The New Pop Culture Optimism

More movies and shows are imagining worlds where prejudice is seemingly nonexistent and everyone is accepted.

Aisha Harris

Ms. Harris is an Op-Ed staff writer and editor.

Credit…Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures, via Associated Press

When I contemplate what my ideal world might look like, I imagine one in which everyone just minds their business and does their own thing, so long as they aren’t causing any harm — directly or indirectly — to others. That doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict or that bad things never happen: Humans will still annoy one another and argue, many marriages will still end in divorce, studio execs will still make up excuses to tell the same story about Batman or Batman-adjacent characters for the hundredth time.

But mostly, life is free from -isms and -phobias; boundaries are respected, voting rights aren’t suppressed. And truly, no one cares what you look like, whom you sleep with, where you come from or what religion you do or don’t practice.

That, to me, is The Dream.

Some version of my dream has trickled into popular culture as of late: In the R-rated high school comedy “Booksmart,” where kids of varying ethnicities, sexualities and gender expressions coexist relatively harmoniously, and there’s nary a bully in sight. In the R-rated middle-school comedy “Good Boys,” featuring 12-year-olds who drop F-bombs left and right but already understand the concept of consent. In “Schitt’s Creek,” where no one bats an eye at a character’s pansexuality in an extremely small town.

More recently, the HBO series adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel “Mrs. Fletcher” features an average white jock who is an outlier on his new college campus, where everyone around him got the memo long ago that it’s not O.K. to casually throw around the word “retarded” or treat women like disposable objects.

It all feels like an extension of the ways the issues dominating the cultural and political discourse of the last few years — #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, gender identity and so on — have become fully embedded in Hollywood scripts.

Yet “Booksmart” and its ilk also feel different: The more common trend among shows and movies tackling these subjects is to reflect the polarizing and fractious realm we’re currently experiencing, as in the Netflix mini-series about the Central Park Five case, “When They See Us,” or in “The Morning Show,” Apple +’s thinly veiled satire about, among things, the disgraced “Today Show” host Matt Lauer. Or, as with HBO’s “Succession” or Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” they emphasize how power and wealth encourage terrible behavior.

In contrast, movies like “Booksmart” posit a world where we’re long past debating the humanity of people who aren’t thin, white, straight, wealthy and male. Each takes on the language and sensibilities of the socially progressive, while marking the presence of women, minorities and L.G.B.T.Q. people in all spaces as a given — the norm, unremarkable.

For the most part, this development is refreshing to me, a 30-something millennial who grew up on a steady diet of pop culture that typically includes, at the very least, questionable dialogue that doesn’t hold up through a 2019 lens.

Both “Booksmart” and “Good Boys” are self-aware counterparts to many of their tween/teen movie forebears. In “Booksmart,” Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are overachievers who decide to finally let loose and party on graduation weekend after learning their less studious classmates still managed to get into top colleges.

As in “Good Boys,” their peers represent a wide spectrum of types and demographics. Among them: the laid-back, androgynous skater girl Ryan, whom Amy has a crush on; the goofy slacker Nick (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son Mason Gooding), whom Molly has a crush on; the overly dramatic theater nerds George and Alan. In high school movies made as recently as a dozen years ago — and going back decades — these characters would be siloed and pitted against one another. The flamboyant George and Alan would be subject to casually homophobic jokes; Molly’s weight might be central to the plot. Almost all of them would probably have been white.

Yet the kids tease Molly not because of what she looks like, but because her quest to be a perfect student teeters on the verge of Tracy Flick-level proportions. At the climactic graduation party — that enduring staple of the genre — where every senior from school seems to be in attendance, there is no sense of a division among the types. Molly and Amy are happily welcomed into the fold, the other kids genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see them finally being social.

“Good Boys,” about three best friends — Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) — adjusting to middle school, has its own vision of an enlightened world. What little bullying occurs is tame and slur free (unless you consider being labeled a “misogynist” a slur). A yellow-vested watchdog group called the Student Coalition Against Bullying is depicted less so as the geeky subset of the school (the acronym is “S.C.A.B.”) than as an endearing example of youth activism (Lucas joins the group at the end).

The cynical takeaway is that movies like these are pandering to social progressives (for what it’s worth, both appear to be set in California suburbs). But Olivia Wilde, the 35-year-old director of “Booksmart,” encouraged her young cast members to offer input on the script, to keep it as true to the experiences of today’s younger generation as possible. It seems a lot of kids really are more chill than previous generations when it comes to self-expression, and they think a lot about language and how others might respond to the things they say and do.

Queer children are coming out at much younger ages. Signaling one’s preferred pronouns is becoming the norm. A Pew Research study from earlier this year found that 43 percent of Generation Z Republicans surveyed believe black people are treated less fairly than whites — more than twice as many as Generation X, Boomer and Silent-Generation Republicans, and 10 percent more than Millennial Republicans.

This shift helps explain the HBO drama “Mrs. Fletcher,” which concluded its first season earlier this month. Its depiction of an inclusivity-driven college campus through the eyes of Brendan (Jackson White), who stands in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, gives the impression that the power imbalance has tipped significantly in favor of the more open-minded.

In the third episode, Brendan makes an awkward joke about planning to surf during a tsunami during a lunchtime chat about climate change with a few of the school’s football players. Instead of laughing along, they look at him weirdly, and one of them quickly restarts the discussion, as if Brendan hadn’t said anything at all.

In the penultimate episode, he has sex for the first time with Chloe (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), a girl he’s been flirting with since he got to school. In the middle of the act, Brendan begins to choke her, and she breaks off the encounter by punching him. He insists she was “into it,” but she shoots him down quickly. “No I wasn’t,” she says. “You didn’t even notice I was there.” She refuses to see him again, and her friends prevent him from trying to contact her.

The elimination of prejudice, at least in these movies and shows, isn’t limited to young characters. On “Schitt’s Creek,” which begins its final season in January, the absence of anxiety over a character’s sexuality feels like a reprieve. For the show’s co-creator, Dan Levy, who stars as the pansexual character David Rose, this was a deliberate decision. “I wanted to show a projection of our own world that was kinder,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “show how much people can grow and the capacity with which people can love when they are not fearing for their lives.”

There are occasional drawbacks to indulging in this fantasy. As Alison Wilmore wrote in Buzzfeed last spring, the premise of “Booksmart” ignores the role class plays in the life of high schoolers. If Molly and Amy’s peers still managed to get into schools like Stanford while being hard partyers and underachievers, it seems likely the reason stems from nepotism, wealth or even, perhaps, bribery.

But it’s easy to understand why more creators are drawn to this kind of projection, now. In an episode of the educational series “Master Class,” the showrunner Shonda Rhimes explains that she considered the political climate while creating “Scandal”; the reason she felt comfortable depicting Washington as full of “monsters” and “metaphorical monsters,” she said, was because “we were in the midst of the glow of ‘Yes We Can,’ Obama White House.”

On the flip side, she continued, the optimism at the heart of “The West Wing” — the successful bipartisan compromises, for one — flourished during an era when the atmosphere was much darker and pessimistic.

In any given political moment, viewers will turn to Hollywood for an escape, and right now, it seems, is when many of us want that diversion to err on the side of hopefulness. For the most part, this is a good thing. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Read More