In case you haven’t heard, this past year was one of the worst ever, according to the internet. But while it took a toll on so many of us for a variety of reasons (bitter politics, awful Harambe memes, the loss of Prince), the year was especially difficult for one demographic in particular: old white men.
After a year of very bad publicity, the “brand” of old white men is suffering like never before in American culture. Sure, they still enjoy disproportionate power and privilege in our society, but referring to someone as an “old white man” carried dismissive and disparaging undertones in 2016 — a kind of cultural shorthand for someone who is not just boring or out of touch, but, most insulting of all, soon to be irrelevant.
Even the brazen rhetoric of Donald Trump — the old white man who most dominated 2016 — doesn’t reflect the majority of Americans’ views, but rather the no-holds-barred flailings of a former heavyweight champ on the ropes.
And while an old white man will once again sit in the Oval Office come January, American culture is working hard to undermine the assumption that that is the only demographic that belongs there.
Old white men, 2016 showed, aren’t able to get away with the things they used to. Esquire magazine, for example, went so far as to ask if 2016 marked “the death of the dirty old man.” Citing the downfall of men like Roger Ailes, the magazine noted that “it’s getting harder for high-flying men to treat women as just another on-demand perk of power.”
This shift in our collective psyche has been so profound that not even the “great men of history” are safe on their pedestals. Last year, college students across the country began asking why their schools honored and paid homage to white men who were slave owners or known racists. In some instances, historic university buildings were renamed. In other instances, the reputation and legacy of these old white men was significantly tarnished.
Princeton, for instance, announced that it would not change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, despite protests from students who highlighted his overt racism. Although the name wasn’t changed, public perception of our 28th president did. As Princeton’s board of trustees admitted, it was high-time the university was “honest and forthcoming about its history,” to include “recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” — perhaps the single biggest cultural success this year — also did its part to turn America’s reverence for old white men on its head. For a musical about the Founding Fathers, perhaps the most iconic old white men out there, “Hamilton” is almost decidedly anti-white men. Miranda purposefully uses non-white men to play the Founding Fathers and imagines rich and strong women alongside them “in part to displace the founding story as the province of white men.”
For years, racial equality in America has meant elevating minorities. In 2016, however, it also meant being honest about white privilege and reexamining the extent to which white people, and especially white men, have been, fairly or unfairly, lionized in our culture.
At this year’s Oscars — which were lambasted and even boycotted for their lack of diversity — comedian Kevin Hart went off script to subtly warn the predominantly white male academy that their days are numbered. After honoring the actors and actresses of color who weren’t nominated, he encouraged them not to put too much stock in the academy’s snub.
“These problems of today,” he said, “will eventually become problems of the old.”
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.