I’m a 21st Century boy. Forgive me! At the tender age of only 28, the vast majority of my experience with popular culture happened after the Y2K bug reset civilization as we know it. Of course, I watched and enjoyed many films and TV shows prior to that calamity, but my teenage and university years were solidly based in the 21st Century. However, was the year 2000 really such a turning point that we should differentiate between what came before and after as significantly different? Or did other events serve as those defining watershed moments?
I’m not the first to point this out, and I’m sure I will not be the last, but the years we define “Centuries” as are pretty arbitrary. To say that the world of 1899 was materially different from that of 1900 is absurd, with exception that the latter had the devastating misfortune to end without Oscar Wilde living in it. More likely, the 20th Century truly began, first incrementally with developments like the ubiquitous availability of motor cars and cinema, and then with a bang at the outset of the First World War. But we’re not here to talk about that.
My own experience is of the transition from last century to our current one, and despite how we all want to party like it’s 1999, nothing much happened then that affected our culture. For that, we must look to the major transitional events of our lifetimes. Apologies to those too young to remember; luckily, movies are here to teach us about our own history.
The 20th century was forged, defined and consumed by war. As The War to End All Wars drew to a close and the next World War loomed, it became clear that we were in for a period of instability that was largely unprecedented. Following the German and Japanese surrender, old alliances melted away as the strongest allies squabbled over the spoils, and the Cold War Era began.
Propaganda methods developed in the first half of the century were never more evident than in popular culture. Forget about asking the people to buy T-Bonds, if you want to gain support (and funding) for your proxy wars in Asia and the Middle East, you need to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate. Superman and all his friends fought the Nazis; once that threat diminished, they were replaced by those damn Reds from Russia.
Indeed, 20th century American cinema is dominated by action flicks where the enemy is Russia. James Bond fought the Russians, Rocky fought the Russians, the Manchurian Candidate taught us to mistrust our neighbours more than Joseph McCarthy ever did. Only pinko commie types like Gene Roddenberry was willing to even consider a benevolent Russian character for the small screen. However, in 1989, that all changed.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Hollywood lost its easy target, an enemy we could all understand. The world rejoiced, as a new era of peace was ushered in. Our popular culture was suddenly dominated by some of the best romantic comedies ever made as people turned away from enmity to think more introspectively. Human stories dominated every genre: Superman battled American billionaires; the Friends gang had time for coffee and promiscuity; even the calls were coming from inside the house. Battlestar Galactica, a tale about the struggles of humanity to survive against a foreign alien race of murderous robots, concluded in 1980.
When discussing which Star Trek series is best, as Trek fans so often do, they usually omit the original series from consideration. It was a different time, they say, the effects and the budget were so limited that they could barely produce episodes. Of course the stories were often lame and lazy, they needed to sell accessible entertainment in an age where TV sci-fi was in its infancy! Well, while the former excuses the visual aspects, the latter does not. Obviously there are some standout episodes, but Star Trek hit its popular and qualitative stride from The Next Generation onwards, particularly in later seasons. The bulk of TNG’s best episodes take place after its second season, starting in 1990. The Star Trek we know and love, with challenging moral quandaries and thought experiments that only Science Fiction can provide, flourished in the years after the cold war ended, during a time of peace and prosperity, a time for self-reflection. This was when, culturally, the 20th century truly ended.
So when did the 21st Century begin? Of course, the answer is unquestionably 9/11. A period of relative peace prevailed for a glorious decade, particularly when the Yugoslav Wars concluded and Europe finally seemed unified. Then the planes hit and we awoke as if from a dream to find the world is as ugly beyond our borders as it has always been within.
The external threat narratives returned to our entertainment, only this time the enemy was different. Muslims, Arabs, and terrorists dominated Hollywood stories in a way they had never before. America, as a concept, returned to the forefront not just a political focal point but as a cultural touchstone. Our heroes fought bad guys, always foreign, scary, and brown.
Even our science fiction, intended to be above it all in the lofty heights of philosophy, radically changed. Battlestar Galactica relaunched, but now the story was prototypically post-9/11, in which a great calamity has befalling humanity and the enemy is hiding within. Before 2001, Star Trek embarked first into Deep Space Nine and a sweeping and nuanced wartime narrative, the ups and downs, the surges, victories, defeats, tertiary beneficiaries and tenuous alliances. After 9/11, Enterprise addressed what happens once Earth has been attacked, and a desperate struggle to root out an enemy in a dangerous and unfamiliar territory.
As history moves on and the wars around the world continue, the shock and awe in our entertainment has diminished. It is evident in the Marvel Cinematic Universe how the culture is shifting from clear heroes and villains to more sophisticated plots (even if they don’t always make much sense). For example, the First Avenger fights the Nazis: easy. Then the Avengers, once assembled, fight aliens: again, Easy. But then the Avengers fight themselves in Civil War, over questions of power and consequences.
I will discuss my observations on how the media we consume lags behind the zeitgeist in a separate article, perhaps on the DragonFruit blog. Suffice it to say that the watershed moments of our popular culture are excellent resources for determining the boundaries of our centuries, and nothing of interest whatsoever happened on January 1st, 2000 except for a lot of epic hangovers.