The Politician proves you can mock 'wokeness' without being a baby boomer who left their empathy in the 1980s

It's a fine line to tread, but Ryan Murphy's new show does it perfectly

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 04 October 2019 21:24
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The Politician: Official Trailer

Warning: the following piece contains mild spoilers for the first season of The Politician, but if you’ve read a few stories about the series already, then there should be nothing too surprising here

If a presidential candidate is to have any credibility at all, then that candidate needs a solid running mate. This is the maxim Payton Hobart, the protagonist in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, appears to live by. Payton, you see, might be just a high school student, but he’s known for a while that his life will only make sense if he manages to shape it like a highway to the highest office in the land.

Most of The Politician’s first season revolves around his attempt to become his high school’s next class president, which he believes to be a mandatory prelude to his future (national) presidential run. In order to win, he of course needs that perfect running mate – which, in Payton’s world, means someone who will make up for his flaws and provide his ticket with the personal qualities he lacks.

His first choice is Infinity, a student who has cancer, whom Payton and his political advisers (yes, he’s a high school student with political advisers — this is a Ryan Murphy show and it would be foolish to expect anything different) think will help humanise Payton (a wealthy, white young man) to voters. But when it turns out that Infinity doesn’t actually have cancer and is instead a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy on the part of her grandmother, Payton is left looking for a new running mate. That’s when his team begins hesitating between Pierre Toussaint, the only Haitian student in the school, and Skye, a black lesbian who also happens to be a gifted orator.

Infinity’s supposed illness, Pierre’s Haitian origins, and Skye’s ethnicity and sexuality are clearly presented as desirable in the eyes of our aspiring teenage politicians (Pierre is repeatedly called “the Haitian vote" – as in, he is, literally, the only Haitian vote in his school), but only through the prism of whether they will help a given candidate get elected. It's tokenism on steroids. And through this cast of characters, Murphy delivers a criticism of “woke culture” – but unlike most criticisms of that sort, it’s intelligent, relevant, and never unkind.

How does Murphy do it? Well, it’s easy: The Politician doesn’t make fun of the people craving visibility (or the people upon whom visibility is forced, such as Infinity and Pierre, who are initially reluctant to join anyone’s ticket). Rather, his criticism is geared at the very people instrumentalising others for their own benefit (Payton, his initial rival River, and later on his new rival Astrid who ends up running in place of River because… well, maybe I should just let you watch the show).

Wokeness is a joke at Payton’s high school. Its cynical treatment means it turns concerns for visibility, diversity and inclusion into nothing more than political ambition. That’s why Murphy’s angle works: the joke is on the right people. No one’s making fun of millennials and their sense of social justice. No one’s hinting at the concept of crybabies getting triggered and needing their safe spaces. No one’s making fun of anyone for caring about things that actually matter.

A subplot features which demonstrates the occasional pitfalls of cancel culture, when an old clip of Infinity calling a reporter a “butt-munch” resurfaces. The footage, we’re told, is problematic because the reporter in question is apparently “obviously gay” (this means he has “highlights and a little saunter in his step”, to quote one of Payton’s advisers), meaning the word, in this context, is a slur. Everything in this storyline is absurd: Infinity’s outburst, the assumption that the reporter is gay, Payton’s temptation to play the “everyone has gotten a little too PC these days” card in order to limit damage, and the fact that he decides to kick her off the ticket about 10 seconds after considering this possibility. At no point is it implied that it would be outrageous to let go of a potential VP if they were caught using an actual slur. Instead, it all goes back to the beating heart of the show: Payton’s boundless political ambition, and how it has dissolved any chance of him ever having a real personality.

Even when Skye outlines her dream presidential program, which consists of “taking a [sex discrimination] case all the way to the Supreme Court", "enacting a gender non-binary history curriculum”, “making every bathroom and locker room at the school unisex”, and “staging a school-wide sit-in until they abolish Columbus Day”, it’s portrayed as ultra-liberal and progressive to the point of caricature, yet no less ridiculous than the ambitions of every other character who has vied for power since the beginning of the show. Because the truth is, history curriculums could do with a little dusting, schools have a ways to go for gender inclusivity (and inclusivity in general) — and why shouldn’t a sex discrimination case be heard in the Supreme Court?

The Columbus Day example is especially telling if you compare it to the South Park episode “Holiday Special”, which aired in 2017. In it, Randy Marsh kicks off a protest to cancel Columbus Day. (In real life, the holiday has been criticised due to the mistreatment of indigenous people following Columbus’s “discovery” of America.) Marsh is then revealed to have dressed up as Columbus on numerous occasions and, in order to prove his good faith, desperately wants to show that he has Native American ancestry – which in turn prompts him to French-kiss a Native American man (in order to fake having Native American DNA during a saliva swab).

The message behind this circus appears to be that those bringing up concerns against historical figures such as Columbus are no better than anyone else, so what’s the point in listening to them, really? South Park has a long track record of attempting to criticise “both sides”, meaning that it tries to paint progressives and conservatives as equally ridiculous. Perhaps this made sense in 1997, when the show premiered, but what good does this type of nihilism do us now? If everyone’s equally bad, what’s the point of anything? Why would you care? Why would you be an activist? Why would you defend your rights? (Can you see why that type of discourse isn’t particularly helpful?) The Politician, while plenty cynical, manages to avoid this particular pitfall, and I for one am grateful for that.

It helps, of course, that the show itself has a diverse cast. Ben Platt, who plays Payton, is openly gay. Andrew Cashman, a student with cerebral palsy, is portrayed by Ryan J Haddad, a comedian who lives with the condition. (This contrasts with one of Murphy’s best-known creations, Glee, where a paraplegic student was portrayed by an able-bodied actor.) Natasha Ofili, who is deaf, is wonderful as the school’s principal. Theo Germaine, who features as Payton’s campaign manager, identifies as nonbinary. In real life, Murphy has worked with Janet Mock, the first out transgender woman of colour to write and direct an episode of television for Pose, the FX drama about New York City’s ballroom culture scene.

Diversity, in The Politician, is as ineluctable as the laws of physics. This means that the show gets to joke about wokeness without ever sounding like a baby-boomer who left their sense of empathy in the Eighties. Showrunners, make a note of this – please and thank you.

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