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It is very easy to lapse into despair about the state of the world.

Crises abound. Alongside the climate crisis, there’s a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of affordable housing, a mental health crisis and a replicability crisis in social scientific research. The rules-based world order, too, is in crisis.

Thus, it’s not surprising that commercial popular culture tends to be relentlessly upbeat. Buoyant. Cheery. Smiling. Sunny. It tends to emphasize escapism, positive thinking and a belief that faith or willpower can overcome any adversity.

I recently saw Six, the cheeky, perky, sassy, snarky musical inspired by Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the documentary series Six Wives by Lucy Worsley.

The fast-paced 80-minute show is alchemy in action. In this rendition of herstory, Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr—singing and dancing in the styles of Adele, Alicia Keyes, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Shakira—aren’t victims or losers. Rather, herstory is “overthroned” with a “sharp, shiny … sequined stiletto heel.”

The musical’s plot is simple. As one cast member describes the storyline, “It’s the six wives of Henry VIII as pop stars, all competing to be the lead singer of our girl group, and whoever has the worst story about what it was like to be married to him gets to be the leader of the band.”

Instead of the schoolhouse tale of six wives who are “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” this is a jaunty, exhilarating story of female empowerment, women’s liberation and powerful sisterhood. This is history, in the words of one reviewer, “teased … and glorified all at once,” “a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past.” And the audience, consisting largely of 20-something women, sings and rocks along with the playful mockery of “16th-century marital politics.”

With its glitzy, glittering, jewel-toned plastic-and-foil costumes and pop concert format, history and tragedy are magically transformed into a “blatantly commercial” postmodern commentary, “a lark and a provocation” about gender identity, inequality, misogyny, patriarchal oppression and feminist rebellion.

As one reviewer notes, the musical does try to convey certain lessons to the audience:

“It is wrong to pit women and their trauma against each other and make them compete for our enjoyment. It is wrong to care about their lives only in the context of their marriages to Henry and not to care about everything else they did.”

Yet this feisty histo-remix, for all its girl power irreverence, doesn’t truly treat the women’s suffering “as real and meaningful,” nor does it say anything about their lives apart from their marriages. That reviewer got it right: Six “wants to reap the rewards of making a feminist deconstruction of history without having put in the work to get either its feminism or its history correct.” Yet the Tony-winning performance surely gives audiences the joyful energy that they paid to see.

This society has a rich tradition of realism, dissent and critical engagement with society’s complexities and tragedies found in literature, film, journalism and other forms of cultural expression. But the dominant commercial culture today prefers habanero-laced cotton candy—ballsy enough not to be saccharine, but not gloomy, glum or dour, either.

I came of age at a time when American popular culture was much more preoccupied with the tragic and the depressing than it is today. In the wake of World War II, dramas like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire dealt with themes that are alien to today’s pop culture: the emptiness of material success, the high price exacted by the pursuit of the American dream, the consequences of hubris, the harshness of reality and the inevitable confrontation with forces larger than oneself.

By the time I became culturally conscious, movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Little Big Man, M*A*S*H, Mean Streets, The Godfather and Taxi Driver provided the space that explored the hypocrisies of American life, the underside of the American dream and the violence and exploitation that underlay U.S. history and American foreign policy. These movies offered a tragic or subversive view of life that is, to a large extent, absent from today’s mainstream culture.

Those earlier movies offered much more than mere entertainment. They commented indirectly on contemporary social and political issues. They performed some of the same functions as the Athenian tragedies of the fifth century before the modern era. Movies were a communal event that encouraged reflection and discussion and fostered shared cultural values.

For one and a half or two hours, audiences confronted harsh truths about the American experience and came away with something that Aristotle described in his Poetics: catharsis, the release of intense or repressed emotions.

Sure, those movies weren’t about the classic Greek themes: humans as playthings of the gods or the role of hubris in the downfall of heroes or the dangers of violating the moral and cosmic order. But they were about fundamental moral and ethical issues, and audiences came away with a clearer understanding of American society’s nature.

Then a profound shift took place. Retro crowd pleasers, like Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, and blockbusters boomed. Superhero films became cultural touchstones. Reboots and remakes burgeoned. Postapocalyptic narratives proliferated, while romantic comedies, after a surge, slowly declined.

Yet alongside films like American Graffiti, Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there were still, in the later 1970s and 1980s, serious and challenging movies about gender, like An Unmarried Woman, highly charged films about race, including Mandingo, and, especially, morally unsettling pictures about the Vietnam War.

It’s easy to criticize films like Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War, Deer Hunter and Platoon. Politics has little place in these movies, and Vietnamese characters are relegated to the backdrop. These films focus, instead, on the grunts, the ground combat troops who undertook search-and-destroy patrols and were charged with entering and pacifying villages and who often found themselves ambushed or encircled or facing an enemy dug into fortified positions.

