Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s election has left many people in a dark place, feeling frustrated, sad, and fearful for the future. So we’ve decided to make this week’s AVQ&A a hopeful beacon of light in these troubled times. From The A.V. Club staff:
“What one piece of pop culture most reminds you of the inherent goodness of humanity?”
I keep circling back to Groundhog Day. This is a movie that says that the most terrible, egotistical people, the selfish bastards of the world, have goodness somewhere in them. Sure, it takes a metaphysical nightmare loop for Phil (Bill Murray) to see the light; without the, oh, maybe eight years he spends reliving the same day, he’d remain the very lecherous, self-centered creep he is at the start of the film. But that’s really just the exaggerated cinematic way that Groundhog Day makes the case for believing in everyone’s capacity to change, to find enlightenment, to discover hidden reservoirs of empathy and humility. It’s one of the most charitable movies I’ve ever seen, because it ultimately argues that if you let people see the best in you—as the town of Punxsutawney does for Phil, day by repeated day—eventually it may bring out the best in them.
I can’t be the only person who reacted to the ugliness of Tuesday night by retreating into the hopeful words of Samwise Gamgee. I listen to Sam’s speech from The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, the one about “the stories that really mattered,” about once a year, when my reserves of hope and my faith in humanity run low. Election night, I needed to hear it, and its reminder that “it’s only a passing thing, this shadow,” at least half a dozen times. Like Tolkien’s masterpiece itself, Sam’s speech is an ode to the strength of those the world calls powerless and small. It’s about the triumph of optimism—not the blindly smiling, head-in-the-sand stuff, but the kind you have to fight and bleed for to keep alive. “What are we holding on to, Sam?” asks Elijah Wood’s Frodo, destroyed by the arduous journey behind him and the titanic scale of the task ahead. “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo,” answers Sean Astin’s stalwart Sam. “And it’s worth fighting for.” There is, and it is, and remembering that is the only way I can cry the good kind of tears right now.
Playing off of William’s Tolkien-inspired response, I have been asking myself what we can all do—in the words of Théoden—”against such reckless hate.” And one of the first pieces of art to came to mind was The Mountain Goats’ “Color In Your Cheeks.” The sparse, acoustic track features John Darnielle singing plaintively of welcoming immigrants and refugees, no matter their origin, no matter the personal “cost.” I need to hear the theme of this song from 2002 more than ever—and the fact that Darnielle made it a part of his All Hail West Texas album just makes it resonate more.
I actually spent a significant portion of the whole day after the election listening to old episodes of My Brother, My Brother And Me, a podcast that I’ve always turned to when I need some levity in dark times. It’s an advice show hosted by three brothers, and though the actual advice isn’t always especially useful, the infectious glee that the brothers have for making each other laugh is the real draw. I started listening about five years ago, when I was working at an unfulfilling job and lived in a different state than my girlfriend (who is now my wife), and I found myself desperate for things that could distract me from my loneliness. I got hooked on MBMBAM because it’s almost aggressively positive, even when the brothers are basing an entire segment on an ungrateful kid writing angry messages on a dog about how much he hates his stepdad. I needed a show like MBMBAM back then, and it was exactly what I needed this week.
More than any personal sadness I may feel, what I truly hate is seeing people I care about upset. That was almost everyone close to me on Wednesday, and it was gut-wrenching. But whenever I need to remember there’s a spark of hope even when you’re feeling hemmed in by the bleakness of current events, I turn to It’s A Wonderful Life—specifically, the ending. The movie’s vision of a world where people are fundamentally decent and kind, and take care of one another, has always been an annual holiday balm for me. But it’s those final moments that drive it home: Even when you feel most alone, as it looks like there’s no hope, it’s never true. There’s someone willing to help, to give selflessly of themselves to make the world a better place. It reminds me of some graffiti I saw on the side of a wall during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, an image that still sits in a frame on my desk: “Never forget: We are winning.”
