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The Right's Flailing War On 'Woke'
The right-wing in the U.S. feels they are being drowned out by the dominant culture in the U.S. and they have a term for it: 'woke culture.'
You’ve heard the term: the “woke” agenda, most often in the context of battles over educational curricula.
The right likes to claim that the left is taken over by a “woke mind virus.” But they fail to look in the mirror at their own obsessive attacks on anything in our broader culture that they perceive as tinged with ”wokeness.”
Whether it’s corporations, movies, or beer, the right sees U.S. culture slipping away from them. This attack on “woke” is their sad attempt to cling to a world they feel should rightly be theirs.
But in so doing, often they can’t even agree on what is “woke” and what is “anti-woke.” Or what the terms even mean.
On today’s The Big Picture, we do a deep dive into the pop culture wars being waged by the right.
– George Takei
For all the fuming on the right about liberal “snowflakes” and the left being easily “triggered,” spoiler alert: turns out it’s conservatives who’ve been the biggest snowflakes of all.
Whether it’s banning books about racial and sexual minorities, boycotting formerly trusted beer brands, or expelling lawmakers from their legislative bodies when they don’t conform to their definitions of racial or sexual norms, the right cannot handle the discomfort from any challenge to their preconceived notions of what America is or should be.
In a word, these White heterosexual cisgender Christians feel “oppressed.” Yes, they are the real victims here.
And to be honest, I kind of get it. I mean, the country IS against them on pretty much every policy front, with massive majorities of voters agreeing with the left on abortion rights, gun control, climate change, you name it.
From a purely electoral standpoint, they’ve lost the popular vote in 7 out of the last 8 presidential elections.
And demographically, the United States is set to become a minority majority country by 2044. Churches are also closing at record rates.
They see the writing on the wall. And they cannot handle that they no longer dominate the culture.
So they’ve come up with a villain to explain their discomfort and to claim the dominant culture is imposing some sort of agenda on them, because it’s easier than admitting they are swiftly becoming the cultural minority:
But what does it actually mean?
Turns out, not even the right can seem to agree.
What Does “Woke” Mean?
The term woke actually derives from the racial justice movements of the early to mid-1900s and was coined by progressive Black Americans to mean that “someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality.”
Or as Wikipedia puts it:
Woke is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning "alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.”
In more recent years, the term has been co-opted by the political right to try to counter what they perceive as an indoctrination agenda of “wokism” that extends beyond race into sexual orientation, gender identity, and any category of inclusion of an underrepresented demographic.
And it appears the Republican base has eaten it up.
A new CBS News poll finds that among likely GOP primary voters, 85% agree that the most important quality in a presidential candidate in 2024 is that they “challenge woke ideas.”
But even with such unity on that question, Republican voters are hilariously divided about what the term “woke” actually means.
Conservative author Bethany Mandel was famously left speechless when asked to define “woke.”
So, I mean, woke is…sort of…the idea that…ummm…I…this is going to be one of those moments that goes viral…woke is something that is very hard to define.
The Good Liars have been on the case, interviewing Republican voters to find out what “woke” means to them, and hoo boy.
This guy thinks “woke” means schools allowing kids to identify as cats and providing them with kitty litter in the school restrooms.
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This guy thinks it’s about “shoving sexuality down [children’s] throats.”
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This guy just comes right out and says the quiet part out loud:
“Woke” is anti-white.
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Vice similarly interviewed CPAC attendees about the meaning of the term and yeah…it’s awkward.
Oh, the beauty of a term that is so general that it can mean anything to anyone.
But the multi-purpose malleability of the term is a double-edged sword. Because if every single thing they disagree with is “woke”...then nothing is.
And this confusion has been on full display in the right’s latest culture wars.
“Go Woke, Go Broke!”
The right particularly despises the perceived “wokeness” of Hollywood, and it celebrates when films they consider to be “woke” flop while their perceived “anti-woke” films succeed.
For example, take a film like Disney Pixar’s Lightyear, which hit the “woke” jackpot by triggering conservatives on multiple fronts.
It’s a Disney film, which has been under fire by conservatives—particularly Ron DeSantis—for years.
It features a shot of a lesbian character—who is also a person of color—kissing her partner.
The film recast the voice of Buzz Lightyear from a staunch Hollywood conservative (Tim Allen) to a liberal (Chris Evans.)
Having made $226 million on a budget of $200, the film was widely considered a “flop”
Now the important thing to remember about the first three criteria in this list is that none of them matters without #4. For the right’s purposes, the only reason to announce a film as “woke” or “anti-woke” is to celebrate the success or failure of a film.
