Is the blockbuster success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie a victory for the “anti-woke”?
Well, according to right-wing media pundits like Charlie Kirk, Steven Crowder, and Alex Jones, it sure is, mostly because of how the film’s producers ignored public calls to cast Italian American voice actors in the cartoon roles of Mario and Luigi. Yet if you check the Washington Examiner, you can read all about “The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s Invisible Wokeness,” which has something to do with the video game’s Princess Peach being elevated from a damsel-in-distress to a goomba-kicking action heroine. For further analysis, why not consult the Daily Wire, the news site that has become something of an industry leader for conservative pop culture coverage? Here, you can find a detailed breakdown of the issue under the headline “Woke, Or Anti-Woke? The Super Mario Bros. Movie Sparks Debate Among Conservatives About Setting the Bar Too Low.”
If all of this seems like a lot, just wait for later this month when Disney releases its long-awaited live-action remake of The Little Mermaid starring Black actress Halle Bailey in the titular role. Matt Walsh, a Daily Wire contributor, already kicked off the discourse way back in September when the first teaser trailer dropped, courting accusations of racism by remarking on his podcast that “from a scientific perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have someone with darker skin who lives deep in the ocean.”
Yes, from Black mermaids and hobbits to “girlboss” princesses and Jedi knights — not to mention drag queens and trans TikTok stars — today’s right-wing media commentators have no shortage of opinions when it comes to pop culture. For that, we have the “Breitbart Doctrine” to thank, a.k.a. the theory that changed everything, which has convinced a generation of right-wing media professionals that, as the late right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart said, “politics is downstream from culture.” Yet this was not always the case.
According to journalists and editors who cover the entertainment industry for conservative news outlets, the current pop culture obsession in right-wing media represents a significant break with its own past. I spoke to over a dozen of these professionals while researching my book Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape, and they characterized the shift as a recent one, and audience-driven.
Previously, in the wake of the great cultural schisms that embittered the right beginning in the 1960s, the target market for conservative news tended to have little overlap with the audience for youth-skewing mainstream Hollywood entertainment. In fact, many members of this mostly older, conservative news audience could be described as deliberate “pop culture avoiders,” actively shunning Hollywood products due to their perceptions of their irredeemable moral depravity and left-wing bias.
If this audience sees mainstream pop culture as something entirely foreign and alienating to them, then it is understandable that they would prefer not to see, hear, or read about it all. Indeed, when confronted with this kind of coverage in their favorite conservative news outlets, the reaction has been historically so unfavorable that these outlets were essentially forced to be “pop culture avoiders” themselves.
For decades, this negative audience feedback loop has played out time and time again in the offices of conservative media outlets. The journalists I spoke to recounted how whenever they would talk about Hollywood entertainment in their work — even when harshly criticizing it from a right-wing point of view — they would inevitably get angry emails from, as one put it, “cranky old people” who complained that the entire topic was so unseemly that it was unworthy of their attention.
However, in recent years, the tide has been starting to turn. Younger members of the conservative news audience, so it seems, are far more pop culture-savvy than their elders, even to the point of being full-throated pop culture fans. For this younger audience, the entertainment industry is viewed not as a lost cause to shun, but rather as a battlefield to be conquered in the name of the right. As one conservative pop culture commentator noted regarding his audience, “When I started, they weren’t talking about this, and now they are, and now they pay attention. And the younger they are, the more they pay attention.”
In the eyes of many in the right-wing news media, the audience’s burgeoning embrace of a “pop culture war” mentality has come not a moment too soon, as they have been convinced for quite some time that the entertainment field must be one of their central focal points. Such a philosophy is largely attributable to the influence of the late Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing media entrepreneur behind the famous “politics is downstream from culture” phrase that has become enshrined over time in conservative circles as the “Breitbart Doctrine.”
By “culture,” Breitbart wasn’t just referring to culture war issues in the broadest sense, like debates about gay people and abortions. He meant, quite literally, pop culture. As he wrote in his book Righteous Indignation, published a year before his sudden passing in 2012, “Hollywood is more important than Washington. … What happens in front of the cameras on a soundstage at the Warner Bros. lot often makes more difference to the fate of America than what happens in the backrooms … on Capitol Hill.”
Inside the offices of right-wing media outlets, the “downstream from culture” line is repeated over and over as a kind of mantra — indeed, it was the first thing to come up, unprompted, in nearly every interview I conducted. For over a decade now, this “Breitbart Doctrine” has urged conservative journalists and editors to take on pop culture as one of their primary political battlegrounds, and it appears as though the audience is finally starting to catch on.
