In furthering my theory on how older generations played themselves, let’s take a look not at music this time, but visual media like television and film.
This excellent article recently appeared from Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson breaking down how, of all movies, Weird Al Yankovic’s screwball comedy UHF actually ends up advocating for the workers controlling the means of production, also known as socialism.
We’ve seen it all before: sneering men in suits try to crush the spirit of a wild dreamer who has a wildly popular idea but can’t quite stand up to the big bully and all of his big dollars, but something always happens. In 1989’s UHF, the community pitches in to collectively own the TV station. In 1984’s sublimely titled Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo the greedy land developer is thwarted in his quest to turn a community center into a mall. In 1987’s less sublime Ernest Goes to Camp, the titular character and a group of kids save the camp from an unscrupulous mining corporation. The list goes on and the tropes even persist to the modern media era, mostly with Disney fare like 1995’s Heavyweights, where the kids defeat the nasty corporate sleazeball by, um, borderline violent revolution?
You might be noticing a theme here with these films, and it’s not just movies that I enjoyed watching in my childhood. These are movies that are either:
A) explicitly for children
B) watched mostly by children
C) (and let’s be honest) pretty cheaply made/written
A movie like UHF wasn’t meant to have much plot. The creators, in a later interview, even talked about whether this sort of film needed a plot at all. So why is it that so many movies built to be light on plot or built to be watched by children have this similar plot, and why does the plot always seem to fly in the face of capitalism, particularly in the middle of the Reagan era?
The easiest answer is because it’s a simple story that’s simple to write, simple to produce and, most of all, simple to feel. For all of the banging on that the no-step-on-snake folks like to do about how capitalism is just basic human nature, we never saw a movie where Ernest successfully restructures the summer camp to generate more profit. Breakin 2 wouldn’t have as satisfying of an ending if Boogaloo Shrimp has negotiated for a mixed-use space. UHF would have been weird if Lee Iaccoca or someone had shown up at the end and buy the station for the good corporations. Folks know corporations aren’t their friends. Folks know that the pursuit of money eventually will come at the expense of someone else’s basic needs. Folks know deep down that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and they sure as shootin don’t want to sit down for a rollicking comedy that reminds them of that. They want something better, they want to dream of something better through their media. At the end of the day, people want to be taken care of, and socialism allows for that. Capitalism doesn’t.
As such, quick and easy writing for television and film often fell back on stories that would get the best bang for the buck with audiences across the board. Ironically, it’s the very psychocapitalism that demands schlock churned out to maximize the bottom line (and can’t even do THAT right as UHF was badly marketed, scheduled to open against titan’s like 1989’s Batman, and flopped at the box office only to find new life on video) is the exact same system that wound up giving the kids that grew up watching it the strong sense of justice that lead to Occupy and Bernie Sanders once everything fell apart in 2008.
(Fun side note about UHF: my brothers and I found it on a taped tape in the home for the disabled my mother was working in at the time. It was one of those long play cassettes, and Weird Al was sandwiched in between Pretty Woman and Back to the Future Part Two. My brothers and I watched it so much that we sort of ended up permanently borrowing it. When we finally tried to return it, the home told us to keep it… but, unfortunately, we did have to return Ghidrah the Three Headed Dragon. Our indoctrination, our buying into the U62 station if you will, was done through the generosity of someone who freely distributed the means.)
The same issue can be seen on the mass produced television of the era: Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats and so many other properties considered nostalgic favorites relied on simple stories because there wasn’t really time or money invested for nuance. The best part is, in the case of the shows listed above, the shows combined a radical message of justice with another message: there are folks that oppose you, folks that only want to take and subjugate and exploit others, and those people must be literally fought to ensure peace. There does not exist an episode of Thundercats where Mumm-Ra can be reasoned with or a compromise can be negotiated with Cobra Commander, and Bumblebee never chided Optimus Prime on the ethics of punching Decepticons. Like it or not, these media experiences were formative to an entire generation’s concept of how the world should be, and because of base capitalist desires to produce faster, cheaper, and bigger, the shows instilled in many of us foundational left-wing beliefs of peace, love, justice, compassion, and so on. Because of lazy and easy writing to make money and sell toys, psychocapitalism again shot itself in the foot. The suits created an entire generation of kids who were told at the end of every GI Joe episode, in the cheapest and bluntest way possible, not to cheat or lie or be cruel… except to those fascists in Cobra Command.
oops! Looks like psychocapitalism played itself again, and now like nearly every one of those cartoonish villains (that now resemble the average oligarch just a little too much) they are locked in a battle they can never win, condemned to forever shake a fist as their armies retreat and shout “foiled again!” Just to come back tomorrow, same time, same channel, to fight it all again… and now, thanks to their own greed, we’re ready to fight back.
Yo Joe. Transform and roll out.