We are now several years into what has been one of the deepest, most sustained, and catastrophic economic downturns in U.S. history. One notable feature of this downturn is how relatively infrequently our current hard times are finding representation in popular culture. Oh, there have been a smattering of pop culture creations that at least make an attempt to respond to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the newer sitcoms, like HBO’s Girls and CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, nod toward their protagonists’ economic anxieties and downsized opportunities and expectations. The occasional mainstream Hollywood movie like Michael Clayton presents a bleak and depressing portrait of the depredations of corporate America. And as Katha Pollitt has noted, novelist Suzanne Collins’ riveting Hunger Games trilogy can be read as “a savage satire of late capitalism: in a dystopian future version of North America called Panem, the 1 percent rule through brute force, starvation, technological wizardry and constant surveillance.”
But for the most part, it’s downright eerie how little of the intense economic suffering that so many are experiencing is finding expression in novels, films, television, music, and the like. (Though by all means feel free to point out stuff I’ve missed in the comments). I’m a gigantic fan of classic Hollywood movies, and I’m struck by the fact that, even amongst the abundance of fluff and escapist fair that Hollywood produced in the 1930s, filmmakers then frequently and directly acknowledged the role of the Great Depression on people’s lives, in a way that films and television don’t often do today.
Of course there are many good reasons for this. The impact of the Great Depression was far more severe, and programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Social Security, which have done a great deal to alleviate the harshness of the current economic downtown, did not yet exist. Even so, there seems today to be a greater disconnect between the economic struggles people are currently facing and the degree to which our culture acknowledges these struggles, and gives voice and visibility to the people experiencing them.
This cultural disconnect struck me especially hard when I recently attended a screening of one of my favorite films, Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s one of the masterpieces of the classic Hollywood era, and trust me, it’s not until you see it on the big screen that you can fully appreciate the force of the Busby Berkeley’s demented genius. The “We’re in the Money” production number that opens the movie, with that gloriously lunatic moment in which Ginger Rogers start singing the lyrics in pig Latin, has long been referenced as an iconic moment of pure Hollywood escapism. But even that song had lyrics that acknowledge an economic reality principle: “And when we see the landlord/We’ll look that guy right in the eye.”
Most striking of all is the song that culminates the film, the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number. Smack dab at the tail end of this fizzy, fruit cocktail of a movie comes an unexpectedly powerful, achingly earnest, ballad urging the audience to remember the “forgotten man” — all those hard-working, once proud veterans, farmers, and laborers who have fallen on economic hard times. It’s social consciousness in the best Warner Brothers 1930s style, a moment of genuine, we’re-all-in-this-together solidarity. There’s even a smidgeon of racial diversity, when an African-American woman sings a verse of the song.
Take a moment like that, and contrast it with the way contemporary pop culture by and large erases and marginalizes the huge number of unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise economically struggling Americans. It speaks volumes about the insularity and out-of-touchness of our contemporary cultural elites.