10 trends in arts and culture that make us feel hopeful about the future
From the queer takeover of CanLit to the dominance of female filmmakers, some waves are actually good news
Hope, in 2021? Though akin to finding a needle in a massive haystack that is also on fire, it wasn't impossible. In fact, when it came to trends in arts and culture, the team here at CBC Arts found some compelling reasons to feel optimistic about the future. May they help carry us into and through 2022.
The dominance of female filmmakers
It's been a long and often painful road to equality for women who make films, but 2021 felt like major growth had finally happened in a really profound way. On March 15th, the Academy Awards nominated two women for best director — Chloé Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman — for the first time in their 93-year existence. Zhao and Fennell were somehow only the sixth and seventh women ever nominated; Zhao became only the second female winner and the first ever woman of colour. And the Oscars were by no means an outlier in this regard. In May, the Cannes Film Festival gave their coveted Palme d'Or prize to Julia Ducournau for her film Titane, making her the the second female director to win the award and the first to win not jointly with another director (in 1993 Jane Campion had won jointly with Chen Kaige). And speaking of Ms. Campion, her latest film The Power of the Dog won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September and is now winning the lion's share of critic's prizes in this ongoing 2021-22 awards reason. Campion is almost certain to become the first woman to receive a second Oscar nomination for best director early next year, and is the early favourite to win the prize too.
And it wasn't just awards and prizes that signalled the increased power of the female filmmaker. Women directed two of the year's biggest comic book blockbusters (Cate Shortland with Black Widow and, yep, Chloé Zhao again — this time with Eternals, which could not be a more different film than Nomadland). They also directed some of the year's buzziest indie films (Siân Heder with CODA, Janicza Bravo with Zola, Joanna Hogg with The Souvenir, Part II). There was a welcome trend of actresses deciding to try their hand behind the camera by adapting challenging source material to immensely well-received results (Maggie Gyllenhaal with The Lost Daughter and Rebecca Hall with Passing). And we're about to end 2021 off with Lana Wachowski solo-directing the intensely anticipated The Matrix: Resurrections. There may still be a way to go before gender equality is an actual thing in Hollywood, but this year certainly showed we're at least on the right path (finally). — Peter Knegt, producer
Revisionist tabloid history
In 2021 alone, there were five documentary projects rehashing the woes of Britney Spears. Also this year: American Crime Story retold the Clinton impeachment scandal through a post-#MeToo lens. (Monica Lewinsky served as a consultant on the program.) And a docuseries that cracks open Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's troubling family album — re-examining the sexual-abuse allegations against the former — broke audience records for HBO when it debuted in February. Any child of the '90s knows these tabloid sagas already, or certainly thinks they do. The players and plotlines were such media fixtures that the average middle-aged millennial could write the Wikipedia entry on any of those topics with the same ease they apply to speaking in fluent Simpsons quotes. (As one myself, this is a perfectly cromulent claim.)
But instead of getting all Pop-Up Video about bygone media scandals, reciting the same old trivia the audience was raised on, the trend isn't so much to rewrite history as to reckon with it, often confronting the casual misogyny that silenced shamed women or spun them into villains — people whose actions were not necessarily admirable, but certainly more complicated than a late-night monologue might have granted. See also: The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021); Lorena (2019); I, Tonya (2017). Hollywood loves a reboot, even if the I.P. is non-fiction, but in those stories — and just about every episode of the popular podcast You're Wrong About (est. 2018) — the objective isn't a strict nostalgia fest. Nostalgia, after all, is driven by the impulse to willfully blot out the ugly bits of the supposed good old days. The trend here is more about wallowing in all the ways that we (or our media forebears, anyway) got it twisted. And in so doing, we can give ourselves a big, multi-episode pat on the back. Look how far we've come! We're smarter consumers of mass media now! Kinder, too. Maybe that's true, or maybe bingeing these shows is just a convenient way to forget the various toxic-isms we've internalized over a life of pop-culture consumption. But it is, nevertheless, a trend I am here for. History gets told by the winners, and for the subjects of many of these projects, their victory was simply a long time coming. How fascinating it is to consider how we come to accept the various framings of these stories, and how heartening it is to realize those narratives can be understood with greater complexity the more time goes on. — Leah Collins, senior writer
The rise of Black Canadian television
