Two very different celebrities associated with the Right have found themselves targeted by two of global pop culture’s biggest franchises this month – The Simpsons and Marvel’s Captain America. Their respective reactions have been revealing
In 2014, the Almeida Theatre in north London staged the European premiere of Mr Burns, a play by Anne Washburn. A dystopian drama with a twist, it described the regression of a post-apocalyptic society over eight decades, by the end of which humanity’s only shared folklore and source of ritual was a single episode of The Simpsons (Cape Feare, Season 5, Episode 2).
Against all odds, the play worked because Matt Groening’s animated series, launched in 1989 and now in its 32nd season, has become one of the relatively few fixed points of the global cultural landscape; its characters, conceits and in-jokes etched into our collective imagination. And it has always enjoyed a close connection with the phenomenon of celebrity – satirising the famous, or inviting them to play themselves (Tony Blair, Lady Gaga, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg have all made cameo appearances, while the late Michael Jackson appeared as a bricklayer).
You might think, then, that Morrissey, now aged 61, would be rather honoured to be lampooned in the show as “Quilloughby”, a melancholy Eighties singer with a quiff, vegan principles and an Oscar Wilde poster. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the character then degenerates into a carnivorous, overweight, anti-immigrant parody of pop middle-age – this being satire, not hagiography.
Scathing, no doubt – but hardly surprising, given Morrissey’s apparent support for the right-wing group, Britain First, and the multiple accusations of xenophobia that have been levelled against him in recent years (the episode, Panic on the Streets of Springfield airs in the UK on Sky One next month).
Indeed, you might also think that Mozza – supposedly the arch-satirist, ironist and lyricist of biting wit – might enjoy the joke, not to mention the accolade. But, again, not a bit of it. In a letter on his website posted on Monday, the former lead singer of The Smiths replied with ponderous literalism, writing that “[t]he hatred shown towards me from the creators of The Simpsons is obviously a taunting lawsuit, but one that requires more funding than I could possibly muster in order to make a challenge.”
He went on to deplore the way in which he is so “carelessly and noisily attacked”, lamenting the cruelty with which artists are “especially despised if your music affects people in a strong and beautiful way… I’ve had enough horror thrown at me that would kill off a herd of bison.”
Dear, oh dear. What happened to the Mancunian man of words, razor-sharp ripostes and diamond-hard humour who made The Smiths, for a time, the best band in the world? How do things get so bad that you enlist your manager to complain separately about the cartoon image in The Simpsons “showing the Morrissey character with his belly hanging out of his shirt (when he has never looked like that at any point in his career)”? The younger Mozza would have found those brackets especially hilarious, as indeed they are.
By coincidence, another public figure and controversialist – wrongly described as “alt Right”, but certainly conservative – has also been coping with his unexpected depiction in illustrated form. Back from a long and unpleasant illness, Jordan Peterson, the world-famous clinical psychologist, hero to legions of confused young men and celebrated lobster-watcher, now finds himself the inspiration of a new version of Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull – a classic Marvel Comics super-villain reimagined for the culture wars of the 2020s.
In Captain America #28, the Canadian intellectual – famous for instructing his fans to tidy their rooms, stand up straight with their shoulders back, and (more niche) not to bother children when they are skateboarding – is undoubtedly the basis of the Red Skull’s new incarnation. Captain America’s patriarchal foe now has “10 Rules for Life”, only two shy of Peterson’s twelve, and trawls the Internet, searching for recruits to avoid “The Feminist Trap”.
“What has happened to the men of the world is truly one of the great tragedies of our time,” rants the Skull online. “Once, the American man was a conqueror. Now he is but a caretaker. No more shall women be summoned to fight your battles. I offer steel for your spine and iron for your gut. I offer you the sword of manhood.”
You get the picture. And so did Peterson, who admits that “it really threw me for a loop to begin with.” To add to the drama, the comic book issue in question was written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, star writer at the Atlantic and author of the bestselling Between The World and Me (a book-length letter to his son about growing up Black in America). Coates has also been hired by Warner Bros to write the new Superman movie – a potentially fascinating convergence between the great superhero franchises and the discourse of contemporary social justice movements.
Yet, having recovered from the initial shock, Peterson is being a pretty good sport about the whole business (his general amusement is clear here), and he and his daughter have responded by rushing out some merchandise on the back of the comic book parody, with the proceeds going to charity.
“It’s so surreal and absurd,” he says. “It’s so comical…I’m playing with it.” And don’t forget: this is the same supposedly dour intellectual who recorded his own version of Monty Python’s ‘Bruce’s Philosophers Song’ on TikTok.
Who knew? Jordan Peterson is funnier than Morrissey.
Sounds like the title of a Smiths song, actually.
Do book your place at our next Creative Sensemaker Live on Friday 30 April, at 13:00-14:00 BST – at which we’ll be looking back at the shocks and delights of the 93rd Oscars ceremony, the fashion triumphs and disasters, the unexpected winners and the shock losers. Is this, as everyone seems certain, the year of Nomadland – or will the Academy spring an April surprise on us all?
