V for Vendetta, the most popular movie in America as I write, raises incendiary questions about terrorism as a tool against tyranny–in this case, a Christian fascism that has turned Britain into a police state. Though the critics were less than kind, this is the dude-flick of the moment, which is quite a feat. A few years ago, young men were lapping up films about combat troops and pumped-up paladins; now they’re being entertained by a hero who bombs Parliament. True, many guys will enjoy watching any building blow up, but surely the target has meaning, and this enticing image of iconoclastic anarchism recalls the punk values that were central to youth culture until they gave way to patriotic posturing after 9/11. Is the spirit of Johnny Rotten making a comeback?
Bear in mind that V for Vendetta is not just a unique sensation. It’s part of the most important trend in Hollywood: films with a social conscience. In these dramas, evil is not a force threatening us from without but a presence in our midst. Even the best of these films–e.g., Syriana and Crash–are too blunt to fully engage the imagination, but V is an adventure fantasy that touches the pleasure centers. Because it evokes the erotics of resistance, this film is a significant event despite its aesthetic limits. It replaces the sadism that is the hallmark of conservative culture with the thrill of aggression in the name of freedom–and that’s an association liberalism has lately lacked. Such metaphors of energy can be the seeds of a new politics.
One can see similar glimmerings of joyous dissent in pop music, where the rules of thug are being challenged in subtle ways. Consider Kanye West’s recent exhortation about confronting homophobia. “Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people,” he told an MTV interviewer. “Matter of fact, the exact opposite word of ‘hip-hop,’ I think, is ‘gay.’… And I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo stop it, fam.'” Even more astonishing was West’s explanation for his own homophobia: He was mocked as a mama’s boy when he was young. This is a daring self-analysis for a hip-hop star, and it comes at a time when black leaders are addressing homophobia in the African-American community. The significance of this initiative is not just its attempt to root out sexual bigotry but its implicit critique of the machismo that constructs the faggot in order to define itself–and where there are fags there are nearly always women whose value is their sexual servility (as in bitches and ho’s). The fantasy of rigid and ruthless masculinity is central to the conservative worldview, and now, it seems, there’s a growing awareness in hip-hop of the connection between sexism and social politics.
West’s critique of homophobia came on the heels of his astonishing performance at a televised benefit for New Orleans during which he declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” (At that point he was cut off.) This combination of racial and sexual critique is immensely important; indeed, no rebellion against the right can be truly authentic without it. When a top dawg like Kanye West undertakes such an examination, you can bet your iPod that it’s commercial. Though there’s still a major place for those who sing glock around the clock, the gangsta/playa persona is no longer the only option for a young black rapper. Before long it may really be hard out here for a pimp.
It’s a leap to regard the recent appearance of pink in dawg-wear as a sign that the Democrats will win control of Congress this fall. But there’s something auspicious about the current hip-hop exploration of such once contemptible colors. Vibe magazine’s April cover boy is decked out in a pinked-up camo hoodie with matching belt and boxers in a pattern of pale blotches. Is this new interest in pastel a signifier of gender freedom? A recent New York Times piece noted that the straight but sensitive men of emo are experimenting with the androgynous flourishes of glam rock. Does this represent a new spirit of male looseness? Maybe not–sometimes a dab of puce is just a dab of puce. But shifts in style can prefigure new social attitudes by embodying feelings still inchoate and making them sexy.
Of course, one pink hoodie does not a summer of love make. But it’s certainly not the dour macho color code we’re used to. And the fact that it’s hot suggests that some desire, as pleasurable as it is forbidden, is being expressed. Such frissons are crocuses. They augur the melting of ice.