(Photo by Rich Fury/WireImage)
Artillery Row

The war on normativity

Chris Pratt is a man caught in the middle of a growing rift between two Americas

Chris Pratt, the beloved and much lusted after Hollywood leading man, star of such family friendly blockbusters as Guardians of the Galaxy, recently took to Instagram to post a photo of his wife gazing adoringly at him. The caption read: “Guys. For real. Look how she’s looking at me! I mean. Find you somebody that looks at you like that!! You know!? We met in church. She’s given me an amazing life, a gorgeous healthy daughter, she chews so loudly that sometimes i put in my ear buds to drown it out, but that’s love! She helps me with everything. In return, periodically, I open a jar of pickles. That’s the trade. Her heart is pure and it belongs to me. My greatest treasure”.

Chris apparently “fills up a toxic Christian man bingo card”

More sentimentality than my poor English sensibilities can bear, but good for him, and grist to the mill of saccharine celebrity culture – or so one might have thought. One moment the Daily Mail Online was gushing about his “tender photo” but the very next day he was being “blasted” for his “sexist Instagram post”. What went wrong? Well according to the sort of spiteful liberal harpies that flock around sites like Buzzfeed and Vox, Chris was treating his wife like an object (“Did you just describe your wife as a possession?”), making a “cruel ableist dig” against his disabled son by having the temerity to be thankful for his “healthy daughter” and just generally having bad vibes: Chris apparently “fills up a toxic Christian man bingo card”. 

Celebrity culture has long been vicious, cruel and capricious, loving to tear down the very idols it raises up. But Chris Pratt is an especially odd target from the perspective of traditional tabloid takedowns. This is no Britney Spears spiralling into addiction and mental illness. Chris Pratt is almost aggressively inoffensive: a tall, handsome, kind, churchgoing actor who loves his wife and children. But pop culture is undergoing a radical transformation.

Chris Pratt has committed two unforgivable offences: he is a self-declared independent who tends to avoid politics has said he doesn’t feel “represented by either side” and is a vocal and enthusiastic evangelical Christian. Like so many targets of “cancellations” he is not a hardcore conservative, but rather a man caught in the middle of a growing rift between two Americas, a rift that has (in this still American century) spread to much of the western world. Hollywood has of course long been a liberal bastion, but its audiences and commercial imperatives always used to keep its narratives and stars focused on “Middle America” – the moderately religious and strongly patriotic US mainstream. 

Highly divisive issues of race, sex and sexuality now utterly dominate US popular culture, with the cultural elites of Hollywood committed to a corporate liberal model of rhetorical radicalism, diversity initiatives, and the policing of language. Christianity, especially the showy, sentimental enthusiasm of evangelical Christianity, is now regarded as problematic and regressive. Simply by not following his fellow Hollywood stars in vocally advocating for trans rights or accusing the right of racism, he has become a focus for hostility. 

The apparently permanent anger of many liberal activists and critics reflects their frustration and impatience at any sign that they are not quite yet the dominant mainstream moral, cultural and political force in American affairs. Popular but aggressively right-wing figures like Clint Eastwood may earn their share of opprobrium from this group, but it’s the bland everyman appeal of Chris Pratt that rouses true anger. His very existence and ubiquity make him (from the perspective of his critics) the archetypal white man, still dominating culture, still being used as the norm by which everyone else is measured. 

As silly as this episode appears, it reflects a serious phenomenon: an ongoing war on normativity as such, on traditional aesthetic and moral sensibilities. Take the focus on Pratt’s “disabled” son, and his alleged callousness in delighting in the health of his daughter. His son, Jack, was born two months premature, and suffered from a number of health problems as a consequence. Imagine being a parent and fearing your child might die, having to spend much of your infant’s early years taking him into the hospital. It’s the most obvious and understandable thing in the world to not want to have to go through that again, and to be deeply grateful for your other child’s health. So why doesn’t any of this occur to Pratt’s prurient critics?

However inoffensive, however kind and unassertive Chris Pratt may be, he has to be torn down simply because of who he is and what he represents

It’s because for them every assertion that dares towards normativity, or overflows the boundaries of individual autonomy, necessarily oppresses or takes away something from somebody else. To claim ownership over the heart of another, even if the heart is freely given in love and matrimony, can only be seen as an assertion of tyrannical theft. To cherish and celebrate the health of your child can only be taken as a slight against those who are not healthy themselves. To feel a natural, masculine pride in one’s family, to look upon your vital young child, your beautiful and loving wife, to look at these people who are bound to you by ties of charity and feel that you are doing what God and biology intended for you is taken as gravely offensive by the new progressive culture. 

Why? Because it is normative. Because when Chris Pratt talks about God and family, they hear the distant stirring of normative expectations that they too should worship their creator, that they too should embrace matrimony and traditional family life. However inoffensive, however kind and unassertive Chris Pratt may be, he has to be torn down simply because of who he is and what he represents. 

For the longest time social liberals have argued that their lifestyle choices took nothing away from social conservatives, who were after all no less free to live out their values in their own lives simply because those who wanted to live different lives were now freer to do so. A constant refrain of debates on topics like abortion and gay marriage has been – “if you don’t want an abortion, don’t get one”. Whatever the relative merits of socially liberal policies, that naïve argument has rapidly been exposed as a lie. We are now in a war over what norms should govern our culture, and over what dominant symbols will be allowed to reign in the artistic firmament. Wars that rage online and in the world of celebrity may seem distant and irrelevant, but don’t be surprised if they come to shape all our lives, and the society we end up living in.

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