Will it Play in Iowa?

by | Feb 21, 2018 | Hollywood

“Yes, but will it play in Iowa?”

It’s an age-old question.

Hollywood used it to determine whether or not a TV show or movie would be a hit, and politicians asked it to gauge whether or not their pitch to the presidency was working. In a larger context, the meaning is “Will what I’m selling play in Middle America?”

I’m not sure that question is being asked anymore. At least, not by Hollywood.

Unfortunately, it’s possible the question is being asked all too often by opportunistic politicians. In today’s climate of polarization, where everything is binary—black or white; right or wrong—there seems to be little room for middle ground, or nuance.

From the Hollywood side of things, asking if a pitch would “play in Iowa” is somewhat loaded; Hollywood tends to be ahead of the curve of societal progress. Think of George Romero casting an African-American man as the lead in Night of the Living Dead in 1968,  or season one of Cheers tackling homophobia in “The Boys in the Bar.” Hell, to that matter, All In The Family confronted transgender issues in the 1970s, challenging hate with “Edith’s Crisis of Faith.”

Kate & Allie examined interracial dating (and therefore racism) with “Dark Victory” in 1986.

Speaking of 1986, while president Ronald Reagan was outright ignoring the AIDS epidemic, St. Elsewhere went right at it, giving the disease to a straight, white male. Given that AIDS was considered a “gay disease” at the time, the move was unprecedented.

Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet on her self-titled TV show in 1997, one year after Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. That was Hollywood coming out (*cough*) swinging, stating they wouldn’t sit idly by with discrimination being legislated.

Was “Iowa” ready for such things? Maybe, maybe not. But Hollywood was willing to risk it; to both have the conversation and lead the way.

Unfortunately, Hollywood no longer asks “Will it play?” it dictates.

Hollywood tells Middle America what trends are important, what celebrities should be worshipped, what comedians are funny, who’s hip, who’s cool, and where to spend our money. Which is great and all, except no one likes being told something. People like what they like, and that doesn’t always gel with what Hollywood thinks is awesome.

While Hollywood likes to claim moral superiority to flyover America, it cannot. Huge swaths of Hollywood defend pedophile/rapist Roman Polanski. Hollywood ignored well-known sexual harassment for decades and isn’t shy about vomiting up gratuitous sex and violence as entertainment. Hollywood’s inability to own up to hypocrisy makes their medicine tough to swallow sometimes. Especially when Hollywood gets political, and starts finger-wagging and telling people how to vote.

Which leads us to the political side of things.

In 2011, an article stating Iowa had no right being first in the nation to vote went viral. Iowa was considered a “schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state.”

Considering Iowa was the fourth state to legalize marriage equality (in 2009), had gone blue more than red in presidential elections since 1984—including for Barack Obama, who they also put atop the caucus pyramid in 2008—it was an odd assertion to make in 2011.

In 2016, however, Iowa went for Drumpf in both the caucus and general election.

In a way, it was as if Iowa was trying to live up to the image it already had: “If you’re going to view us as backwards, that’s how we’re going to vote.”

(Which would explain Chuck Grassley, Steve King, and Joni Ernst, I suppose.)

This year, the TV show Roseanne is returning to the airwaves. As of this writing Ms. Barr herself said the family will be Drumpf supporters. She received flak for her statement. I don’t understand why, because wouldn’t that fit the mold perfectly? Wouldn’t a lower-income, lower-education family in Middle America be Drumpf supporters? Isn’t that who voted Drumpf into office in the first place? If Rosanne can get inside their heads and show why people make certain choices, that might be an important step moving forward from the Drumpf presidency.

A highlight of election 2016 was the Tom Hanks episode of Saturday Night Live. In one sketch, he played a Drumpf supporter on Black Jeopardy. In those six minutes, the writers showed empathy, not scorn. The skit showed similarities more than differences, and got decent laughs along the way.

And yes, there are differences between the coasts and Middle America. And yes, less-educated people tend to vote out of fear.

People vote because of fear of change, fear of loss, and fear of “other.” It’s what many politicians bank on. Fear and ignorance dictated the outcome of the 2016 election. Will that deadly combo work in 2018 or 2020? Possibly. There is a segment of the population it will always work on.

Maybe we should be examining that fear and assuaging it, instead of mocking it. And maybe there shouldn’t be dictation from either side; middle America shouldn’t lash out at the coastal elites for their wanting equal rights for all, and Hollywood shouldn’t dismiss Middle America for liking what they like.

Maybe there should be dialogue; a give-and-take-of conversation.

Maybe if something is popular in Iowa, Hollywood should take note. And maybe if Hollywood has an idea about equality, rural Iowa shouldn’t dig in its nostalgic heels.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

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