Every year, things go down in pop culture that seem to signal the coming armageddon — like offensive and popular reality shows, for instance — and we wonder, could it possibly get worse? And every year, it does. We could list 2011 terrible things in American culture this year and not even come close to completing the list, so for brevity’s sake, here are the top 10 worst things that happened in pop culture this year. May 2012 have fewer of them.
1. Movie: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1
Even if this movie wasn’t predicated on dismal Rand-worship and probably the most tedious/annoying book of her career, it’s bad based on sheer artistry. Set in the dystopian near-future of 2016, it bumps up against every dramatic action film cliche imaginable, a Tea Party fingerpainting of corporate greed. That said, this movie is AMAZING in its hilarity, possibly the best unintentionally humorous American film since National Treasure, with all the requisite deep melodrama and overacting that is somehow also stiff. It’s terrible but a pleasure to watch, particularly when you consider that with all the rich libertarians in the world, no one could pool their money for better talent! Haha.
2. Documentary: The Undefeated
If Sarah Palin’s fawning, lionizing documentary weren’t crafted for the sole purpose of revising her career and casting her in a noble light, the tale of how it came to be might have been funny: gleaming fanboy Stephen K. Bannon piles compliments on his feckless heroine, his love blinding him to her mishaps. It almost deserves a Mel Brooks script—only it’s real, and the Palin faithful brought in around $75k the first week in only 10 theaters. The Palin hustle has quieted down a bit, but expect this to be trotted out as evidence of her wondrousness closer to the election (and as absurd GOP candidates mention her as a potential running mate). It’s just depressing that it requires actual political propaganda to get her there.
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3. TV Miniseries: “The Kennedys”
What was up with propagandist revisionism this year? The intensely reviled recasting of the Camelot era was so full of historical inaccuracies that Brave New Films launched a successful effort to keep the History Channel from airing it. With Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie, the whole piece was criticized as wholesale character assassination, hand in hand with the strange conservative impulse to cast JFK as somehow evil. And they didn’t even use theincriminating Jackie tapes!
4. Reality Show: “Toddlers and Tiaras”
Hitfix called it “a clarion call for a Social Services intervention,” and was it ever. Eager and often deluded moms entering their mostly reluctant tiny, tiny daughters into beauty pageants and stage-momming them into internalizing the princess premium before they can really utter words with three syllables. If the ghost of JonBenet Ramsey doesn’t loom over this show for you in a disturbing way, perhaps some of the choice things moms say to their children will, such as one mom telling her eight-year-old to shake her butt around, but not too much “like a stripper.” Ugh.
5. Novel: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris
It’s unfortunate that an author with the imagination of Charlaine Harris can apparently only make her work more interesting by adding an endless stream of fantastical characters, rather than making said characters do more interesting things. The creator of Sookie Stackhouse, upon which HBO’s popular “True Blood” is based, Harris is up to book 11 in the series, and it might be time to pack it in (or at least create a spin-off). Add this to tossed-off and confusing plot elements that mess around with continunity and logic (many longtime fans have accused Harris of not actually reading the books in her own series), and you have a beach read that’s more frustrating and convoluted than light and fun.
6. Song (and video!): Bruno Mars, “The Lazy Song”
Stumbling over himself to be viewed as America’s least threatening nice guy, Bruno Mars reached the point of pure banality with “The Lazy Song,” which sounds delivered straight from a can. An accomplishment, at least, in that he became the most innocuous person of the year, but even the tempo was boring with “The Lazy Song.” Add a cutesy and inexplicable band of monkeys wearing Wayfarers in the video and it’s like a pipe bomb that, upon explosion, politely delivers a full-scale affront to the senses.
7. Musical Group: Lady Antebellum
Aside from the obvious—that the group’s name fetishizes an era in which black people were enslaved—this year the Nashville trio released Own the Night, an album that was completely offensive in its non-offensiveness. Ciphoning any semblance of personality until it was an opaque wisp of music, it thrived on cliche lyrics, boring harmonies, terrible interludes and completely generic everything. The musical equivalent of being inside a shopping mall, the place that varies only slightly no matter where you are in the world, Own the Night is an attempt to whitewash its own world into empty vertigo. Horrifying.
8. Twilight Movie: Breaking Dawn, Part 1
Going into the movie adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s ridiculously popular vampire love stories, we knew they were highly Christian, butBreaking Dawn is too much: an entire (pretty long!) treatise that basically says sex is 1) only for married people; and 2) for the sole purpose of procreation and abortion is never, ever an option, even if it means the mother is going to die. Pro-life to the point of squeamishness, and even the gorgeous visage of Rob Pattinson couldn’t take away the sting.
9. Non-Reality Television Show: “Last Man Standing” (ABC)
There was a lot of competition for this category in 2011: The short-lived, regressive Playboy Club; the incredibly racist and blogger-cutesy 2 Broke Girls; the ridiculous bro-show Man Up, which reached the infantilized nadir of the Peter Pan syndrome comedy wrought by Judd Apatow and his ilk. But nothing was more offensive, less funny, and more harmful to every gender and sexual orientation than Last Man Standing, the Tim Allen vehicle based on the premise that traditional masculinity is being bled out by independent women and femme-y men, whose proliferation is ripping apart the fabric of tradition and ruining a world where manly (white) men rule.
When he’s not trying to decipher the arcane and impenetrable language of women, he’s ascribing his masculinity to things that are frankly unisex (such as sports) and mocking as somehow emasculated men who prefer, for instance, Mel Gibson’s romantic movies over his violent ones. Aside from the feeling that the misogynists writing this show are of the he-man, woman-haters club variety, they also seem not funny at all.
10. Dramatic Moment of Outrage from Right-Wingers: Parents Television Council on Janet Jackson Nipplegate
The Parents Television Council is a source of endless, paranoid hilarity of handwringing over relatively minor infractions on TV, but one point was the funniest this year: when it responded in outrage over the accidental exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast on the 2004 Superbowl halftime. In November, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a fine was not necessary for the incident, which as anyone who’s seen it knows, was clearly an accident (unless Jackson and Justin Timberlake are such exceptional actors they can register pure horror before an entire stadium midway through a strenuous performance). But of course, the PTC called it a “striptease” (which is repulsive, sexualized and racialized) and called for an appeal to the appeal. Let’s hope 2012 brings less of this stuff.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.