Opinion

Samira Ahmed: Art reminds us how to be our best selves

Despite what some populist politicians want, the world has changed – and pop culture is celebrating it..

History rarely falls into neat numerical decades. I would assert the 1980s (yuppies, power suits, a money obsession) didn’t really end till the mid 1990s when a new generation of politicians began to take power. Policies and attitudes take a while to gain momentum and once they do (as with equal marriage and attitudes to homosexuality) they can make a seismic impact.

Similarly, since the US presidential election and the EU referendum, there’s a major debate about whether supposed liberal progressive values have been rejected and the alt-right is in the ascendant. But go to the cinema, turn on the TV, read some books, and you’ll find that ‘mainstream’ doesn’t change that quickly.

Shortly after the US election I went to interview the directors of the smash hit Disney film Moana and found two boyishly smiling 60-something white men dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Ron Clements and Jon Musker joined Disney as young art graduates in the early 1970s and trained under Walt’s first generation of animators who made such classics as Pinocchio.

The fact remains that a major American corporation like Disney now instinctively wants to make inclusive films

They pioneered technology with early CGI in Basil the Great Mouse Detective but also changing attitudes. Encouraged by conversations with their female storyboard artists, they’ve written strong women like Meg in Hercules for years. “We started this movie five years ago,” points out Clements. “But,” Musker jumps in, “if it’s an inspiration for young women to follow their own inner voices and feel that they don’t have limits and if it’s an inspiration for people to celebrate diversity and culture, we like that result.”

I realised two things. The first was how much joy there was in their work (Dwayne Johnson’s character’s tattoos show all his feelings however hard he tries to hide them). But I also realised this is the frontline. This is what Susan Faludi has called the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ that many who support Trump are waging against social change.

But the fact remains that a major American corporation like Disney now instinctively wants to make inclusive films that don’t patronise girls or boys. And it’s normal that older white men, as much as anyone else, get it.

In short the progressive stuff that had been going on for 30 years hasn’t just stopped. In fact it’s all the more noticeable. Hamilton opens in London this year. The new Wonder Woman film (below) has high expectations for Gal Gadot’s performance. Marvel comics are selling well with a number of women stars: seven-foot, green super-attorney She-Hulk, a female Thor and Captain Marvel, and the young Muslim-American heroine Ms Marvel.

Closer to home in a crowded TV landscape of police procedurals, many that celebrate torture and female abuse under the false flag of a female lead (The Fall, most Scandi-noir) there are shows like Unforgotten that celebrate the essential decency of our criminal justice service and the calm dedication with which its civil servants – police, forensics, prosecutors try to solve crime.

We all need fun to escape misery, and shared joy binds us

Culture matters. Not because I disagree with Peter Cook’s line on Weimar Germany (“Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”) but because we all need fun to escape misery, and shared joy binds us. Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who co-created the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, wrote recently “A nation is not an opening ceremony. But it’s not a referendum either. A nation is a project.”

So go and see stuff to escape and make yourself happy, but think about how much of it actually celebrates equality and diversity and entertains while reminding us how far we’ve come. Rogue One as much as Ali Smith’s novel Autumn. And not just for its post-Brexit zeitgeist, but for Autumn’s reminder of how pop artist Pauline Boty was written out of ’60s cultural history and our need to challenge the agendas of those who write the official versions of things.

One of the last deaths of 2016 that might have slipped your notice was Disney artist Tyrus Wong, born in China in 1910; one of Walt’s pioneers, who worked on Bambi. One of the many citizens who made America great. “He had a gift for evoking incredible feeling in his art with simple gestural composition,” said the corporation in a statement on New Year’s Eve.

In the war to define who we are I’ll be seeing films, shows, exhibitions and reading books to collect cultural reminders of what defines the best of us through the year ahead. I urge you to do the same.

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