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The interplanetary space journey – claustrophobic, vulnerable to technological failure, tense and intimate – has been the setting of hundreds of weekend-worthy watches. And here comes another one, starring the always-excellent Toni Collette and Anna Kendrick. Shamier Anderson is good, too, as the accidental stowaway whose presence on the ship jeopardises its mission to Mars. You can imagine the furrowed brows, moral dilemmas and “we have to try” acts of courage. High-quality hokum.
Black Bear (VOD, 23 April)
Catapulted to televisual fame as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation between 2009 and 2015, Aubrey Plaza is really a hugely accomplished indie actress who also happens to be hugely funny. In Lawrence Michael Levine’s excellent, unsettling film, she finally gets to spread her wings as Allison, a filmmaker who retreats to an Airbnb cabin in the woods, where she is soon embroiled in a tense emotional triangle with Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon).
I am loath to give away too much about what happens in the second half of the film, except that “meta” doesn’t cover it (clue: remember the ingenious “film within a film” conceit that structured Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981). But it is Plaza’s performance – which she herself connects to that of Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) – that makes Black Bear a must-watch.
Different League – The Derry City Story (iPlayer)
Recommended by Tortoise reporter, Xavier Greenwood
If the tumultuous last few days in football have taught us anything, it’s what the sport should and shouldn’t be about. For more about what it should be about, Different League – The Derry City Story tells the stirring tale of four former players who, in the middle of the Troubles, brought a football club back from the dead. In a world of violence, Derry City provided, well, something else: hope, glory, and a lot of grown men’s tears. A reminder, if you need one, that football is much more than just a game.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 – ed. Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (Bodley Head)
A truly remarkable scholarly and cultural achievement, this volume assembles contributions by 90 writers, each covering five years since 1619 – the year of the arrival in Virginia of the White Lion, carrying 30 enslaved Angolans. As an act of editing and curation, Four Hundred Souls is audacious and compelling, drawing the reader into a polyphony of voices determined that a history of struggle, survival and achievement should not be eclipsed by nativist narratives, old and new. Essential reading.
Campbell – whose writings are familiar to Tortoise members – has emerged as the political diarist nonpareil of his age. This is not just because he writes at great length (just under 800 pages, in this case) but because he does so with candour, brio and wit. This volume covers the period of queasy oscillation from the run-up to the 2012 Olympics to the prelude to the Brexit referendum – and Labour’s defeat in 2015. Not just for the political obsessive, these are highly readable, profoundly personal recollections of the era just before the populist revolution of 2016.
Recommended by Tortoise member, Ciro Romano
Rickie Lee Jones is part of a long line of singular “outsider” artists. Musicians who have paid a brief visit to the commercial mainstream, followed by increasingly uncompromising releases – earning reverence from their peers and diminishing commercial returns, yet maintaining a passionate and constant fanbase (of which I consider myself an avid member). She is the musical equivalent of a “writer’s writer”. Her voice – yearning and seductive – sounds like no-one else’s. In this exquisitely written and vivid memoir, Jones devotes the majority of the text to her fractured and traumatic childhood; her reckless and risk taking pre-fame years and her initial commercial breakthrough: running away from home; jail; heroin addiction; her intense relationship with Tom Waits, and her brief stardom in the early Eighties. It’s not a book for anyone who wants to learn about how the records were made, record sales or chart positions. Much more intriguingly, it traces the strange and wild journey that led to the creation of her sublime songbook and mercurial spirit.
Flat White Moon – Field Music (23 April)
For an early taste of the Brewis brothers’ latest album, try ‘No Pressure’. Catchy, smart, rich in eclectic influence, their music has come a long way in the 17 years since their formation in Sunderland, but retains a sense of political commitment, mapped onto a determination that music should still be fun. As David Brewis has put it: “It feels like we’re in a new political paradigm where no one takes responsibility for anything and, even worse, they don’t seem to feel any shame or remorse about it.” Very true. Which makes the sense of humour and lack of priggishness that Field Music have maintained – listen to their podcast about the album’s inspirations – all the more admirable.
Im Abendrot – Songs By Wagner, Pfizner, Strauss – Matthias Goerne & Seong-jin Cho
Well-established as one of the world’s great baritones, Matthias Goerne here takes on Wagner’s ‘Wesendonck Lieder’ – usually reserved for female singers. His interpretation of the composer’s highly personal account of his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck (a trial run of sorts for Tristan und Isolde) shows beyond doubt that the best male Wagnerian soloists should not be put off this song cycle. All this, and fine performances of songs by Pfitzner and Strauss, too.
The flu in question is not Covid (which is not, of course, an influenza at all) but the famous illness through which Michael Jordan played in Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz on 11 June 1997 – scoring 38 points and driving Chicago on to win 90-88 (a triumph recounted in episode IX of Netflix’s superb documentary, The Last Dance). Taking his inspiration from Jordan, British rapper A.J. Tracey delivers a second album of confidence, energy and undisguised enthusiasm to get out of lockdown and back to touring.
Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Courtesy Matt Groening/Fox Broadcasting , Stowaway Productions/Netflix, Momentum Pictures, Stephen Latimer/BBC NI, Getty Images