The only song that’s brought me any comfort as late is one that’s soothed me ever since I first heard it. Paint It Black’s “Past Tense, Future Perfect” has all the trappings of a melodic hardcore anthem, but it’s Dan Yemin’s insightful lyrics that make me feel optimistic even when things are at their darkest. When the bridge hits, and the song opens up into a hyper-catchy sing-along of, “We are invincible / We may bend / We will not be broken,” I am reminded that we are far stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
If you’ve read any of my entries to AVQ&As, you probably know that I often look to musical theater for comfort. The first song that popped into my head the morning after the election, though, did not provide solace. It was “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Unfortunately, that only served as a reminder that hate endures because it is a disgusting legacy passed down through generations. Not exactly a soothing balm. So later I turned to “No One Is Alone” from Into The Woods. What is so wonderful about Stephen Sondheim’s piece is that it provides no easy answers. It presents humans as fallible creatures, and yet argues for the innate goodness within “giants” and “witches.” It tells us that we have to make decisions for ourselves, yet reminds us that we are supported by others. Listen to just titular refrain and you’ll hear something entirely optimistic. But it’s vital that those lyrics don’t stand in isolation. Instead, you have to see the whole complicated picture to understand how it makes the case for how we can be good to one another. It’s perfect for this moment: “Hard to see the light now / Just don’t let it go / Things will turn out right now / We can make it so.”
I’ve always found solace in film. In fact, I temporarily subdued some of my post-election anxieties in the theater, and spent Tuesday, pre-election coverage, watching 10 Things I Hate About You. The teen rom-com is a feel-good, late ’90s take on Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, and presents Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles) as “the shrew” has been traditionally portrayed. That is to say, she’s the ultimate “Nasty Woman.” Smart, fearless, determined, and thoughtful, Kat delivered the one line in the movie that has summed up my thoughts on the entire election: “I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time.” It’s movies like this—ones that can include both a fun and flirty rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” from Heath Ledger and a realistic role model for young women in Stiles’ character—that remind me there’s still a bit of room for a good love and a good laugh in trying times.
This is a very English major response, but whenever my spirits feel depleted, I always find some solace in the writing of Ernest Hemingway. I’m a total pacifist. On my sole hunting trip, at the age of 8, I wept when asked to shoot a rabbit, and my disgusted grandfather told me to go wait in the truck. I find bullfights sickening. Yet amid all the warring and reveling in the glory of a clean kill in Hemingway’s work, there’s a more universal message about resilience in the face of despair and death even a coward like me can appreciate, of finding strength in the simple fact of being alive, of being grateful just for the chance. You can find plenty of inspirational aphorisms scattered throughout his work: “Every day above earth is a good day” and “Man is not made for defeat… A man can be destroyed but not defeated” in The Old Man And The Sea. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it” from For Whom The Bell Tolls. But as a writer, I’ve always been partial to this from A Moveable Feast: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Even for those who don’t write, it’s a reminder that, no matter the setbacks we suffer or how lost we feel, we will continue doing what we know how to do, as faithfully to our true purpose as we can, for so long as we are alive. With that, we can withstand anything the world throws at us. (But then again, Ernest Hemingway blew his head off because he was afraid of the government—so what do I know?)
I don’t know that I have anything that reminds me of “the inherent goodness of humanity,” but when I need comfort, I frequently turn to “Old Grey Mare” by Tsunami. But it actually fits the question, because it’s quietly defiant and optimistic, Jenny Toomey’s lyrics sharp-tongued but encouraging. The song opens with this quietly played guitar progression, circular and evocative, that inevitably pops into my head when I’m feeling down. From there the song slowly builds from Toomey’s whispered vocals to a forceful conclusion, where she all but shouts words that are both plea and an order: “Don’t go drown in a shallow pool / We’ve got so much work for you.” That’s good advice for all of us right now.
The last time I felt this awful was after 9/11, except this time, I feel like we’re being attacked not by something outside this country, but within it. Then as now, I turn to the publication I currently am lucky enough to work alongside: The Onion. I know that the staff was here for long hours on Tuesday night, and when I woke up on Wednesday morning, I frantically scrolled down theonion.com looking for something that would make make the sinking feeling in my gut stop for even a nanosecond. I found it with “If You’re Reading This, I’m Already Gone,” a column written by “American Values” (“I swear to God, sometimes with the way you act, it’s like I don’t even exist”). In my job, and my life, humor is my high bar, and the satire that The Onion offers is its highest form, helping us make sense of the things that seem nonsensical, and somehow laugh in the face of absolute despair. I will cling to it over the next four years like a lifeline.