But whatever their limitations, these films dealt with weighty themes. These films were less about the war itself than about the soldiers’ loss of idealism, the breakdown of unit cohesion and the psychological struggle to sustain their integrity and humanity amidst the fog of a pointless war.

When Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s celebrated movie critic, titled a collection of film reviews I Lost It at the Movies, no one had to ask what she had lost. It was, of course, her innocence and naïveté.

No one loses their innocence at today’s mainstream movies. Action, violence, special effects and music all serve as substitutes for a story line. Interest in politics has declined. Fewer and fewer address moral dilemmas involving marriage, gender relations, patriotism, religion or education.

Hollywood movies were always commercial products. But they were also something more than that. They dealt with facets of life that we otherwise tend to hide. Addiction. Infidelity. Mental illness. Stormy marriages. And much more.

Also, the movies purveyed modern values—of individuality, independence and a taste for adventure. They taught audiences how to kiss and dance, how to parent and how to make love, and even how to walk into a room (“always” like Bette Davis). They transmitted powerful messages about femininity and masculinity and courage and integrity and exposed viewers to realities far outside their narrow lives.

Certainly, many classic movies were saturated with racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia and violence. Yet, for all the ways that the movies reinforced cultural stereotypes and gave expression to the white male gaze, many offered a critical perspective on their society.

Years ago, I recall a common internet trope: “Everything I know I learned from the movies.”

I certainly learned a lot. Not so much the obvious lessons—about the importance of family and friendship or the value of perseverance—but about romance and heartbreak, style and sophistication, unconventional and manipulative and toxic relationships, and, above all, cultures, experiences and sensibilities beyond my own.

I worry that today’s mainstream popular cinema and its streaming equivalent are doing less of that. Not that everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. Casts, characters and story lines are far more diverse than they were. Films and TV shows highlight narratives about historically underrepresented groups. Even animated children’s films reflect contemporary concerns with identity, female empowerment and the environment. Streaming may have made older movies less accessible, but foreign language films and television shows are much easier to access.

That’s all to the good.

But fewer of my students are familiar with the global cinematic canon or with “race movies,” social issue movies or independent films. Fewer understand how to decode visual images, read (and read into) a film or extract the multiple messages that a movie conveys. Worst of all, fewer and fewer see movies that challenge their values, leave them upset or angry or unsettled or change their perspective on life.

A few years ago, Tara Ison, a novelist, short story writer and essayist, published a biting, sardonic book, Reeling Through Life, which describes what a lifetime of moviegoing taught her. It was at the movies that she learned about sexual allure and how to flirt, but also about the sexual objectification of even little girls and how and why older men prey on young women and girls. Movies also taught her about what it meant to be Jewish, not in terms of doctrine or practice, but as an ethnic and cultural identity.

In one especially revealing and instructive chapter, she acknowledges her love of alcohol and says she found it “a loyal, cheerleading friend” even in adolescence. But she also explains how movies—like Sara T.—Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, a cautionary “social issue” television movie of the week, and The Lost Weekend—helped her understand her father’s alcoholism and the rage and self-loathing and the aggressive, ugly behavior that accompanied his drinking binges and evening benders.

Sometimes the movies lied to her. Contrary to the messages is Love Story or Dark Victory, nothing about dying “is beautiful and fine; it’s horrible and smells.” There is no glowing orange light, no classical music, no madly in love and despairing lover or snow angels and daisies. Eyes dim “not with the imminent grace of release but with fear and agony and confusion and my sitting there holding her hand cannot change any of that.”

Nor did the movies provide many examples of women finding fulfillment on their own, through an independent career, a succession of casual affairs and intense same-sex friendships or how relationships between an older woman and a younger man might actually work.

For Ison, as for many of us, our personal lives exist in dialogue with touchstone movies. She had “lived a sheltered, landlocked” childhood. She was groping for worldly experience, and she first encountered life on the silver screen. The movies offered her a way to visualize, imagine and reflect upon crucial aspects of adult life. They gave her a “a way to slip into other identities and inhabit other realities.”

Like Kael, those as old as me lost something at the movies: not our virginity, but our ignorance, inexperience and obliviousness. And like Ison, we learned a great deal of knowledge from those flickering cinematic images, even if some of that information later proved inaccurate or biased or incomplete. When we were children, we spake as a child and understood as a child. Our lives were circumscribed, closeted and confined. The movies broadened our horizons and challenged our pre-existing beliefs. They exposed us to styles, ideas and identities outside our insular communities. They led us to confront realities outside our narrow world. If current mainstream movies don’t really do that anymore, then we, on our campuses, need to introduce them to the pictures that truly do transform lives.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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