What is woke? “Baby, don’t hurt me”
In the aftermath of Netflix’s recent massive stock drop (worry not, someone is already taking care of it, per shin… per se), I try to understand what woke means in terms of content. As always, I went to some credible sources for analysis, and then I’ll share some personal thoughts on it.
As someone wrote about it, “Before 2014, the call to stay woke was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying woke and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic.
But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, stay woke suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics. In the six years since Brown’s death, woke has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of woke is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.
On the left, to be woke means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be “woke” yourself. At times, the defensiveness surrounding wokeness invites ironic blowback. Consider the 2020 Hulu comedy series Woke, which attempted to deconstruct the identity politics behind ideas like wokeness, only to garner criticism for having an outdated and too-centrist political viewpoint — that is, for not being woke enough.
On the right, woke — like its cousin “canceled” — bespeaks “political correctness” gone awry, and the term itself is usually used sarcastically. At the Republican National Convention in August, right-wing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) scolded woketopians, grouping them together with socialists and Biden supporters, as though the definition of a woketopian was self-evident.
But as use of the word spreads, what people actually mean by woke seems less clear than ever.
So, loads of theory, but are we closer to a proper definition? I’m actually more interested in its origins than the further and dangerous social interpretations/ramifications of it: “one of the earliest uses of woke, outside of its most common meaning (to literally wake up from sleep), was in 1962, when a glossary of African American slang defined the word as “well informed” and “up-to-date,” according to Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, writing for the Oxford Dictionaries blog.
A decade later, the play “Garvey Lives!,” written by Barry Beckham, contained the line
I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.
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The word changed again, as some people started using it to mock people and beliefs they disagree with, and the word is now predominantly a negative term, she said in an interview.
“This process of acquiring a pejorative meaning happened really quickly,” she added. “This is something that the internet does to words. It moves them really quickly.”
By the time Erykah Badu sang “I stay woke” in her 2008 song “Master Teacher,” Black Americans were using the word to signify awareness, said Holliday, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics
The evolution of woke, therefore, isn’t unusual. And it’s not just conservatives on Twitter who are responsible for the changing meaning.
Wright, a contributing editor for the “Among the New Words” column at the journal American Speech, said that today, the word no longer marks “the good and necessary work of individual awareness building but instead the hollowness of so much neoliberal flotsam.”
“The word has effectively been semantically bleached,” she said.
As an example, she pointed to antiracism statements put out by companies and organizations in the summer of 2020. Many companies and organizations “want to claim the mantle of wokeness” without making meaningful changes, she said. Wait for it. The White man is coming… just five more seconds!
Holliday described the rise and fall of “woke” as similar to what happened to the term “political correctness,” which she said was used in the 1980s and in the 90s by the left. “It was always a little tongue in cheek, but it was serious in that people wanted to respect diversity, to respect the political differences that exist. That’s what it meant,” she said. “But as soon as people who did not share that ideology started using it, it became pejorative.”
That’s what happened to woke, she said, with the added insult that a term used by “marginalized people to discuss their experiences in the community … suddenly gets used by the people who are marginalizing them, as a joke.”
As such, many Black Americans don’t use the term anymore, nor do the young activists who are often described as woke by other people. No term has replaced it, but people are more likely to use plain language such as the need for respect and civility. Instead of saying something is the woke thing to do, people are more likely to say “it’s the respectful thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”
Which circles back to Elon Musk’s tweet.
“It gets reframed as not just something to be aware of, but in fact, having the moral high ground,” she said.
“Well, you know, he’s a billionaire, and he’s going to feel like he’s being attacked because he occupies a very high-status position and isn’t always conscientious about it, I think,” Holliday said. But Musk’s tweet shows how people pull out the word when they believe they are being unfairly criticized.
“Anytime someone polices me, whoever I am, on my political views, I can accuse them of being ‘too woke’,” Holliday said. This happens all over the political spectrum, she added.
