How shows like 'Jane the Virgin' and 'black-ish' are dealing with the challenges of Trump's America
LOS ANGELES — Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, the executive producer of the CW series "Jane the Virgin" decided to make a few changes: She nixed the Ivanka Trump shoes from wardrobe and urged the show's writers to make a key character zealous about registering Latinos to vote.
Trump's victory is redrawing many narratives and story lines across the country, including those at the center of the entertainment industry. In addition to the new activism and footwear, "Jane the Virgin," a family saga of a young Latina in Miami, will be recalibrated in other ways to address America's unsettling cultural and political climate.
"The writers and I talked about it a lot, about how we should and can approach it most effectively within our storytelling," said creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. "I think our show has to live in this world."
Those sentiments echo across town. Trump may be a colossus of Hollywood's own making — it was "The Apprentice," not real estate, that made him a household name — but his defeat of Hillary Clinton was a stinging repudiation of the political correctness, diversity and liberalism celebrated by much of the entertainment business at a time of bitter argument over the nation's ideals.
The question now is how will Hollywood, which for years has nudged gay rights and other contentious social issues into the mainstream, speak to Trump's agitated, disillusioned and God-fearing rural America. Will we see more insightful TV shows about working-class lives, such as the 1990s hit "Roseanne," or will we encounter an uptick in artistic defiance, as when the cast of "Hamilton" recently briefed Vice-President-elect Mike Pence on multiculturalism?
Common ground: Trump's furious response to that incident could provoke a chilling effect, but conversations with Hollywood creators suggest they will remain resolute in advancing civil rights and artistic freedom while also moving toward programming that seeks common ground. A top ABC executive acknowledged last week that the network could do more to illuminate working-class lives.
"With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, very well-educated people. ... They all drive very nice cars and live in extremely nice places," Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, was quoted as saying at a media summit in London. "We have not, in recent history, paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like in a day-in and day-out way for everyday Americans in some of our dramas."
Divide: Even more than the drawn-out contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, this election has left America in the clamor of a culturally defining moment, much like the tumult of the 1960s and the insecure, rattled aftermath of 9/11. Trump's rightist leanings and nationalist populism, and the angry anxiety they have provoked, will likely influence many of our films, books, songs, social media musings and even the images we hold up as emblematic of our times.
This catharsis over the country's cultural divide is unfolding even as the media landscape and the power of Hollywood celebrity have been splintered; streaming and platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have made our entertainment pathways and content more vast and diffuse than at any time in our history. A former reality-TV star, Trump's mastery of Twitter shows how cultural and political narratives, from jingoism to veiled racism, can be targeted and refined to rally audiences in an increasingly us-versus-them atmosphere.
"It's a turbulent, unsafe time for most of us in this country," said Sadie Dupuis, songwriter for the indie band Speedy Ortiz. Dupuis, whose new solo album "Slugger" focuses on empowering feminist themes, will be one of many musicians attending the women's march in Washington planned for the day after Trump's inauguration. "What art will take shape will depend on what happens in his presidency," she added. "He is appointing white supremacists to his Cabinet."
Gut punch: Trump's election was a gut punch to a liberal Hollywood that had backed Clinton. Chelsea Handler teared up on her Netflix talk show. Aaron Sorkin wrote a public letter to his 15-year-old daughter that stressed getting involved to fight injustice.
"The Daily Show" host Trevor Noah self-medicated during the show's election-night broadcast with Pepto-Bismol and sobering humor: "This is it, the end of the presidential race, and it feels like the end of the world," Noah said. "We are going to be making jokes tonight, but I am very much afraid."
The mixed emotions even prompted unexpected disclosures: Kanye West drew boos at a San Jose concert after revealing that if he had voted in this year's election (he said he didn't), he would have chosen Trump — commending the president-elect's politically incorrect command of social media as a way of galvanizing his constituency. (His comments prefaced a breakdown that led to the cancellation of his tour and his hospitalization.) Such revelations along with scripts, lyrics and plays will factor into how the cultural map will be redrawn during Trump's administration.
And this is not only an American cultural moment. The world is reverberating with economic anxiety and racist and anti-immigrant fervor, marked by Britain's impending break from the European Union and the ascent of right-wing parties and nationalist voices from France to the Philippines. Such forces will challenge Hollywood, where more than 70 percent of the box office comes from overseas, to tap into the complicated story lines of a planet that may not so easily embrace the simple heroics of a Marvel blockbuster.
