”
That’s undoubtedly true; in fact, it’s an understatement, but also points to something that isn’t observed in this article the Times, and that has to do with the fact that Rolling Stone clearly ran that article and later defended it even against evidence because the article related a narrative that they wanted to be true when it came to a particular story line that was at that point very common in the national media. By the time the article comes to an end, Mr. Wenner explains that he’s at least in part selling the magazine because he wants younger people to take over and to expand the brand as he says. I’ll just go out on a limb and say I think it’s unlikely that this brand is actually going to be expanded. Why? Because that issue of cool moving on I think is the very core of this article, and cool has moved on beyond Rolling Stone.
But the big thing for us to understand the terms of worldview analysis, is the fact that a magazine like this — once recognized as being on the fringe of the culture, even representing the counterculture — is now, if anything, transcended by actual developments in our cultural history, and the moral revolution, which has utterly reshaped the entire American landscape.
Millennials cast their ballots, or not: Will their failure to vote hurt Democrats?
Finally, a look at the role of millennial young adults in American society. They’ve been in the background of both of those previous articles, but they show up in the foreground, for example, of an article in the New York Times. It asked the question, how much can the youth vote actually help the Democrats? It’s written by G. Elliott Morris, who identifies as a young Millennial. The point of the article is that there’s no doubt that the Millennials are trending in a more liberal and Democratic direction, but it’s not really clear that that’s going to help the Democrats a whole lot, or even in time for the 2018 and 2020, elections. One of the reasons is because the Millennials, though trending more liberal and more Democratic, are not uniformly so. Morris points out that in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump actually won the majority of young, white Millennials and their votes. But when it comes to the trend, it’s undoubtedly true that the trends are more liberal, but the reality is also, as Morris recognizes, that Millennials, following the example of other young adult generations before them, are actually a lot less likely to vote than older Americans.
“That all sounds promising for Democrats. But you might have noticed something in November 2016: This trend wasn’t enough to produce a victory for Mrs. Clinton.”
Morris went on to write,
“The turnout among those 18 to 29 was just 43 percent in 2016, compared with 60 percent for the entire electorate. And in recent midterm elections, they have voted at rates no higher than 21 percent, which is [a lot] less than the 36 percent overall average.”
“If those turnout patterns hold true in the 2018 midterms, young Millennials will cast a measly 10 percent of total ballots. So even if the Democrats do add 25 percent of young Republicans to their ranks, it will amount only to roughly 3 percent of the electorate in 2018.”
The baby boom generation — that was a generation at the forefront of what was known as the counterrevolution in the 1960s and then into the 70s — the boomers not only lean Republican, following the example of other older generations, but they also turn out to vote at a rate 23 percentage points higher than that of the Millennials. Morris concludes
“Unless that changes, boomers, though they may be outnumbered by Millennials, may continue to decide their future.”
Why the Australia same-sex marriage vote will tell us a lot about the future of marriage, mail, and millennials
But then a related story, this one with an even humorous twist. The front page of yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal tells us that even as there is now an undertaking in Australia, a mail-in vote on the question of legalizing same-sex marriage, the expectation is that younger adults in Australia are going to be overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, even radically so in terms of the numbers. So what’s the concern? Well, as the Wall Street Journal headline says,
“LOL Democracy! Mail-In Ballots Baffle Millennials.”
“Postal novices loom large in Australian same-sex marriage vote.”
The front page article by Rob Taylor from Australia tells us that one of the big concerns on the part of proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia is that the Millennials will simply not know how to mail their ballot. Taylor asks,
“Can young voters learn to use a mailbox?”
“The outcome of a national mail-in vote in Australia this fall on sanctioning same-sex marriage may teeter on the answer.”
Taylor sites Anna Dennis, a 23-year-old young woman there in Australia, who said,
“I don’t really know what the go is with post boxes, stamps, that kind of thing.”
She went on to say that when she last had to mail a parcel,
“I took my dad to help.”
“Postal service appears to have joined the list of habits abandoned by Millennials, including paying by check and answering the doorbell, a device,”
“that a majority [of Millennials] in a recent Twitter poll agreed was ‘scary weird.’”
And so it turns out that the vote going on in Australia right now is going to tell us not only a great deal about the future of marriage, but the future of mail and the future of the Millennials.