Certainly, Breitbart was not the first pundit to attack Hollywood from the right. As far back as the 1990s, one could find relatively high-minded cultural commentary and even film reviews from writers like Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz in the pages of National Review. Also on the menu for conservative critics of yore were intermittent servings of “moral panic” aimed at sex, violence, and anti-Christian sentiment in mainstream entertainment (and even further back in time, during McCarthyism, conservative-minded newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper were known for railing against suspected communists in Hollywood, even naming names and destroying careers in the process). But Breitbart’s enduring legacy is that he was the first to introduce a consistent, day-to-day editorial focus on pop culture topics from a right-wing partisan perspective at an institutional level.
His mission of embracing entertainment as a means of positively advancing a conservative political agenda, rather than decrying and shunning it altogether, is also key to his vision — Breitbart was a self-described “pop culture-infused, wannabe hipster” and former Hollywood employee who got his start delivering scripts, and he initially aspired to a career as a comedy writer. His subsequent disaffection with an entertainment industry establishment that treated conservatives like him “as though they suffer from highly contagious leprosy,” and his vow to take it over from the outside with his own media empire, now reads as a kind of “villain origin story” in the right’s broader push into pop culture warfare.
Prior to the “Breitbart Doctrine,” the conservative movement’s take on mainstream entertainment media was largely one of scandalized moral outrage over the supposed corruption of youth — if and when it was paying attention to pop culture at all. The film critic Michael Medved epitomized this approach with his 1992 book Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, in which he longed for the good old pre-1960s days, when Hollywood movies were produced under the strict Motion Picture Production Code and offered safe, sanitized fun for the whole family. This narrow focus on Hollywood’s seeming violations of Christian family values represents an older paradigm — these days, you don’t hear much from right-wing media about excessive violence in entertainment (and on the rare occasion that you do, critics are quick to point out the glaring hypocrisy of the right denouncing fictional violence at the same time as it has increasingly embraced Donald Trump’s very real violent rhetoric).
By contrast, you’ll surely hear a lot of grumbling from conservative commentators every time a movie franchise casts a woman or a performer of color in a role that was previously played by a white man. In the post-Breitbart paradigm, pop culture is framed not just as morally decadent but also, and far more importantly, as “woke” — the right’s new favorite buzzword to describe any and all cultural output (or public policy, or anything for that matter) that is imbued with left-progressive social values.
The right’s mounting battle against “woke” pop culture makes a lot more sense when considering its growing anxieties over the loss of social status. As political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue in the book Cultural Backlash, status anxiety is perhaps the key driving force behind today’s right-wing populism and grievance politics. Ultimately, what is at stake is a sense of esteem — that feeling of being at the top of the social and cultural ladder and having that position constantly reflected back to you in the media. Anxieties about the loss of social status help account for why topics as seemingly trivial as casting news for cartoon and mermaid movies now loom so large in the right-wing media’s imagination — to no small degree, pop culture provides the perfect microcosm for aggrieved straight white men to chart their diminishing social dominance in real time. It’s a convenient symbolic target to which they can channel their anger.
Today’s right-wing news media establishment is not merely content to throw spitballs at “woke” Hollywood. As one editor at a conservative news site told me, the goal is to “engage with culture,” not just rage at it. After all, Breitbart’s vision was all about the right’s long-term political success being dependent on its cultural success, or, as he bluntly put it in Righteous Indignation, “young people suckle at the teat of popular culture—but by refusing to fight for their attention, we lose by default.”
Figures like the Daily Wire’s Candace Owens, who has achieved notoriety for cozying up to “canceled” celebrities just as much as mocking those that she deems “woke,” offer a signpost of where this is all headed in the long term. In February 2021, the Daily Wire even went as far as inking a film production deal with fired Mandalorian actor and extremely online Trump supporter Gina Carano, which company co-founder Ben Shapiro heralded as the dawn of “the cultural resistance.”
The conservative news media may have shunned entertainment in the past out of a market necessity, but now they are increasingly eager to get into the business and take their audience with them. Their first release, however, the notably violent Carano-starring Terror on the Prairie, was widely deemed a failure after its feeble box office showing and complaints from conservatives that it was not sufficiently right-wing. For now, they’re still mostly stuck championing ostensibly “anti-woke” entertainment success stories like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and fomenting jeers and backlash. Still, they’re certainly not done trying to paddle their way upstream.
Joel Penney is an associate professor of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University and the author of Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape, published in 2022 by Oxford University Press.