How to Love Problematic Pop Culture

As a scholar of the politics of the past, I dig anniversaries. Which is why I’m writing about Hamilton this month, two years after it opened on Broadway, and two years after I saw it live myself. You may have read (in the New York Times, on Slate, in Harper’s Magazine, or on the blog of the National Council on Public History) or watched (on C-SPAN2 BookTV) or listened to (on WBAI’s Living in Spanglish) my critique of Hamilton, all of which stemmed from my essay “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past” in the journal The Public Historian, which was the first academic article to be published on the musical, way back in February of 2016.

I got a lot of pushback for my discussion of the aspects of the show — which I adore — that I found problematic as a scholar of the politics of the past and of representation. To be honest, the hate-filled comments showing up on articles about my work, in my twitter mentions, and in blog posts and articles written for the sole purpose of attacking my credibility as a scholar, kinda burned me out. About a year ago, I stopped listening to Hamilton.

Then, a few months back, I put the soundtrack on again. And once again, it revived me as only art can. I learned new things and I was ready to share new things. And, two years after the show opened its now legendary run seems like a good time to revisit it, and specifically to expand upon the point that I was attempting to make all along in my public-facing comments on Hamilton: the fact that “all your faves are problematic” doesn’t mean they should stop being your faves. It just means that, in a fucked-up world (which no one will dispute this is), all cultural products are also going to be fucked up — particularly the ones that resonate with so many of us that they become cultural phenomena of the level that Hamilton is.

What College Is Really For: Learning to Critique What You Love

When the old 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia that circulated for the 35th anniversary of the film’s release made it to my hometown, I was already a massive devotee of the film — and of its protagonist, whose autobiography I had made multiple attempts to read (I still have the copy I bought then of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph on my bookshelf…never made it past page 22, but I still have hope I will someday!). Being raised as a multiracial girl in a more than 90% white, small Pacific Northwest college town in the ’90s — the kind of place that “values” “multiculturalism” and “tolerates” “diversity” (all scare-quotes very much intended!), I was not particularly self-aware of my identity as either a person of color or a genderqueer person. Nor was I consciously aware of how the appeal of this film mapped onto my own romantic life. At a time when I was harboring a hardcore crush on a beautiful tall blonde boy in my class, this film in which a beautiful tall blonde man not only talks respectfully to brown people, but embraces them as equals — and, implicitly, lovers — blew my mind. Mind you, I also enjoyed films like South Pacific, in which a white man falls in love with a brown woman; and The King and I, in which a white woman falls in love with a brown man; but I think the homosocial dynamic worked for me because, despite wearing dresses and dancing, I in many ways behaved more like a boy than a girl, for which I was increasingly praised at school. Add to that the fact that the man around whom the film revolved looked a lot like my South Asian father — literally, (white) strangers would come up to him and say “You look just like Omar Sharif.”

I loved everything related to the film. I bought the soundtrack, tracked down documentaries and other fictionalizations of Lawrence’s life and times, and poured over maps of the territory covered by the movie. I was already a history geek, and became obsessed with the Sykes-Picot Agreement discussed in the film, which laid the groundwork for the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I focused on the early 20th century buildup to the declaration of the State of Israel for a primary source research project; and was the weird kid who eagerly volunteered to represent Palestine as Yassir Arafat in my social studies class’s mock UN.

In my required writing class as a freshman at NYU, we had to pick a film that meant something to us personally and write about it. For me, the choice was easy. In the course of my research, I chanced upon the first academic monograph that I independently chose to read: Steven C. Caton’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology. This book changed my life. For the first time, I saw the kinds of literary criticism that I had been taught how to do in AP English classes applied to the genre of film; and done in a way that was deeply historicized and drew on the theory that I had been learning in my introductory Anthropology courses. I was hooked. This is the kind of work that I wanted to do. And I wrote the best damn essay I wrote that whole year — possibly the best essay I wrote in college.

