The Cultural Revisionism Industry

The hottest trend in media is critiquing the former hottest trend in culture

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R.E. Hawley
Who Was Wrong About It?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in 1994, a 79 year-old woman named Stella Liebeck received $2.86 million in damages after suing McDonald’s for giving her coffee that was too hot. The judgement quickly became a cultural flashpoint, drawing mockery and ire across all forms of media — what kind of person, after all, would do such a thing? The case also became an exemplary “frivolous lawsuit” anecdote used by Republicans in advancing tort reform, a type of legislation that limits the amount of compensation plaintiffs can receive in personal injury and medical malpractice lawsuits, and is to this day a near-universally remembered piece of American pop-culture trivia.

Except — and perhaps you’ve heard this part, too — everyone was wrong about Stella Liebeck. The coffee handed to her at the McDonalds drive-through that day wasn’t hot — it was boiling, the inevitable spill causing horrific third-degree burns all over her thighs and groin that required skin graft surgery and years of expensive medical treatment. The truth of the coffee incident first found a wide audience in 2011 with the release of the anti-tort reform documentary Hot Coffee; in 2013, the New York Times published a video retrospective on the case that garnered more than a million views. Liebeck, by this time, had been dead for nearly a decade. This is how the process of reversing a publicly agreed-upon narrative tends to go: the original story disseminates quickly and widely, while the corrected record, once surfaced, filters more gradually through the public consciousness, a bit of trivia within a bit of trivia. But the gap never seems to close entirely — there’s always someone left to be brought into the loop, often a great many someones.

Over the past few years, a certain genre of media has found opportunity in that gap, debunking false conceptions of the semi-recent past and meditating on the cultural factors which contributed to their initial spread. The paragon of this genre is “You’re Wrong About,” a podcast hosted by Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes from 2018 to earlier this month, now hosted solely by Marshall. Marshall and Hobbes are, according to their own description, “journalists obsessed with the past” — Marshall has written for The Believer and Buzzfeed News, while Hobbes previously worked for The Huffington Post. The hosts approach their source material from alternating roles: one has done a great deal of research on the subject, while the other has been kept intentionally in the dark beyond their own cursory assumptions, serving as a surrogate for the audience’s presumed cluelessness. The reporting host gives us a detailed history of what actually happened — be it in the case of Koko the gorilla (she didn’t really know much sign language), the Stanford Prison Experiment (results were greatly oversimplified) and, of course, the McDonald's hot coffee incident — while the non-reporting host injects quips and leads digression-filled banter.

“You’re Wrong About” has several thematic cousins in the podcast field, each having found their niche within the cultural revisionism genre. “What Really Happened?,” produced by The Rock’s Seven Bucks Productions and hosted by the comparatively uncharismatic Andrew Jenks, focuses on the recent past — episodes topics range from the Robert Kraft solicitation incident to Balloon Boy — and is far less prone to introspection concerning its subject matter’s broader political or historical context. “Not Past It,” a new show from Gimlet hosted by Simone Polanen, employs a unique conceit: each week’s show is about something that happened during that week at some point in history, with episodes investigating the Paris Hilton sex tape, the Beanie Baby frenzy, and the Enron whistleblower. And first and undoubtedly worst among them is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History,” which roughly hewed to the theme of revisiting false conceptions of the past for a season or two back in 2016 before evolving into yet another outlet for Gladwell’s intellectually incurious, power-coddling pablum.

Recently, the genre has begun to pop up in more traditional forms of media, most notably with the New York Times’ documentary Framing Britney Spears, which premiered on Hulu in February and received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Documentary. Framing Britney Spears follows the “You’re Wrong About” playbook, re-examining the years leading up to and following Spears’s tabloid-splattered mental health issues in 2007 and the cruel, misogynist culture that incubated her status as perennial talk-show punchline. In the months since Framing Britney Spears first aired, no fewer than four other major Spears-focused documentaries have been released, most focusing on the abusive conservatorship in which she is still held. It’s not just Britney, either: maligned women of the ‘90s and early 2000s have become a central preoccupation of this genre. Lorena Bobbitt received a similar treatment in the 2019 documentary series Lorena, while Tonya Harding’s life and career was reconsidered in the 2017 Margot Robbie-vehicle I, Tonya. “You’re Wrong About,” for its part, has always shown a particular fascination with these women, having released episodes about Bobbitt, Harding, Anna Nicole Smith, Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, and Courtney Love, among several others (Marshall, for her part, has also written extensively on the subject.)

How to account for the genre’s popularity? Technically, this is cultural history of the recent past, but its tone, presentation, and general vibe feels much more akin to mystery, with each case-of-the-week drawn from a different place and time period. The average “You’re Wrong About” listener is perhaps too enlightened to partake in the true crime craze, acutely aware of its generally exploitative nature. But cultural revisionism carries a similarly seductive aura, born of the intimacy that comes from vicariously collecting windows into the lives of others like small, beloved curios — no matter how many thousands of other people are listening along, following each saga feels like being let in on a dark and tantalizing secret. Delivered with the right combination of personality, insight, and attention to detail, as Marshall and Hobbes in particular do so well, it’s unsurprising that the genre has sucked so many people in.