Case in point: Disney’s Strange World, which features the studio’s first openly gay teenage character in an animated film, was a massive bomb. So, therefore: WOKE!
Top Gun: Maverick, on the other hand, set box office records when it opened in June 2022 and went on to become the top grossing domestic box office hit of the year. Ergo: ANTI-WOKE!
Now if you listen to these conservative arbiters of “woke,” they make it sound as though whether a film is “woke” or not is a clear objective judgment.
For example, Meghan McCain declared Top Gun: Maverick an anti-woke “wake-up call to Hollywood.”
…above all else -- the movie isn't overly political, it isn't depressing, it isn't focusing on the flaws of the United States of America and why we suck and why our flag and national anthem aren't worth honoring.
But if you look closer, conservatives tell on themselves with their ridiculously shifting standard for what constitutes “anti-woke.”
Consider Super Mario Bros., which just opened on April 7 to huge opening box office, and has topped $1 billion globally in just its first 3 weeks of release.
When the official trailer for the film dropped in November, the initial reviews from conservatives were not kind.
“Woke!” they declared. Why?
As Geeks and Gamers put it bluntly in a realtime reaction to the trailer:
Peach has done nothing but be stoic and smart and powerful and commanding and Mario is bumbling stumbling idiot. Look, like right there just she this confidence…Look at her. Look how powerful she looks.
And this is a problem because?
Unfortunately we are at a time when you can not ignore identity politics within Hollywood.
Right-wing commentator Anna Perez put it slightly differently in her hot take:
Young women see stuff like this and it just brainwashes them to be a feminist.
Perez has a plea on behalf of Princess Peach:
Please make her a helpless princess again.
This take spread among right-wing Twitter as essentially declaring Princess Peach too much of a “girl boss.”
But after the film opened in April to record-breaking box office numbers, the right had a change of heart, a 180 put perfectly by this tweet:
Yes, right-wing darlings Steven Crowder and Alex Jones suddenly claimed Super Mario Bros. as their own and declared its success a triumph over “woke” Hollywood.
And how did Super Mario Bros. achieve this distinction?
With a little assist from John Leguizamo who starred as Luigi in 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. film.
Caught taking photos with fans on a New York City sidewalk the day the film opened in theatres, Leguizamo told TMZ why he was boycotting the new animated version of the videogame classic.
No I will not be watching. They could’ve included a Latin character. Like I was groundbreaking and then they stopped the groundbreaking. They messed up the inclusion. They dis-included. Just cast some Latin folk! We’re 20% of the population. The largest people of color group and we are underrepresented.
Which provided the right with the perfect foil to declare the animated hit film as defying Hollywood’s “woke” agenda.
For the right, not only was Chris Pratt’s casting as Mario a defiance of “woke” Hollywood because he’s a white guy and not a Latin or ethnic actor, but he’s also “a known Christian” and, as Alex Jones’ so-called logic would have it:
Pratt is not even really a conservative but he’s not a Communist, so people will also go because they know that and it shows what people are hungry for.
Because, you see, Alex Jones knows what America wants.
But that is what drives so much of the right’s cultural “anti-woke” rhetoric, this idea that if only these institutions would give the “real Americans” what they really want—defined as [insert conservative values here]—they wouldn’t flop with the public.
Meghan McCain echoed this idea in her essay about the triumph of Top Gun: Maverick:
Art is political, it always has been. But for every 5,000 woke movies and television shows, making one that is unabashedly pro-America and pro-military is clearly the answer to Hollywood's woes.
Or to really hit it home:
Hollywood must wake up to the reality that 'go woke, go broke' is real.
But as Matt Gertz of Media Matters eloquently points out:
The thing about right-wing culture warring is that it's totally arbitrary which lets them declare victory whenever they want.
Because while they will tout their precious “anti-woke” hits, they conveniently leave out the films that don’t quite fit their narrative, where “going woke” doesn’t mean “going broke” AT ALL:
One very obvious problem with this argument is that Top Gun: Maverick is going to make a lot of money but almost certainly much less than Woke Womyn's Studies Star Wars, which has the top domestic grossing film of all time and four of the top 15.
Similarly, as Mike Redmond at Uproxx points out, in the very year Top Gun: Maverick came out, Doctor Strange and The Multiverse of Madness debuted to an opening weekend 50% better than Top Gun’s and ended up as the #4 top grossing film of the year.
That film openly featured a lesbian superhero and her two mothers. But, yes, Meghan, it’s the lack of “wokeness” that made Top Gun: Maverick the only successful movie of the year. You really stuck it to Hollywood.
“F*** Bud Light and F*** Anheuser Busch.”
A similar dynamic exists in the right’s bizarre fixation on the “wokeness” of corporate America.
