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Why so much Obama-era pop culture feels so cringe now

How Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter lost cultural cachet.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton on Disney+.
Courtesy of Disney

One of the oddities of getting old is bearing witness as the pop culture you used to think would always be beyond reproach slowly slides out of favor. As millennials age into the solid middle of the culture here at the end of 2021, they’re getting to experience that disorienting slip with some of the most beloved pop culture of their youths, and most particularly the pop culture that was celebrated during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Sunny, wholesome, nominated-for-16-Emmys Parks and Recreation is now widely considered an overrated and tunnel-visioned portrait of the failures of Obama-era liberalism. Iconic and beloved Harry Potter is the neoliberal fantasy of a transphobe. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the rapid fall of Hamilton and its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose reputation is now one of embarrassing earnestness.

Gossip Girl, hyper-aware in all its incarnations of the preferred status symbols of mean teens, sounded the death knell there. The 2021 HBO revival of Gossip Girl sees its cast of wealthy Upper East Side teenagers enjoying a night out at the Public Theatre, where Hamilton first premiered off-Broadway in 2015.

“You know, I saw Hamilton here with Max, before it went on Broadway,” brags one of the teens, hoping to impress his cool new girlfriend Zoya. “You into that play?”

Zoya, the wokest of the group and the one with the most sophisticated literary taste, sighs deeply and rolls her eyes. “No doubt it’s a work of art,” she allows. “But …”

Zoya doesn’t finish her sentence. She doesn’t have to; by now, the critiques of Hamilton are so well established that the audience can fill in the blanks on its own: Hamilton, according to current conventional cool-person wisdom, glorifies the slave-owning and genocidal Founding Fathers while erasing the lives and legacies of the people of color who were actually alive in the Revolutionary era. It is no longer considered to be self-evidently virtuous or self-evidently great.

Zoya’s heavy sigh signals something about Hamilton’s current status, too. It proves that the show is no longer cool.

That’s true of all the works and public figures I’m discussing here. Political critiques have their place, but the real sign that the shibboleths of millennial pop culture have lost their cultural capital is that right now, they mostly just feel kind of cringe.

Lin-Manuel Miranda gazing out at the audience with misty eyes at the end of Hamilton? Cringe. Grown adults debating their Hogwarts houses? Cringe. An article in which fictional character Leslie Knope shares words of comfort after Donald Trump’s 2016 election on this very website? So so so cringe.

Part of the decline these properties have experienced is simply a natural response to overexposure. They reached a level of cultural saturation that made them inescapable, and a backlash inevitably ensued. Yet there’s also something about precisely which relics of Obama-era pop culture have come in for special reviling in 2021. They’re not necessarily associated with Obama himself.

Instead, they are all media that tends to celebrate people who work through the grind of bureaucracy to make their great achievements; media much venerated for their identity politics of representation; media with a firm but vague political identity of liberal centrism.

They are, in short, media that celebrates the qualities associated with our collective pop cultural understanding of Hillary Clinton.

So as 2021 comes to a close, and we have begun to grasp what President Joe Biden’s America looks like, let’s take a step back. We can trace which formerly beloved works of pop cultural liberalism have fallen out of favor in the tumultuous years since 2016, which ones have risen up to take their place, and come to understand what all of the above can tell us about how we’re thinking of America right now.

On the eve of the 2016 election, left-leaning pop culture was celebrating hard work and representation that mattered. Hillary Clinton was its poster child.

Parks and Recreation ended in 2015, and Hamilton premiered in the same year. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with its much-heralded Black Hermione, premiered in 2016, offering a highly anticipated extension of a series that had been foundational to the Harry Potter generation as a story of diversity and difference conquering racism and small-minded conformity. So on the eve of the 2016 US election, there was a clear archetype operating at full strength in American popular culture: a sincere celebration of playing by the rules, working hard within the system, and being rewarded with the chance to smash through the barriers of systemic discrimination. And no one epitomized that archetype better than Hillary Clinton as pop culture understood her.

To be clear, when I’m talking about our pop cultural understanding of Hillary Clinton, I don’t mean the actual Hillary Clinton, the politician who published real policy papers and had an interesting if fraught voting record. Nor am I talking about the shrill, castrating harpy (or villain in a pedophile-ring conspiracy theory) that many on the right talk about when they use Hillary Clinton’s name. I mean the liberal caricature of Hillary Clinton, the flat but far-reaching portrait of Hillary that dominated the left-wing political ecosystem for decades.

