Do Not Adjust Your Set! Recalibrating Urban Cinema and Media Studies Under Donald Trump

2016 US Presidential Election results, tilted 3D map, from WebGL 3D model, by Robert J. Vanderbei, Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, Princeton University, 2016
Mark Shiel calls for urban cinema and media studies to reorient its methodologies in the wake of Donald Trump's election.
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a key trend was accentuated, or exacerbated: since the 1980s, the Democratic Party has come to rely increasingly on large cities, while Republicans have consolidated their dominance of small cities, towns, and rural areas, with suburbs switching back and forth between the two.1Ronald Reagan won the majority of suburban votes in 1980 and 84, as did George Bush in 1998; Bill Clinton won the suburbs in 1992 and ’96, George Bush Jr in 2000 and 2004, Obama in 2008, and Romney in 2012, although important distinctions must be made between inner suburbs, which lean Democrat, and outer suburbs which lean Republican. The hyper-concentration of Democratic voters in large cities, together with evidence that the larger a city the more liberal it is likely to be, has led many commentators to feel a sense of optimism for the long-term future of urban liberal values and their benefits to the national body politic. In the couple of years following Barack Obama’s election victory in 2012, for example, David Wasserman in FiveThirtyEight saw “good news for Democrats” in census data that showed the growth rate of cities catching up with that of suburbs after a post-WWII decline while rural growth continued to slow; Richard Florida called large cities a “singular political force” for Democrats in an ongoing conflict “between cities of knowledge and skill and the rest… the metro haves and have-nots”; and The Nation opined that “the era of big city liberalism has just begun.” Even in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many continue to look to cities as “key vectors for progressive change,” as the New Labor Forum has done, although extensive media coverage has also characterized something like a return of the rural repressed.2See also Sean Trende and David Byler, “How Trump Won – Conclusions,” RealClearPolitics, January 20, 2017. Accessed January 27, 2017.–_conclusions_132846.html

The election has prompted various groups to rethink their analysis of urban, suburban, and rural space. For example, many Democrats have determined to prioritize better party organization at the state and local levels to combat the seemingly better Republican ground game outside big cities. Many news organizations have suggested the insufficiency of long-standing modes of cartography (maps of blue and red states) and the need for more granular visualizations of voting (county, municipal, and other levels), of the kind which digital mapping is increasingly good at. Even if one feels that the Trump victory is mainly the result of the anti-urban Electoral College anachronism, what might be some of its methodological implications for cinema and media studies of cities and other spaces? Do we have the right tools to identify and debate the issues we face, and to communicate what matters most? What do we need to do in the practical areas of teaching and research?


In digesting the huge amount of numerical and geographical data pertaining to the election, I am struck by what seems like a relative lack of data that differentiates among urban, suburban, and rural cinema-going, box office, and audience taste, which we might correlate with voting data to better understand the relationship between political participation and screen culture. Some data exists on the political views of consumers of news media, both newspapers and online, and the New York Times recently did an interesting study of TV which mapped audience figures for the most popular shows in urban and rural markets – e.g. The Daily Show, Modern Family, and Game of Thrones in cities, NCIS, The Voice, and A&E’s reality show Duck Dynasty in the countryside and small towns. But I suspect we need more data and analysis, and with a finer grain, to better understand media habits geographically, from Manhattan to Montana, across cinema, TV, online entertainment, and social media, and across the spectrum of leftists, liberals, conservatives, and the far right.