Nothing acts as a balm for my bruised soul like a movie from Studio Ghibli, specifically, Spirited Away. It’s the studio’s most visually arresting film—infused with a surreal twilight dreaminess—and it maintains Ghibli’s most important reoccurring theme; there are rarely any true villains. When Chichiro, the movie’s young hero, is stranded in the spirit world, everyone she encounters is either dismissive or eager to use the girl for their own manipulative ends. But because of the empathy Chichiro demonstrates toward the bizarre residents she meets, she’s able to turn their indifference into aid. It’s a tough lesson to internalize. It’s so easy to stay blind to someone’s humanity when you feel attacked and vulnerable. Life is menacing, unknowable, and strange. But as Chihiro demonstrates with everyone she encounters in the spirit world, kindness and patience can coax understanding and even friendship from cruelty.
I haven’t given this a ton of thought, but my knee-jerk reaction is going to be The Jerk. I wonder if my subconscious chose it because it’s about a guy who learns that getting a ton of money just turns him into a gauche asshole. Or maybe because the scene in which Steve Martin insists on a specific bamboo umbrella for his drink—“be somebody!”—right after his butler’s maid is executed for overdrawing her bank account reminds me of a certain president-elect. But probably it’s because The Jerk is ultimately about a kindhearted person from a multiracial family who just wants to do the right thing, and whose naiveté results in sweetness, not fear and hatred.
Laura M. Browning
I’m still numb. And when I’m not numb, I’m scared. The only thing that’s getting me through (other than our excellent officemates, whose wellbeing I am frankly going to worry about for the next four years) is Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. She acknowledges that we really fucked up, America, but we’re still going to have a female president someday, and she’s out there right now. I’m going to get a lot of mileage out of Bee’s entire “morning after” episode, but it’s the final segment that briefly releases the pressure on my chest. Lizzo took the stage and sang “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” I cried. She ended with her self-care anthem “Good As Hell” in front of images of Michelle Obama and other badass women. I bawled. Give me another week or two before I can feel hope again, but there is still beauty.
Following a night of heavy drinking and heavy emotions, I plopped down onto my living-room couch to watch my favorite episode of one of my favorite shows: Gilmore Girls’ dance-marathon-centric “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” And then I got up off the couch to put the proper disc in the player, because, as previously stated: heavy drinking. I chose Gilmore Girls because it’s frothy and funny and more than a little bit escapist, but I had no idea how profoundly the show’s generous spirit was going to affect me. Within minutes, I was full-body laugh-sobbing (again: drinking) at scenes I’ve seen at least 10 or 12 times before, bittersweet surges caused by “the Señor Wences of the vegetable set,” Mrs. Kim’s eggless egg salad, and the unfettered lunacy of dance marathons. Stars Hollow isn’t a real place in a real America, but it sure is a nice thought. It’s an idyllic refuge for fictional weirdos who don’t all get along, but who also get all dolled up to jitterbug before the crack of dawn. This nonfictional weirdo is grateful that he still gets to pay the occasional visit.
I’m not a person who is wired to cry easily—it comes out as a sort of strained gasp, my face red and scrunched up, eyes watery, and then I’m just stuck that way. In a few seconds, it passes. I understand the notion of “a good cry” but I have never experienced it; they are all bad, and very ugly. Crying has also, before this week, always been personal—about family, friends, people I love. I spent a lot of time this week walking around my apartment, doing that sort of red-faced gasp. I was listening to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops while doing this, which—let me tell you, friend—was not helping the situation. Then I remembered that some of the most powerful art ever produced was done in protest. So I listened to Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and I felt some release. I listened to Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief, and I felt some release. And then, finally, I put on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an album that not only speaks eloquently about revolution and oppression but does so in some of the most achingly lovely harmonies ever recorded. Its 36 minutes contain an almost unconscionable wealth of warmth, humanity, and love, all in the face of overwhelming hurt and fear. It is an album that, despite everything, provides more than release. It provides hope.