Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau dressing in a turban and brownface for a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party is cultural appropriation. (Yes, he apologized.) Then there is pop-cultural appropriation. We don’t mean when rock stars like Neil Young or Rihanna try to stop Donald Trump from playing their music at his rallies. Suddenly, all kinds of celebrities are calling out people they don’t like for identifying themselves with characters in movies or television shows they do like.
Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in the Avengers movies, lashed out last week at British prime minister Boris Johnson for likening the U.K. to the oversized green superhero. “Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole,” Ruffalo scolded in a tweet. “The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone.”
Then Francis Ford Coppola chimed in to reprimand Johnson for saying that his favorite movie scene of all time is “the multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.” Coppola conceded “with embarrassment” that The Godfather was also a favorite of brutal dictators including Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, but he told the Financial News, “I feel badly that scenes in a gangster film might inspire any activity in the real world or [provide] encouragement to someone I see is about to bring the beloved United Kingdom to ruin.”
Cue Woody Allen’s fantasy in Annie Hall, when his character flattens a bloviating stranger by having the real Marshall McLuhan step out and say, “You know nothing of my work.”
Liberal sanctimony can backfire. In the current issue, Allison Pearson chides pampered Western feminists for aligning the misogyny in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, with their own fate under Donald Trump, forgetting that actual women in the developing world are already living under Sharia law and oppression even worse than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy. Pearson is particularly mordant about the Handmaid’s Tale–themed birthday party (red-cloak party favors and Praise Be vodka cocktails) held this summer by Kylie Jenner.
“Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole.”
We have a story that explains that Germans are indignant about Jojo Rabbit, a soon-to-be-released satirical film starring Scarlett Johansson and Rebel Wilson that features Hitler as a comic figure. (“About as funny as Schindler’s List,” is how one critic put it.)
The itch to hijack someone else’s renown can turn grotesque anywhere, as the New York fashion company Bstroy proved this week by showcasing runway models in hoodies adorned with the names of schools where mass shootings have taken place—Columbine, Sandy Hook—and bullet-sized holes. “Under what scenario could somebody think this was a good idea?,” Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter died in a 2018 school shooting, wrote on Twitter.
There is one notable exception to all this identity theft. Trump, bless his heart, has no other point of reference than himself. (“I am the chosen one.”)
And where does all this misappropriation, name-checking, and counterclaiming end? Irrelevance. That’s what we inferred from Vir Sanghvi’s review of New Kings of the World, by Fatima Bhutto. In her book, Bhutto suggests that society’s exhaustive fault-finding and auto-criticism is moot. The era of U.S. pop-culture imperialism, when audiences around the world wondered as one who shot J.R. on Dallas, is long gone. The West no longer owns popular culture; other parts of the world are creating their own comic books, television dramas, and movie franchises that are replacing and extinguishing Hollywood entertainment and even Western mores. As Bhutto puts it, globalization is now “a force of the un-Americanization of the world.”
So, if pop-cultural appropriation seems inappropriate, it’s not long for this world. If you want to enjoy it while you can, read on.