New Media

The election was also remarkable for accentuating conflict between various media and their roles in shaping the American polis, seeming to pit social media, online reporting, traditional news organizations, cinema, and TV one against the other (e.g. Twitter, Buzzfeed, CNN and the Washington Post, Oliver Stone, and Saturday Night Live). Their conflict is also spatial in so far as older media production depended more heavily on large physical urban bases, which newer technologies need less. Despite my primary specialism in cinema studies, this requires me to ask whether research into online and social media should be given additional priority, beyond its recent growth. I also have to re-evaluate the relevance of movies, which seem so much slower to respond to real-world events. Notwithstanding the occasional feature film which gets a timely theatrical release, such as Stone’s Snowden (2016), the temporal challenge of making feature films on current issues that remain topical when they’re released has seemed ever greater in the internet age, given the intensification of what David Harvey memorably called “time-space compression” in modern urban life.3Hence, TV and the web dominated screen media responses to the Occupy movement in 2011-12, but the movement had already lost momentum when the otherwise powerful feature film Occupy Wall Street: The 99 Percent Collaborative Film (Aites and Ewell, 2013), was released in 2013. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 147.

On the other hand, it seems to me that we need far more critical analysis and debate regarding social media and other online forms against the now discredited notion that they are entirely a force for democratic creativity, connectivity, and freedom – a notion which tech companies have wanted to promote and that even many progressives have bought into, in my view, without sufficient thought. A way forward might be to subject social and other online media to sustained ideological critique – analogous to the work which film studies did when it earned its stripes deconstructing Hollywood and other industrial cinemas in the 1960s-80s, but now requiring an emphasis on the internet’s (not entirely healthy) restructuring of spatial relations.

Selecting a Corpus

But even if one stays the course in teaching and research primarily on cinema and TV, surely we have to become more, or differently, selective in the criteria we use to decide which films and programs to study, and which to leave aside. This is also a spatial question in so far as the urban and suburban populations that anchor production and consumption of Hollywood blockbusters and network or Amazon TV dramas, or the small indie pics that have artistic sophistication but mainly downtown hipster viewers, are not all of the media environment. Arguably, scholars and students have a responsibility to also increase critical analysis of conservative media content and channels, which tend to do most of their business in suburbs and rural locales, from independent Christian feature films to libertarian think-tank podcasts and right-wing documentaries such as Stephen Bannon’s The Undefeated (2011).4Some work is being done in this area – see, for example, Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke, Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986 (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011); James Russell, “Evangelical Audiences and ‘Hollywood’ Film: Promoting Fireproof (2008),” Journal of American Studies, 44, no. 2 (May 2010): 391-407 – but there seems an urgent need for more, and with a deliberately spatial approach.

The City and its Others

Although Clinton won the popular vote and most of that was urban, the Trump victory should also prompt urbanists to ask themselves if they haven’t sometimes been a little too convinced of the importance of big cities. So much scholarship on urban-oriented media has implicitly or explicitly preferred the metropolitan experience, even when critiquing its neo-liberalization. This work is and has been invaluable. But in a situation where liberals and leftists are increasingly lumped together – and even lumped together with neoliberals – by a right-wing reaction that associates all of them with big cities, it is more important than ever to be aware of other spatial realities. More research and teaching is needed which brings these to the fore, in political terms, in relation to secondary and tertiary cities, suburbanization, and present-day rural space.5Exemplary in this respect is Stanley Corkin’s new book, Connecting the Wire: Race, Space, and Postindustrial Baltimore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), which he discusses in his own post in this roundtable. While his concept of the “right to the city” has been understandably influential, Henri Lefebvre’s lesser-known work on suburbs and rural societies might also prove useful here – one of the key implications of his oeuvre as a whole, as Lukasz Stanek has pointed out, is the inter-connectedness of all territory, from the most lightly to the most densely populated.6Lukasz Stanek, Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