But it only takes a brief while of viewing or listening to this type of storytelling before the genre’s limitations swim clearly into view. There’s an issue of timing at play: the podcasts and movies have a tendency to approach historical records that have already been rather thoroughly corrected in the public consciousness. This can leave those tasked with the debunking coming off as a bit smug and unaware, like the guy at the Christmas party who clears his throat when “Baby It’s Cold Outside” starts playing and proudly informs everyone that the song isn’t actually rape-y within its historical context, not realizing that we’ve listened to the same explanation from a similar guy every Christmas for the past five years. Far from a simple tonal issue, however, this lateness to the party signals something more fundamental about cultural revisionism: it’s not a force for turning the cultural tide on issues once thought settled, so much as the product of a tide already turned. This is particularly apparent in the case of Framing Britney Spears; the way our mainstream culture views female celebrity and misogynist double-standards has changed dramatically since the aughts, and the documentary’s primary aim is to retrospectively examine the events of Britney’s early life through the more feminist perspective of the present.

“It’s less ‘You’re Wrong About’ and more, ‘Other People Are Wrong About,’” Jack Hamilton, a professor of media studies at University of Virginia, told me over the phone. He’s listened to many episodes of “You’re Wrong About,” and believes that the show may be popular in part because of its failure to deliver any real bombshells. “It’s reaffirming what audiences know or suspect a lot of the time, and by framing it as, ‘everything that everyone believes about this is wrong,’ ’it flatters the viewer or listener. You can think, ‘I was one of the ones who was right about this.’”

An important question swirling in the midst of all this: was everyone on the wrong side of these slices of history at the time? Most often, the answer is no: Britney, for example, had a few high-profile defenders, such as Craig Ferguson (whose compassionate 2007 monologue went viral in February), Michael Moore (whose off-handed “Why don’t we just leave her alone? Let her go on with her life?” is perhaps the most prescient bit of footage in Framing Britney Spears) and the ruthlessly mocked Cara Cunningham, not to mention legions of loving fans who recognized her as unfairly maligned. The matter of who contemporaneously arrived at what hindsight would designate the “correct” position — and crucially, why they did so — is one of the most fascinating aspects of “You’re Wrong About”-type incidents, and yet, it’s one toward which cultural revisionism seems generally disinterested. In fact, these voices are rarely mentioned or heard from, resulting in a depiction of historical consensus that is slightly overstated, and of discourse that is slightly flattened. This is how we end up with oft-heard refrains like “we all failed Britney,” which inevitably beg the question of who exactly “we” is meant to encompass.

“I was sort of struck by that when I watched [Framing Britney Spears],” Hamilton told me. “There was this framing of ‘oh, this is what it was like in 2003, and now we can see how wrong it was.’ But I’m old enough to remember that period really well, and there were lots of people speaking up at the time about how crassly the tabloid culture was treating her and all of that.” Hamilton has several other examples of consensus-flattening in mind. “It’s not as if everyone’s been walking around for the past forty years thinking that the Satanic Panic was like, cool and good,” he says, referencing an early episode of “You’re Wrong About” and a subject on which Sarah Marshall is an oft-cited expert. “I mean, the word ‘panic’ was in the name!” He also notes a similar phenomenon surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which has garnered a recent wave of re-examination in high-profile formats such as Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcasts and Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story, galvanized by Lewinsky’s own 2014 Vanity Fair essay and 2015 TED Talk.

There’s a larger point to identifying dissenting views within the historical consensus beyond awarding head pats to those who got it right at the time, though; by examining the once-marginal seeds of what would eventually become the new dominant narrative, we can glean insight into how and why our collective cultural perspective changes over time. In its episode on Paris Hilton’s sex tape, “Not Past It” spends nearly twenty minutes rehashing the details of the 2004 scandal, rightly pointing out the misogynist media narratives that stripped Hilton of her autonomy and mocked her for being subject to a non-consensual porn leak, before arriving at a contemplative denouement. “If that story happened today,” Simone Polanen says soberly, “it probably wouldn’t have played out the same way. We’ve started to name and challenge that brand of misogyny. Terms like ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘rape culture’ are increasingly mainstream; they refer to the systemic ways women’s bodies are policed, and the dominant culture that ignores consent.”

But how did these terms, each with their own extensive history and context in the feminist movement, become so mainstream over the course of the past 18 years? The media vilification of Hilton, Spears, and other prominent women of the aughts is a real and undeniable part of the context from which what is now called fourth-wave feminism emerged in the early 2010s, but rather than connect those dots, the historical impact of these events is treated as an afterthought. Multiply this omission across an entire genre, and you’re left with a rather Whiggish theory of history, wherein the past of each incident and the comparatively enlightened present exist as points A and B on an arc of inevitable progress. This isn’t just wrong — progress, however you want to define it, is neither inevitable nor irreversible — it also lazily bypasses the real meat of thinking about the past that should be central to content premised on, well, thinking about the past.

“This is what I think happens when history gets popularized,” says Hamilton. “The actual processes of what’s happening behind the scenes, the nuts and bolts of interpretive work and the debates that historians themselves are having, kind of get lost. And then it gets framed as ‘people used to think this thing, but they were wrong and dumb, and now we think this thing, because we’re smart and correct.’”

Britney, for her part, is now the subject of a cash-flooded media complex for the second time in fifteen years (5 major documentaries in 8 months!), the latter of them supposedly a triumphant refutation of the former. But while the initial onslaught of renewed interest in Spears’s life likely contributed at least a bit to her eventual success in removing her abusive father from her conservatorship, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these creators have found a way to make money off of her trauma all over again, only this time in a way we, the viewers, can feel good about. Soon, they’ll likely move on to revisiting another early-aughts star whose life fell apart under the cruel microscope of constant media attention. That’s the thing about cultural revisionism — there’s never a dearth of stories to be exhumed from the recent past. And as long as the genre stops itself short of making a larger, more incisive point, it can jump from case to case forever, a never-ending carousel of content that is very entertaining and good at perpetuating its own demand, but fundamentally flawed as a means of understanding the past as it relates to the present.

R.E. Hawley is a writer and designer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, The Outline, and Real Life.