When pop culture celebrated that idea of Hillary Clinton, it was celebrating some very specific traits: She was celebrated for doing hard, unglamorous work. She was admired for grinding through dull bureaucratic processes to come to a reasonable political compromise, for being pragmatic rather than inspirational. “Bitches get stuff done,” said Tina Fey of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live in 2008. Clinton does “the work of retail politics,” wrote Rebecca Traister for New York magazine in 2016, “like an Olympic athlete.”

In tandem, pop culture properties like Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter celebrated the heroes who made their way through boring political red tape to enact true change.

“How do you write like you’re running out of time?” asks a wonderstruck Aaron Burr in Hamilton as piles of parchment signifying the groundwork for a new economic system accumulate around the musical’s title character. Parks and Recreation frequently returned to the sight gag of Leslie Knope plowing her way through a stack of binders that contained everything she needed to make some tiny, ever-so-meaningful tweak to one of the parks of Pawnee, Indiana. Harry Potter repeatedly celebrated the anxious over-preparedness of Hermione Granger and her constant refrain of, “Honestly, am I the only one who’s ever read Hogwarts: A History?”

So it came to be fashionable, during the 2016 election, to draw recurring parallels between Hillary and all of her hard-working pop cultural analogues. Hillary Clinton is the Hermione of politics, commenters argued. Or, in fact, she is Leslie Knope, which means the haters need to get over themselves. Clinton herself quoted Hamilton when she accepted her nomination at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and then Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrote the lyrics to “The Ten Duel Commandments” for a Hillary fundraiser.

Besides being celebrated for her work ethic, Hillary was also celebrated for the historic nature of her identity. She was the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for the presidency. She was the first woman to win the popular vote for the presidency. Regardless of where her politics lay, the sheer fact of her existence was radical and boundary-breaking.

Likewise, Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter were all celebrated for the symbolic force of their politics of representation. Hamilton had actors of color playing the Founding Fathers in a move that was, New York magazine’s 2015 review declared, “more than colorblind; it’s a key to the story as it projects into the future.” Parks and Rec was lauded for the “quietly consistent argument for feminism” in its portrayal of an ambitious female politician. Harry Potter had earned feminist credit for its strong female characters, the argument being that “the Harry Potter universe is full of take-charge women and supportive men who don’t let a silly thing like gender constructs get in the way of their fight against the evil forces of the world.”

Then Donald Trump became president instead of Hillary Clinton, and everything changed.

Since the 2016 election, cultural capital has ebbed away from Clinton and the pop culture most associated with her

In the five years since Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, pop culture’s support of her — and of her specific hard-working archetype — has waned.

Pop culture was still interested in wholesome stories about good people during the Trump era. Certainly there were still plenty of antiheroes and villains; The Handmaid’s Tale made Trump’s misogyny the leering ogre at the center of its dystopia, and Succession’s cynical Roy family views the world through the same power-above-all lens that Trump did. But there were also shows like The Good Place (from Parks and Recreation showrunner Michael Schur) and Netflix’s revamped Queer Eye, both of which made their debuts to critical acclaim during this era.

What distinguished the wholesome pop culture of the Trump era was that it seemed to be starting from zero. While pop culture’s Hillaries tended to be presented as fully-cooked good people whom we could all emulate, in the Trump era, wholesome pop culture tended to center itself around fundamentally flawed people who were trying to be good, and not always succeeding. The protagonists of The Good Place started in hell and had to work their way painfully up to heaven over the course of four seasons. The heroes of Queer Eye all had some major personality flaw or emotional obstacle to try to conquer over the course of each episode.

Moreover, the pop culture of the Trump years wasn’t always sure what goodness itself would look like. The Good Place held up one moral philosophy after another for examination and often found them wanting. Queer Eye could not always offer its subjects a convincing redemption. It was as though we were in an era in search of an ideal.

And when we came out the other side, pop culture seemed to have concluded that it wasn’t going back to the Hillary role model.

Clinton’s biggest moment in 2021 pop culture came courtesy of American Crime Story: Impeachment — which, while sympathetic, focused less on Clinton’s accomplishments than on her humiliations at her husband’s hands.

Meanwhile the real tell, as ever, remains the mean teens.

Early on in HBO Max’s buzzy The White Lotus (not a show about pop culture liberalism per se, but very much a show about cultural capital), two terrifyingly cool college students begin gossiping knowingly to each other about Hillary Clinton. “Like she actually cared about the working poor,” one of them says dismissively.