The past year saw a rise in the number of Black casts and narratives on Canadian television, making us only about 30 years behind cultural trends south of the border. Despite the recent Black Renaissance on TV, representations of Black characters and storylines have been quite uneven in the United States, as The Atlantic's cultural critic, Hannah Giorgis, reminded us this year. And it had been virtually non-existent in Canada — until recently, that is. 2021 brought us Big Blue, a new season of Next Stop, and promises of new shows, including Revenge of the Black Best Friend and The Porters. Although it's too soon to call this a renaissance of our own, it does make us a little less skeptical about the future of Canadian TV. — Huda Hassan, writer
The queer takeover of CanLit
The Canadian literary world has always been pretty queer, but 2021 felt like a full-fledged takeover. This kicked off in January when Canada Reads — a year after We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib won — announced an overwhelming four of the five selected books were written by LGBTQ authors: C.L. Polk (The Midnight Bargain), Francesca Ekwuyasi (Butter Honey Pig Bread), Natalie Zina Walschots (Hench) and Joshua Whitehead (Jonny Appleseed). Whitehead would go on to win, making him one of so many queer Canadian writers to get acclaims and/or awards this year. From Jordan Tannahill's The Listeners to Zoe Whittall's The Spectacular to Ivan Coyote's Care Of to Shawn Hitchins's The Light Streamed Beneath It to David Demchuk's Red X to Casey Plett's A Dream of a Woman, the list can literally go on and on. We were lucky to have their words to help guide us through this mess of a year, and we're lucky to live in a country where their queer talent is so thriving. — Peter Knegt, producer
We can actually see shows again (or at least we could)
The predictions were right, even if they felt a smidge behind schedule. Live music returned in 2021, but nearly a year after CBC Music gave this cautious forecast on the shape of pandemic concert-going, it feels as though we're still mulling the exact same question: will we ever pack into stadiums and theatres and dank windowless basements in the same way we did way back when? In Toronto, it felt like it might happen, if only for a moment. Last week, I was dancing at a downtown music hall, feeling extraordinarily lucky to be living in a region where the public-health guidelines don't take a page from Footloose. (Friends in Vancouver would see the same tour a few days later with a no-dancing rule in effect.) But Omicron's on the rise, and someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 was there that night, too. It would seem we are entering another of the pandemic's bleaker phases.
Restrictions are changing, as they always do; Ontario recently halved capacity at indoor venues that hold more than 1,000 patrons, for example. And no matter what wave we're in, the prospect of seeing — and performing and hosting — live music comes with a risk. It's a gamble for the musicians; July Talk, for instance, had to postpone their Canadian tour last week when a member of their team tested positive. Smaller venues have struggled to make a go of things, whether because of capacity rules or rising insurance costs. But even if it feels as though we'll be caught in this cycle forever, the few moments we've had this year to sing and dance and cautiously avoid inhaling each others' vapours were at least a reminder of one good thing: the pandemic has changed things, sure, but it won't destroy what we love. We'll wait if we have to, and then we'll come together again. — Leah Collins, senior writer
Bennifer and the return of non-stressful celeb gossip
It was a bleak moment this year when it was learned that Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas had broken up, particularly as it led to the sad realization that we would be getting no more photos of the paparazzi-pursued couple walking around with Dunkin' Donuts. (America runs on it, and I respect that.)
But then a miracle happened. As if fluent in media and celebrity coverage (and aware that all of us would benefit accordingly), former flames Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck reunited, forcing us all to peruse every available photo and then watch and rewatch the "Jenny From the Block" video (2002) until our eyes bled. After all, what had we missed? When did this start? Is it a hoax? It doesn't matter. Because in the year of our lord 2021, Bennifer rose from the ashes of the early aughts and reminded us that you can go home again. Even if we all know this won't last. Even if we know that with their recreation of the aforementioned music video, they are in on something, especially if it is on upping the ante of their careers. Nostalgia is powerful, and so are the memories of buying that first bottle of J. Lo's Glow. I want to go back, and so do they. Even if Ben's strange phoenix tattoo has to come along with us. — Anne T. Donahue, writer
Diverse representation in Canadian film
A hopeful shift in the Canadian film landscape this year has been the increase in diverse representation both in front of and behind the camera, with filmmakers tackling difficult subject matter in wildly different and thoughtful ways. This year gave us films like Night Raiders by Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet, which translates Canada's shameful colonial practice of residential schools into a dystopian thriller about the Canadian military scooping up students to be re-educated within a militaristic academy. We also saw veteran producer Jennifer Holness dissecting beauty standards against the backdrop of the Miss America Pageant — a competition which fully barred non-white contestants from competition until 1970 — in her documentary, Subjects of Desire.