“If you’re the alt-right, you can accuse a mainstream Republican of being too woke. If you’re Joe Biden, or a Joe Biden supporter, you can accuse The Squad of being too woke” she said.
But all this doesn’t mean that woke is now off-limits; Holliday admits to occasionally using it herself.
“You can use the word. But just know that it’s broadly pejorative” she said.
In the midst of all the semantics, semiotics and significances, I think woke (ciao italics!) is, once you frame it with no History and fill it with superficial hashtags, a matter of the individual. I remember, years ago, I watched a show on Netflix called O Mecanismo and someone immediately told me, “that’s the American POV, it’s biased, it’s innacurate, ditch it”.
I’ll say that certain someone was a leftist. Now, who was being woke here… this guy, the show or me? For him, the show had no reason to be followed because ’twas pure propaganda. For me, ‘twas just another show, I mean, we can access information, if I want another pespective on it, I’ll search for it.
As a show, as a series, I was interested in what it had to offer, despite its historical accuracy. Inhere lies some danger: studio execs look at a future trend and they go nuts. Sure, you can pull a Mecanismo, interpret historical events like Spencer, but then, someone wants to properly cash in.
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I think this poses an interesting question, because Netflix had its troubles in the past when approaching new markets with certain shows. Once you properly wake up, shut down the laptop and take a breath… woke became a keyword, a caricature of itself, with no substance, no true meaning or cinematic relevance whatsoever. In terms of content, it sparks some creativity, but once it goes greedy on the message and objectives, it can harm you for good.
Take a look at Raphael’s Madonna
or Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ.
What if someone thought, back then, these works were waaaaaay to woke? It’s a content not too different from a Netflix show: it sends a message through someone’s eyes. Painter as a director, people in the painting as actors, and so on.
So, in the end, woke gets mixed up as something meaningful and socially relevant, when, in reality, it’s determined by one’s POV. PC or woke, say Disney+ suddenly shifted all their shows to male-centric, testosterone-powered (like 80s action packed movies), cutting off all the female protagonists and diverse casts? Would they be woke or not?
I don’t care anymore because, in my eyes, a show that delivers is the one that challenges some form of status quo. Money Heist, Squid Game, gave us a social snap of the decay of our lives: materialistic, vaguely optimistic, full of false hopes and dreams ready to be challenged, shattered and rebuilt by our innate mean(ingful) nature. I back Netflix on this approach. When it gives its hand to an uknown Turkish or Nigerian director, it’s not being woke. It’s being proactive.
When Disney+ premieres another show on another bunch of superheroes, I snooze and snore because it will add nothing to a formula. Innovation happens outside the freeway. That’s what Netflix has been doing, kudos to them. Disney+ and Amazon… they just have the money to be the freeway, where the norm is seldom questioned or put to the wall.
So, my interpretation of woke is the following:
1) Respect its African-American meaning, first and foremost; it’s their word and expression, let’s not trivialize and devoid it of its spirit and essence;
2) Woke is what you’re looking at and it depends on how you’re feeling at a certain moment in time: it’s circumstantial, it’s a first-world statement of nothingness, and it should not be in the way of creativity;
3) “Netflix catalogue is too woke” is a sentence that I do not understand, because “this business we call show” is a place where novelty — never repetition — should happen as often as possible. Where’s the sweet spot then? Disney+? Prime? Hulu? You tell me…
And that’s pretty much it. If I wanted to look at Portuguese shows… is there anything I’d call woke?
First, I can’t even translate this word… second, we don’t even have the ‘critical mass’, I’d say, to even come up with that discussion (is this a woke view on our entertainment landscape? idk, you tell me).
And, thirdly, I think there are way more important things in life than a couple of social justice warriors claiming they didn’t like “her character” or “his motivations” on a certain show.
So that’s, in a nutshell, what I think of Parental Advisory Explicit Woke Content. It’s not that meaningful. And it’s never that important.