I have to admit that I don’t remember a time when I felt bad about what the book revealed to be the highly problematic orientalizing that the film does, shot for shot, of the Bedouin people; or the ways in which it uses implied homosexuality and kink as means of marking the Turkish bey as a sinister character; or the complete absence of women in speaking roles. Instead, having each of these points articulated and explained to me felt like I was finally able to understand my own fascination with the film. It was my first experience of reading academic writing that felt like it was speaking my own thoughts, where each question or objection that was raised in my mind was addressed in the next paragraph, and addressed by bringing to bear material both familiar and completely foreign to me, thus deepening my own knowledge of the film and its ecosystem. In other words, this in-depth critique did nothing to shake my adoration of the film; instead, it allowed me to love the film harder. Which I really, truly did. I had no problem at all imagining that a film created by white British dudes in the 1960s was problematic on race and gender and sexuality. And also no problem adoring the film, because rather than in spite of its flaws.

Loving Hamilton Enough to Critique It

I brought the same attitude of excited curiosity to watching Hamilton just over two years ago, during the week it opened on Broadway. Since the soundtrack hadn’t yet been released, all I had to go on was the (surely!) overblown hype, and the YouTube video of the birth of the show in Obama’s White House, when Lin-Manuel Miranda performed the opening number at a poetry jam in 2009. I was eager to be swept away by the phenomenon that was Hamilton, and I also suspected that I would find much I disliked in the show. What I could not have anticipated is how much I would fucking love the play; and how fertile a ground it would offer for exactly the kind of critical analysis that I had been exposed to my freshman year at NYU. Nor could I have anticipated how much resistance my writing that kind of criticism about a modern play, by a person of color and starring people of color, would elicit.

When you first get a full-time gig as a humanities professor, the most important part of your job, aside from teaching students, is publishing a book that will earn you tenure. So it is a measure of just how much I loved Hamilton that I chose to take time away from writing my book in order to write an unpaid article about the show. The essay that I published in the academic journal The Public Historian argued that, while the play is praised for its racially adventurous casting, it in fact uses the talents, bodies, and voices of black artists to mask an erasure of people of color from the actual story of the American Revolution. The initial article was well received, with responses including kudos emailed by Junot Diaz, and four excellent, thoughtful responses by my colleagues commissioned by the blog of the National Council on Public History. However, as soon as interviews about the piece were published in Slate and The New York Times, in April 2016, personal attacks started showed up in my Twitter mentions.

As I struggled not to drown in the tidal wave of negative comments — ranging from outright trolling by the usual suspects to very sincere distress from young women of color — I quickly realized how much of a gap there is between humanities scholars’ understanding of the work we do, and the impression held by so many of the readers of popular publications. Most of the comments were some variation on accusations of my not understanding that Hamilton is not actually a work of academic history; questioning my knowledge of the past; or alleging that I was myself “promoting stereotypes” for my discussion of the ways in which race functions in the musical.

I realize that some would urge me to put “readers” in quotation marks; there is little doubt that most of the people who attacked me on social media or commented on the articles about my critique of Hamilton did not read past the headlines of the articles. But while many are inclined to dismiss these commentators as unqualified, I choose not to do so. Instead, I see their knee-jerk defense of the work that they adore as indicative of the very same forces that swept Donald Trump into office later that same year. Namely: our cultural resistance to nuance; our need for things to be black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. In this case: Hamilton was either liberatory and revolutionary and racially subversive, OR it was evil and bad and should never have been written much less performed much less lauded. Most of us who make a career out of studying, writing, and teaching about culture can never view cultural products as so one-sided. Indeed, what makes art art for me is its “multivocality” — the ways in which it draws on and remixes on an infinite number of cultural products and practices so as to mean many different things to many different people — indeed, many things to the same single person. The very fact that every time I listen to the soundtrack — and no doubt every time I see the show (I’ve only managed one viewing so far — if you’ve got a spare ticket, lmk ;) ) — I learn new things is a sign that it is a truly great piece of art.

This doesn’t negate the fact that “all your faves are problematic.” Instead, learning to see how all of our “faves” — whether they are Barack Obama or Big Macs or Star Wars or Buffy— how they themselves are embedded in and products of capitalism, of environmental degradation, of racism, of misogyny…to me, that is the work that cultural criticism can do. And while I realize it doesn’t make for as click-baity a title as labeling me a “Hamilton Skeptic,” the truth is that Hamilton is both a piece of art that troubles me deeply, and a piece of art that sustains me, that gives me life.