Mayor Pete Goes to Washington

By Quirijn van den Hoogen

Dreaming is allowed, isn’t it? Last week the results of the Democratic caucus in Iowa came in. Mayor Pete Buttigieg beat Bernie Sanders by a hair. Quite unexpectedly. America took the very first steps towards electing an openly gay president. I highly doubt it will actually happen. But I am allowed to dream, to think the unthinkable. Aren’t I? It would be some election: Boot-Edge-Edge beats Make America Great Again, although on Castro Street that slogan has already been dubbed into Make America Gay Again.

The last time the unthinkable happened in American politics was in 2008 when America elected the first African-American as president, Barack Obama. At the time, this seemed unthinkable. However, Hollywood had already gone where American politics had not dared to go before. It is a continuing debate in art sociology whether the arts, and popular culture in particular, reflect society, presenting a mirror of reality, of society’s real power dynamics. Or whether movies can also affect society, presenting images of how things could be, an imagined reality that points to alternatives, to the point of helping such realities materialize. Instead of a mirror, the relationship of art to reality becomes that of an injection needle: the arts injecting ideas in society that then take root and start changing people’s behaviour. The mirror perspective at the moment is very much en vogue as many claim the current line up for the Oscars is – once again – representative of persistent white, male privilege.

In 2008, the debate slanted more towards the injection needle perspective as it was argued that the many instances in which a non-white actor portrayed the American president, had softened America’s minds towards accepting the idea that indeed an African-American could be president. Although multiple cameo appearances of African-American actors as president in movies can be listed, and even the suggestion that Condaleezza Rice would one day be president in the 2006 BBC movie Random Quest, the debate pointed to two actors in particular:Chris Rock in Head of State (2003), a comedy obviously subtitled: Only the House is White, and Morgan Freeman who portrayed president Tom Beck in Deep Impact, a movie from 1998. But nowadays, this argument can be easily countered: there are many instances where women portrayed a president in movies, e.g. Natalie Portman in Mars Attacks! (1996) and Sela Ward in Independce Day: Resurgence (2016). But that did not help Hillary Clinton four years ago, did it?

Be that as it may, if I am allowed to dream, I am also allowed to believe the injection metaphor. So, could someone please produce a remake of Mr. Smith goes to Washington (country simpleton James Steward becomes senator and filibusters his way through the quagmire of Washington politics), this time featuring a mayor from fly-over country who makes his way into the White House? Sean Penn (Milk), are you interested? Soon?

Dr. Quirijn van den Hoogen is staff member of the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. His fields are art sociology and cultural policy.

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