The most recent high-profile example of a corporation triggering right-wing snowflakes with their supposed “wokeness,” of course, is Bud Light’s use of transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney as a spokesperson, where the company created a can featuring her likeness, just as they do for many other influencers.
Mulvaney explained in her joyous Instagram video that Bud Light sent her the can to celebrate her 365th day of womanhood.
Which set off the right’s “woke” police, which led to Kid Rock shooting up his cases of Bud Light with a semi-automatic rifle and a conservative boycott that has reportedly led to a 26% drop in Bud Light sales.
But in an awkward twist, even Donald Trump Jr. had to admit in a viral video that it was absurd for the right to boycott Anheuser-Busch when the company and its employees overwhelmingly support the conservative movement.
And then right-wing pundit Pete Hegseth followed suit, copping to the hollow performative nature of the “boycott” with a Fox News on-air confession that the beer he was drinking as a replacement for Bud Light…
We all drank a local IPA beer instead.. I was going to make a big deal about this proud of the stand that we took until Primetime producers told me the local beer we were drinking is actually owned by Anheuser-Busch.
Hegseth here has a moment of realization and self-awareness about the absurdity of the hill he was dying on.
Almost like a real-life version of The Daily Show’s Patriot Hammer ad, which declares:
Nowadays, being a conservative is about one thing: destroying “woke” products.
And announces the new product: The Patriot Hammer:
The only hammer designed specifically to smash items that have a gay spokesperson, or whatever…
And then ultimately:
The Patriot Hammer: the perfect gift for a conservative man, woman or nonbinary per—uh-oh, our hammer just went woke. So we’re introducing the Hammer Hammer. Don’t think, just hammer!
The right’s reaction to Mattel’s new Down syndrome Barbie has been similarly all over the place.
When Good Morning America recently hosted a young woman with Down syndrome to unveil Mattel’s newest Barbie Fashionistas doll, the internet was in tears.
But of course, some on the right declared this important gesture of corporate and cultural inclusion as an example of “woke” gone wrong.
Steven Crowder spent several minutes on his show derisively mocking the inclusive nature of the doll (which we will not link to.)
Which in turn led right-wing hate-monger Matt Walsh to clap back against the whole “woke” label, saying:
I know some conservatives are calling this “woke” but I don’t see it that way.
No, Matt Walsh has another reading of the new Barbie:
In a video explaining his point at more length, Walsh seems to understand that the whole anti-woke movement is its own worst enemy, stating sort of hilariously:
We don’t want to be like dogs, you know, barking whenever we hear a car in the driveway no matter who’s driving it. We want to have discernment and we should have it here.
Well, too late for that my dude. That’s precisely where the anti-woke movement has ended up.
But in the end, Walsh admits:
Obviously Mattel didn’t intend for this to be pro-life, but we should embrace it that way. Take a cultural win even if it wasn’t supposed to be a cultural win for us.
Which gives up the whole ballgame.
They are desperate for these so-called “cultural wins” to ratify the notion that they still dominate American culture, which in their mind rightly belongs to them and has simply been co-opted by “the left,” which let’s face it is really just the mainstream culture at this point.
But it’s a fight that they’re losing and they know it.
So like fish gasping for air on the dock, they rail against the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming Little Mermaid film:
The Boston Marathon provided a non-binary gender option on its entry applications:
Netflix released a lesbian-themed vampire show nicknamed ‘gay Twilight’:
But deep down they know what a recent poll of beer drinkers found: that the majority of the country is not with them on their regressive culture wars.
According to a new Morning Consult poll, 53% of beer drinkers are on the side of Bud Light:
In the survey, which was conducted approximately two weeks after the controversy started, a majority of regular monthly beer drinkers in the U.S. said they would feel “favorable” toward a beer brand that worked with a trans spokesperson. According to the survey, 53 percent said they would have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of a brand “if it chose to hire a transgender spokesperson.”
But perhaps more important, it’s not just beer drinkers who are—by the right’s own definition—“woke,” it’s an entire generation: Gen Z.
According to a 2022 Pew poll, Gen Z Americans, which are defined as born after 1996, are the most “woke” generation yet:
Gen Z is 25% Hispanic and only 52% white
They are on track to be the best-educated generation
54% of Gen Z says climate change is due to human activity
48% say same-sex marriage is good for society, the largest percentage of any generation
In 2020 voters aged 18-29 went 60% for Biden vs. 36% for Trump
59% of Gen Z says forms should provide a “non-binary” gender option
This is the future conservatives know is coming, and they are desperately trying to cling to cultural relevance before their “go woke, go broke” mantra is seen for the hollow performative last gasp that it is.