With December drawing to a close, 2018 may be seen as the year when America’s "tribalism"—as Jeff Flake recently referred to the warfare that has built over decades and was accelerated by an orange presidential flamethrower—settled into the toxic stasis that will envelop us until another cultural jolt breaks us free. These battles became inescapable, from network-TV reboots to Christmas classics, coffee makers to coffee cups, anthem protests to "shut up and dribble." It's all encompassing.
Neither’s success came without Twitter trolls from outside their orbits trying to undermine their moment. Rippon was mediocre, flamboyant, overhyped, a social-media hero, merely a bronze medalist and only famous because he got in a row with Vice President Mike Pence.
The fanfare for Black Panther was met with similar pushback. This movie isn’t such a big deal. There have been black superheroes before. What about Blade? (What *about* Blade?!) All superheroes matter!
And in the case of Rippon and Black Panther, I know exactly how it happens because I can see it in my younger self—a know-it-all, white, closeted teen at an all-boys school. I’m certain that, had these same events occurred in 1999, I would’ve joined the mocking chorus trying to diminish these successes.
Instead, I came to terms with the fact that I like boys and added a person of color to my family, and through that, I grew and came to understand why tribes still need heroes and moments of their own. You might say that there but for the fabulousness of God go I.
But in 2018, the gays did get Adam.
The story lines of every Olympics in history have followed the trials and tribulations of straight athletes. And not even just the butch sports! The freaking figure skaters were straight. As recently as 2014, even the obviously gay Olympic heroes weren’t identified as such on TV.
So while Rippon’s critics seemed to think his popularity was based on his politics, that wasn’t it at all. He was adored because of his sass, his skating to rave remixes, his shout-outs to Britney and Reese, his gay colloquialisms, how he camped up every interview by flirtatiously repeating the interviewers’ names. He literally called himself a “glamazon bitch, ready for the runway.”
Nobody had to whisper about Adam being “gay” because he is G.A.Y. Gayyyyyyyy. Adam’s bronze wasn’t just Adam’s—it was also for every gay kid across America who was sitting on their couch, screaming for him.
It is easy to decry "identity politics" and lament our fractured culture and decide every part of it needs to be thrown by the wayside. But that’s not possible.
Against that backdrop, a blockbuster movie where your culture is celebrated in all its forms is a watershed. The hero is black, but so are the badass women who are Generals and tech innovators. The minor characters are black; Coogler is black; diversity extended throughout the crew.
Blade was not that. Black Panther wasn’t some 1990s action movie with one black star surrounded by whitest-man-alive Ryan Reynolds and 7th Heaven star Jessica Biel. Black Panther was a different deal—a big effing deal. I regret that it took personal change in my life to appreciate this because, no matter your background, it should be easy to see the value of having a standard-bearer that represents you.
This is tribalism, yes. But it is the life-affirming kind. It is the type that levels the playing field and lets everyone, no matter their background, look to our culture and see someone who represents them. Someone who can be a beacon in a confusing world, showing that success and meaning and acceptance is achievable for everyone.
So, as we look back on 2018, it is easy to decry “identity politics” and lament our fractured culture and decide every part of it needs to be thrown by the wayside. But that’s not possible. We can’t wish away what is hardwired into us.
The deep-seated urge to root (or vote) for someone who looks like you, or went to your school, or believes in your God, or salutes the same flag, is never going away. And a democratic system will always be vulnerable to people who pray on those fissures. “Identity politics” is damaging when it is used to diminish and tear down the other. When it is used to dehumanize and silence.
Ryan Coogler and Adam Rippon’s magical 2018 moments were the result of the same primal urges that have led to the pernicious tribalism that has torn our country apart. It is because of that relationship that we must understand it and celebrate it and channel it for good. Our fissures can only be sewn by understanding our nature. By reveling in the moments of grace and triumph of other tribes because they reflect back on when those happen in our lives.
Sure, 2018 may have accentuated the dark side of our tribalist nature. But Rippon and Coogler gave us a window to the light.