The relationship between pop culture and politics is a relationship that overwhelms the media today. This is not a new craze. With government figures being portrayed through political cartoons and hollywood celebrities running for office, politics and pop culture are already very well-acquainted. The politics and pop culture relationship evolves as media outlets advance, and as media is now a part of day-to-day life, it is more dominant and complex than ever before.
Late-night television is now a primary outlet for consumers to stay up-to-date on current events and political proceedings. As a new season of Saturday Night Live premieres, there are expectations for both returning and new impressions of politicians and world leaders. We now live in a day and age when both political analysts and the writers of late-night television participate in political events such as debates, with pen and pad in hand, ready to dissect every move. Late-night television programs rely on politicians’ slip-ups and character flaws, and politicians benefit from the increased publicity.
In Tina Fey’s memoir, she reminisces about the debut of her Sarah Palin impression on Saturday Night Live. Her intentions were far from the consequences. She recounts, “I would have chosen to stop short of being overtly political if I’d had more time to smooth it out” . This experience shows that occasionally, late night television antics are the product of writers’ block, grappling for any content whatsoever before the studio audience arrives. Fey also reports that former president Clinton and his wife both called to thank her for the sketch that featured Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
An effort to fill the 30 minute run-time with politically relevant content led to an unintentional endorsement of an entire presidential campaign, which surely influenced at least some viewers’ opinions. From the writers and performers themselves, the goal is not to promote political agendas or to inform audiences, it is to get a laugh and high ratings. Because the desired end is high ratings, the means used often include inaccuracies and hyperboles. The producers of these shows do not dub themselves as reliable news outlets, but public opinion does.
In addition to late-night television producing politically pertinent content, the line between politicians and entertainment stars is fading. Oprah Winfrey has her own Politico page featuring updates on her 2020 non-election . Perhaps more notable than the idea of President Winfrey is the idea of a President West and a First Lady Kim Kardashain . These pseudo campaigns create buzz throughout both the entertainment and political industries, but they are hardly productive concerning policy and reform.
There is also sometimes a gray area between whether a public figure is a politician first and an entertainer second, or an entertainer first and a politician second. Ronald Reagan was a movie star before running for president. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a Golden Globe long before running for Governor of California. Donald Trump was a cultural favorite as both an entrepreneur and reality-tv host before running for president. But in other instances, you have someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sought her seat in Congress before obtaining an air of celebrity and a fan-base.
As the dynamic between political leaders and entertainment favorites becomes increasingly casual, both sides benefit. Politicians seek re-election, relying on name recognition and advertising to build support from their constituency. The job description of an entertainer includes building a fan-base through publicity. It is no coincidence that ties between those of elite society attract viral hype. Headlines like, “Elton John Defends Ellen Degeneres’ Friendship with George W. Bush” will certainly produce a lot of traffic, and it is even better when the headline is truth and not just clickbait . The relationship between Kanye West and President Trump is another among many celebrity relationships that both baffle and entertain consumers and constituents.
There are certainly reasons for concern when considering the relationship between media and politics, but perhaps the consequences are not all bad. Late night television programming and viral headlines help the public stay more informed. Sure, the information is not always on the most influential policies and consequential situations, but at least those who would otherwise be uninformed have a bit of political context. Additionally, the Freedom of the Press is an institutionalized check on government leaders. Surely media outlets, even if for entertainment, fall under that press-umbrella. While these parodies are more frequently hyperbolic than accurate, they still protect the people by exposing and scrutinizing the actions of public leaders.
Media, popular culture, and politics will continue to evolve as society and technology change. Changes will always bring growing pains and more reasons to complain, but they also bring an opportunity for relationships between such groups to improve. The memes and sketches that entertain the masses do no real harm so long as consumers maintain awareness of the dramatization of real issues and the purpose of the media often being solely entertainment. In fact, comic relief can play a crucial role in alleviating the tensions that are so prevalent in today’s divisive political world.
 New York: Little, Brown. Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown, 2011.
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