“She was a neoliberal war hawk,” returns the other, Olivia. “She was a neolib and a neocon.”

“Oh. Oh, is that the trendy thing they’re teaching now, to hate on Hillary Clinton?” demands Olivia’s mother, a high-powered executive in her 50s played by Connie Britton. “Hillary Clinton is one of the most influential women of the last 30 years, and many women in my generation very much admire Hillary Clinton.”

“Mom, don’t get triggered,” Olivia says. She adds sarcastically, “We all love Hillary Clinton.”

Like Zoya with Hamilton, Olivia doesn’t need to explain why she doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. The fact of her not liking Hillary signifies Olivia’s cool, her progressive politics. It shows that she has her finger on the pulse. Her mother’s knee-jerk defense of Hillary, meanwhile, shows how behind-the-times she is.

Hillary lost the election to Donald Trump. She and her hard work and her commitment to navigating the constraints of the system and her politics of representation did not save us. In response, the culture has turned on her. In America’s popular imagination, she’s become a symbol of all the worst impulses of the Democratic Party establishment: both a neolib and a neocon. So the art to which Hillary was continually compared throughout the 2016 election is reviled now, too.

Hamilton is understood to use its color-conscious casting to “whitewash” the slave-owning founding fathers. Harry Potter, fans note to each other significantly, “was a trust fund jock who became a cop and married his high school sweetheart,” and moreover his author is transphobic. Parks and Recreation is a symbol of the failure of liberalism in the face of Donald Trump.

“That’s what Parks and Rec did for most of its run, assuaging the anxieties of managerial-class liberals by telling them everything would be okay if we trusted the grownups — the Obamas, the Clintons, the Knopes — to look out for us,” wrote Timothy Shenk for Dissent in 2019. Shenk argued that Parks and Recreation’s finale, which flashes forward into the future all the way up to 2048, ignored America’s increasingly unstable politics to assure fans that at least Leslie Knope was going to live a happy life: “By the end of the show, optimism meant a future where public services are gutted, a handful of corporations dominate the economy, and all your favorite characters are doing just splendidly.”

I am not here to argue that these properties are all definitively regressive works of neoliberal propaganda and that there is no other way of understanding them. It’s still possible to have more radical interpretations of all of these works, perhaps especially of Hamilton. It’s also still possible to respect the achievements of Hillary Clinton. But the pendulum of cultural opinion has swung out of their favor.

It used to be that you demonstrated your cred by saying you saw Hamilton at the Public. Now you demonstrate your cred by saying you have your doubts about Hamilton’s racial politics.

The new face of mainstream American pop cultural liberalism is Ted Lasso

I also don’t want to argue that this shift away from Hillary and her analogues means mainstream America is moving toward embracing a radical new leftism in its popular culture. What I think it actually means is that pop culture’s understanding of mainstream political virtue has shifted toward a new model, one that is slightly, tellingly different from the one Hillary symbolized.

One of the most discussed new shows of the past couple of years is the Apple TV+ sitcom Ted Lasso. It is in many ways a direct descendant of Parks and Recreation: a sitcom animated by the same sense of sweetness, offering viewers the same chance to luxuriate in a world of niceness.

But while Parks and Rec was organized around a hard-working and ambitious blonde woman, played by an actress who had played Hillary Clinton on SNL, Ted Lasso has a different anchor.

The titular Ted Lasso is an American college football coach who moves to England to coach a professional soccer team, and he is the moral center of his show. Ted is a folksy, avuncular figure. He is a white man who understands the problems with white men, who is working hard to redeem the rest of his gender. He is able to walk into a football franchise that has been run into the ground by poor leadership and turn it around again, not with dull paperwork and rule-following — both of which escape him — but by the sheer force of his vision. His superpower is his empathy, and he is much admired for his ability to find common ground with some of his enemies, as well as his willingness to declare others (notably Rebecca’s wicked ex-husband Rupert) beyond help.

He is even played, like Leslie Knope, by an actor who played a prominent politician on SNL; Jason Sudeikis used to be SNL’s Biden.

As both the backlash toward Ted Lasso’s second season and Biden’s plummeting approval ratings both demonstrate, our patience with this archetype is not infinite. Still, right now, Ted Lasso is the collective liberal fantasy of who Joe Biden could be if we maybe all wished hard enough. He’s replaced the collective fantasy of who Hillary Clinton could be after she failed to best Donald Trump. And only time will tell us if we’ll end up repudiating him — and all his pop cultural analogues — too.

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