HOURS AFTER John Kerry conceded to President Bush, a map began making the email rounds that renamed the great crimson mass of Republican states as its own breakaway nation, “Jesusland.”
That same day Tim Winter, exec director of the Parents Television Council, suggested that Hollywood shouldn’t ignore the influence of “moral values” on the election — that is, the theoretical “Hollywood” in New York and L.A. that tends to dismiss the fly-over territory between them.
For a week I’ve absorbed scads of analysis about the great cultural divide, much of it emanating from media folks lamenting the need to co-exist with the pitchfork-waving rabble. As “The Daily Show’s” Lewis Black put it last week, Americans remain free to pursue their dreams, “so long as that dream doesn’t make Midwesterners feel ‘icky.’ ”
Still, whatever people may tell pollsters, I’m not convinced that pop culture, at least, can be dissected quite so readily into the red and blue.
CERTAINLY, THE IMPACT of religion and so-called traditional values has been evident long before this election, from CBS’ success with “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Touched by an Angel” in the 1990s to the controversy-into-cash miracle of “The Passion of the Christ.” Such surprise hits are usually attributed to a backlash against the licentiousness of big media, fostering pent-up demand for such fare.
As with most multilayered issues, however, the search for black-and-white answers yields perplexing shades of gray. For starters, except for the most vocal minorities, the “outrage” over permissiveness in entertainment runs wide but not especially deep, as people often express support for one thing but view another.
In that respect, New York Times columnist William Safire got it half right on “Meet the Press” Sunday when he cited Janet Jackson’s great boob escape for having mobilized those alarmed by the coarse drift of popular culture. Yes, that was a significant moment, but it took an event with the Super Bowl’s massive reach to briefly awaken that group, even with all the orchestrated letter-writing campaigns and ineffectual boycotts in the past designed to marshal those forces.
By the same token, at a time when “Will & Grace” is well established, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” became a cable hit and Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show is thriving, the Democratic presidential candidate so feared alienating voters that he expressed opposition to gay marriage. In other words, fans might sing along at Elton John concerts (and, if ABC has its way, laugh at his sitcom), but the singer’s glass platform heels offer as much transparency as many wish to see.
DURING HIS KEYNOTE address at the Democratic National Convention, newly elected Illinois Sen. Barack Obama downplayed the notion of a geographic fissure by emphasizing areas of common ground. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states … and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states,” he said, characterizing talk of division as a choice between “a politics of cynicism or … a politics of hope.”
Cynicism too often reigns supreme in Hollywood, but in terms of popular tastes, Obama has a point. Plenty are watching trashy-good TV like “Desperate Housewives” and “Nip/Tuck” in red states, and tuning in the wholesome “7th Heaven” in blue states. They rent “Kill Bill” in red states and take kids to see “The Incredibles” in blue states. California’s conservative Orange County, for that matter, surfs the same wave of channels as bluer than blue L.A.
The ultimate challenge remains how best to connect with both the red and the blue, delivering a spectrum of choices catering to more libertine and libertarian views while creating havens for those who fear MTV is making teenagers gay, nymphomaniacal or both.
Hollywood actually does a pretty good job of doing just that, assuming one bothers to look — which, of course, political opportunists seldom do. While auteurs yearn to impress friends by testing boundaries with edgy R-rated fare, studios know Christmas is merrier with a “Harry Potter”-like franchise under the tree, and Robert Zemeckis used his A-list muscle to direct a lavish G-rated children’s movie, “The Polar Express.”
Granted, media power brokers nestled in blue states have much to learn about their brethren in the heartland. Yet despite the venom that cultural warriors spew to inflame passions and sell books, there is enough shared experience, enough overlap, to find a happy medium.
Let’s call it “The Color Purple.”