Amazingly, there are too many other films to list (including One of Ours by Yasmine Mathurin, Islands from Martin Edralin and Scarborough written by Catherine Hernandez), but I want to shout out Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Araya Mengesha in particular, who both co-directed and starred in the short film Defund. The conversation around defunding the police has been around for a long time, but it's gained a lot of momentum since the killing of George Floyd, so I thought I knew what this film would be like before seeing it — but in many ways it's more pragmatic than political, using humour and satire to pose a question that many of us have been asking of the Canadian film industry as well for a while now: where do we go from here? — Lucius Dechausay, senior producer
The Jean Smartaissance
First came Mare of Easttown. On April 18th, the wildly popular HBO miniseries debuted and gave us pretty much everything we could possibly want during a time where we were starved for reasons to get up in the morning: nuanced mystery, gloriously realized characters, a career-high Kate Winslet performance and the one and only Jean Smart stealing all the scenes as Winslet's mother. Then, just a few weeks later, HBO Max premiered Hacks, a ridiculously sharp dark comedy centred on Smart as an aging stand-up comedian. This all shot Smart into the zeitgeist like we'd never seen before, an all-too-rare situation for women in their late sixties who never quite seemed to get their due. But after staggering recent work in shows like Fargo and Watchmen, the double whammy of Mare and Hacks finally gave Smart hers, culminating in Emmy nominations for both shows. She'd win for Hacks, just a few days after her 70th birthday. May the Jean Smartaissance continue well into 2022 and beyond. — Peter Knegt, producer
Newsletters are back (again)
Every few years, media types herald the return of the newsletter (which of course never actually goes away). But this year's edition was mostly occasioned by the rise to prominence of Substack, a platform that makes it relatively easy for writers to charge readers to subscribe, and which led a small army of journalists and critics to quit their jobs and hang out a shingle as independent writers. (It also led to endless think pieces, cycles of backlash and, inevitably, reporting on writer burnout.)
Why does any of this make me hopeful for the future? Because it reminds me of the heyday of blogging, a time when people were making up new forms and busting out beyond the confines of the news article. This most recent newsletter boom has some of that same energy, and anything that brings me energy in these dark days is greatly appreciated. Some recent favourites: Dirt, a "daily email about entertainment" that's so much more; Vittles, which consistently brings thoughtful dispatches on food and culture; our very own Hi, Art, a delightful roundup of links, art news and eye candy; Money Stuff, which tricks me into believing I understand what's going on with stonks cryptoland; and Today in Tabs, a reboot of a much-missed media gossip rag from a previous newsletter boom. But that's just me; the beauty of the form is that there's a 'sletter out there for everyone. Go forth and subscribe! — Andrew D'Cruz, managing editor
The return of the movie musical
The movie musical never really went away. In fact, it had a huge cultural moment just before the pandemic — it was just unfortunate that moment was Cats. Already well on its way to becoming a so-bad-it's-good The Room-style cult phenomenon in rep cinemas just before they were shuttered, Cats was also a genuinely horrendous movie that left the genre with a hairball in its mouth throughout 2020 (in part also thanks to terrible pandemic-released musicals The Prom and Music). But in 2021, the genre offered an output in terms of quantity and quantity that we haven't seen in decades. There was John M. Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights, followed by Lin-Manuel Miranda's adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick... BOOM!, followed by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's adaptation of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story. One after another, these films delivered well beyond expectation, giving me some of my most thrilling moments in movie theatres this year.
Unfortunately, yes, there was also Dear Evan Hansen. And even more unfortunately, all of the movies stumbled at the box office thanks to the fact that pretty much any movie without Marvel attached to it couldn't seem to get folks in a theatre just yet. But I'm hopeful that the fact that these movies were so wonderfully realized (and beloved by so many who saw them) that we are entering the beginning of a new era for their genre. And when folks feel it's safe, I hope they each become phenomena in rep cinemas themselves (except unlike Cats, it will be because they're just that good). — Peter Knegt, producer