The Far Right

Lefebvre’s worldview was shaped in the 1930s and ’40s by his experience of fascism and resistance to it. In so far as the city is a forum for ideas and representations, which shape and sometimes threaten to destroy notions of citizenship, scholars and students also have a responsibility to reframe their work to interrogate and challenge the far right. A critical media analysis of the so-called ‘alt-right’, for example, could focus on the urban/suburban/rural distribution of its adherents, their media self-presentation, production, and consumption, TV news reporting on the alt-right and video activists’ efforts to expose it. It also seems possible that the far right will seek to challenge neoliberal and neo-bohemian primacy in U.S. urban space – the far right is already doing this in numerous European cities. This should be a cause for concern and action for society as a whole, but also of special interest to film and media scholars because the far right has a long history of hostility to the city, or at least to the multicultural city, and a preference for thinking of cities as symbolic monumental landscapes for the projection of muscular nationalism. In my book on neorealism, I examined Mussolini’s preference for evacuating the working class, the poor, and minorities from the heart of Rome and other cities to facilitate grandiose public works and architectural projects that would bring back the glory of the ancient Caesars – a tendency chillingly expressed in Italian fascist films such as Giovacchino Forzano’s Camiccia nera (Black Shirt, 1933).7Mark Shiel, Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinema City (London: Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2006). Scholars and students of urban film and media history should also remind themselves of how progressive, cosmopolitan, and dynamic Berlin was when Walter Ruttmann made Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) and Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer made People on Sunday (1930), not long before Hitler took power.

Of course, it’s important to note that there is a long history of mistrust of cities in the U.S. which is Jeffersonian and not fascist. But, still, Andrew Lees’ study of Weimar and Nazi German attitudes to cities does not make for comfortable reading if one considers Donald Trump’s racially-charged demonization of inner cities alongside Oswald Spengler’s poisonous description of “the metropolis as the supreme symbol and the final cause of the decay of culture and the death of civilization.”8Andrew Lees, Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 276. See also Steve Macek, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic over the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). It will be important to keep tabs, therefore, on how screen media cities now evolve – whether the recent flood of smartphone video of police brutality will continue or stop, whether police body cameras will make the situation worse or solve it, whether the slightly maudlin but ultimately desirable urban cool of 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) or Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) can be maintained, or whether the creative classes of New York and L.A. film and media will be suppressed by some yet unforeseen trend or event.

Proposals for Action

Let me make more four brief suggestions of possible routes for positive action:

  1. Not all universities are physically located in cities, but in so far as higher education and the knowledge economy can be identified with modernity and urban space, cinema and media studies scholars should seek to make common cause with journalists, whose profession also has close links with the city, and who are especially under siege from the right. In Media Capital (2012), Aurora Wallace has brilliantly traced the embedded history of print news media in New York and its architecture – a history recently explored in a different way in Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011), a documentary feature which rightly insists on urban expertise and the importance of fact-based knowledge formation in the public sphere.9Aurora Wallace, Media Capital: Architecture and Communications in New York City (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
  2. Cinema and media studies scholars with an interest in cities and other kinds of space should plan for targeted academic and public-facing responses to objectionable policy proposals. For example, there is a diverse history of profound and disturbing cinematic representations of walls and barriers in, say, Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), Stephen Burke’s ’81 (1996), and, more metaphorically, David and Albert Maysles’ Running Fence (1978). Scholars might also reach out to community and arts organizations along the U.S.-Mexican border, or highlight media-savvy critiques of authoritarian megastructures such as the proposal for a giant pink border wall by the Mexican architectural firm Estudio 3.14.
  3. Scholarly organizations should consider leveraging the current topicality of urban, geographical, and spatial approaches to cinema and media by deliberately seeking to hold events beyond the usual circuit of major U.S. cities, in a second or third tier city in the Midwest (Des Moines, Indianapolis, or Detroit?), for example, or, perhaps even more symbolically, in Mexico, where Tijuana or Mexico City would doubtless provide media-rich urban environments for scholarly and public meetings, one of whose benefits would be internationalist and inter-urban cultural exchange.
  4. In teaching and working with students, instructors should turn the challenge of the present moment into an opportunity to recalibrate course syllabi, bibliographies, and filmographies, or even design whole new classes, so that pedagogy engages even more closely and urgently with the urban media issues of the day.


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