Story lines: The fear of "the other" that Trump leveraged during his campaign is starting to reshape certain story lines. Like "Jane the Virgin," "Fresh Off the Boat," the ABC comedy about an Asian American immigrant family, recently took on immigration, in this case against the backdrop of the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Viewers learn that Jessica Huang, the matriarch of the family played by Constance Wu, has a green card, but she never applied for U.S. citizenship because she felt intimidated by the process.
"With the results of the election, it just sort of confirmed to us that this is a dialogue that needs to happen," said executive producer Nahnatchka Khan, who plans to continue lacing the comedy with current themes. "These are issues that, even though the show takes place 20 years ago, are still so relevant — even more so now, with the heightened level of fear and anxiety that people are feeling."
She added: "You can either retreat and cower away from tackling those issues or you can embrace it. I think we're going to see a lot of art trending toward not being afraid."
Blend: Cinema and television may be overpopulated by upwardly mobile urban professionals, but sympathetic portrayals of the white middle and working classes fuel shows such as ABC's "The Middle", a sitcom about an Indiana family, and this year's "Hell or High Water," a film that touches on financial hardship and despair in west Texas. Finding the right blend of such stories will be crucial in coming years if specific narratives on culture and class can extend beyond the typical Hollywood fare to find universal resonance.
"The bigger war is that grand arc of history where we're striving for the American ideals of equality, justice and freedom," said Peter Saraf, a producer on "Loving," a film about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who defied Virginia's prejudice in the 1950s. "We need to listen to each other and our history and resist the instinct to separate those who are different than ourselves." He added that the "stories of people who feel forgotten and marginalized" need to be told but not oversimplified.
Art and upheaval: Great art is often born from political and social upheaval. Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave revolutionized cinema after World War II. The antiwar and civil rights protests of the 1960s inspired a brilliant run of rock music and foreshadowed a 1970s renaissance in American filmmaking and socially conscious TV shows, notably "All in the Family," which highlighted the fears and anxieties of Archie Bunker, the quintessential white-socks-wearing working-class man.
The 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spurred a hyper-patriotism and fear of encroaching terrorism. That cultural climate produced TV shows such as the terrorist-themed "Homeland" and hero-driven war movies such as "Lone Survivor" and "American Sniper." But 9/11 also aroused a nationalism that was often intolerant of dissenting views, which resulted in a virulent backlash against the Dixie Chicks when Natalie Maines appeared on stage and chastised President Bush: "We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."
As executive producer of "24" and "Homeland," Howard Gordon has a long history of narrating the country's unease. In the immediate wake of 9/11, special agent Jack Bauer of "24" was aggressive, often using torture, to combat one-dimensional terrorists. The show was heavily criticized for its portrayals of Muslims. Years later, "Homeland" was more textured and empathetic, delving deeper into the nuances and motivations of both CIA agents and extremists.
"It will be interesting to see," said Gordon, executive producer of the upcoming spinoff "24: Legacy," "if we can put into words what this new America looks like. It's all about narratives and competing narratives. I'm personally confused and trying to figure it all out myself."
Differences: The post-9/11 era seeped into wider fears of globalization and our changing national demographics. Trump, whose rhetoric in recent weeks has softened from his combative campaign speeches, has magnified racial and lifestyle differences. That is especially prevalent in places like the Rust Belt and the South, which have long felt estranged from the entertainment industry's promotion of political correctness, LGBT rights and secularism, and long felt resentful of being stereotyped by reality-TV shows such as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and "Duck Dynasty."
For years, comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher has faulted liberals for their political correctness, for their defense of cultural diversity even in response to terrorism: "There's a terrorist attack and Democrats' reaction is don't be mean to Muslims instead of how can we solve the problem of ... blowing up in America."
The election, for Maher, is proof that he was right and the liberals were wrong.
But others believe it's time rethink rather than retrench. Trump's election was a sobering call to action for Kenya Barris, the creator of ABC's "black-ish." Barris was planning to focus on other film and TV projects this season — including an ABC pilot about two political pundit rivals who fall in love — but that changed in the early-morning hours after Trump's acceptance speech.
"I woke up that Wednesday and said, 'I have to write. I have to write about this election, how I feel, how I want us to heal,'" Barris told The Times in a recent interview. "The show is not my personal pulpit. It has to open a conversation. My job is to really speak from an intellectual place, look at what happened and to understand the one thing I know. (Many in) the country felt a different way, and we cannot treat them like they're crazy."