Reactionaries bring considerable ridicule down on their own heads by fuming that popular films, TV, etc. are insidiously promoting liberal values. Most of the time this just reflects the fact that, to them, anything which doesn't explicitly express their own cramped world-view can only be taken as propaganda. But the fact is, in some cases, pop culture can indeed both encourage and reflect social progress.
The stunningly-successful film Frozen
is the best recent example of this. While the movie makes no explicit reference to real-world social issues at all, sharp-eyed viewers have noticed that the isolation and anxiety suffered by Elsa because of her inborn ice powers, and the reactions of people around her when she is finally "outed" ("Monster! Monster!") are a strong metaphor for what many young gay people experience. Here's a good overview:
.....and here is a detailed example
of how the opposition views it. Back in April I wrote about the controversy myself
, though I hadn't seen the movie yet; now that I've seen it several times, I stand by what I said then. It's not only
a metaphor about gay young people, but could apply much more broadly, to any "difference" that provokes fear and hostility from the surrounding society. Elsa's experience would make an equally good metaphor for growing up atheist in a religious culture, for example. But that's a matter of detail. The point is that there is a very strong message here about intolerance and the misery it causes -- the very intolerance to which the social enemy clings as a core part of its "values".
It's critically important that the message and the metaphor are just incidental, and quite subtle, in a movie which is really escapist entertainment (if I had seen it without already having read about these undertones, I would not have noticed them at all). A movie with a central and explicit anti-intolerance message wouldn't have reached such a huge audience -- except for the minority which is already ideologically committed, people don't watch movies that preach at them (I don't either) -- people want movies that are fun.
How much fun is being had here, exactly? Frozen
made $1,274,000,000 just in theaters, more than two-thirds of that
in foreign countries where the ticket prices aren't so inflated as here (it was released in 41 other languages besides English) -- the fifth-highest-grossing movie ever. Despite being released less than a year ago, it's already becoming a bigger global pop-culture phenomenon
than Star Wars
or Harry Potter
. Mountains of DVDs, video games, and so forth have been sold (yes, a lot of money is being made, and that's a good thing -- movies like this should be encouraged). People are taking it as inspirational in their own lives
. As happens when a movie fires people's imaginations, there's already a vast internet universe of fanfic and fanart, people making it their own in ways the filmmakers could never have anticipated (and -- yes! -- Elsanna shippers are now a thing
). The stunning song of self-liberation "Let It Go" is a phenomenon in itself, with 367 million views on YouTube
so far. None of this would have happened with a film that seemed "preachy" and pushed a "message" too explicitly; more to the point, the people who most need to hear it wouldn't have -- fundies would have refused to let their kids see the movie, and conservative-ruled areas like the Middle East might have banned it entirely.
For comparison, look at the dismal results of the cultural enemy's efforts to get its own message out via movies, like Left Behind
or Atlas Shrugged
. Such movies failed (despite being based, unlike Frozen
, on novels which had already been successful within their own subcultures) precisely because they tried too hard and too blatantly to push their makers' world-view -- again, nobody except the already-converted wants to go to a theater and be preached at. They were also apparently just godawfully bad and inept movies, because most of the artistic talent and creativity is on our side -- an interesting matter in itself.
One can see the pattern elsewhere in mass culture. Consider the character of Remus Lupin in Harry Potter
-- a beloved and highly-capable teacher who is forced out of his job by pressure from hostile parents after being "outed" as a werewolf. Kids who read the novels will remember Lupin if they later see a teacher lose his job for being gay or atheist -- and they'll know which side is the bad guys in real life. The wizard-supremacist ideology of Lord Voldemort and his followers, with its emphasis on "pure blood" and valuing ancestry over talent, obviously stands in for racism, racial supremacy, and the exclusion of the "other", and perhaps for aristocracy is well. The clomping literal-minded fundies made fools of themselves by screeching that Harry Potter
was promoting sorcery and occultism, while these real messages (despite being far less subtle than Frozen
) flew right under their radar.
There are other interesting touches in these works. Did you notice that the "church" where the coronation scene in Frozen
is held displays no crosses or any other Christian symbols? Or that Elsa's father has at least one book that appears to be printed
in the runic alphabet? The kingdom of Arendelle is based on Norway at some vague time in the past, but apparently it's a Norway where Christianity didn't displace paganism. As far as I can remember, in all the Harry Potter
books there isn't a single mention of God or Heaven, even though the subject of the afterlife repeatedly comes up.
Explicit argumentation on social issues definitely has its role -- we wouldn't have gotten anywhere like as far as we have without it. But pop culture can also help to subtly shift accepted norms and to change hearts and minds -- everywhere, not just in the West.