Black Panther and Olympics hero Adam Rippon

How 'Black Panther' and Adam Rippon Transcended Our Toxic Year of 'Tribalism'

Playboy examines two positive pop-culture moments that offer hope in an otherwise divisive 2018

Courtesy: Disney; Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

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.

But looking back, there were two moments of cultural uplift that turn the malign influence of “identity politics” on its head: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther dominating the box office, and Adam Rippon becoming the dazzling darling of the Winter Olympics. Both success stories were underpinned by the good kind of tribalism—earnest pride in one’s tribesman—yet transcended it by appealing to a broad cross section of Americans.

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!
Liberal readers may write off these naysayers as bigots and racists, and surely a few are, but who among us is not guilty of eye-rolling or mocking successes that are celebrated outside our bubble? This is the insidious effects of tribalism at work. Pitting ourselves against the other in order to deepen our bonds.

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.
Richard Lawson wrote far more beautifully and personally than I ever could about what watching Adam Rippon must’ve meant to a gay kid who’s grown up loving figure skating. That wasn’t me. I grew up watching basketball and football. And despite the swift advancement of gay rights, kids on team sports who are closeted, lost and in pain still haven’t gotten their hero. They will one day soon. Someone will break through where Michael Sam fell just short.

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.
I don’t have the same personal insight into the Black Panther phenomenon, of course, and for historical and cultural reasons, the scale and the context certainly isn’t the same. But the perspective of the gay experience gives me a small sense of what it must be like to be a young black kid watching superhero movies before now, and thinking there isn’t room for them in the Marvel Universe. Or to walk into a store and have all the dolls be blonde girls and the action figures be blue-eyed hunks.

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.
Look what happens when the shoe is on the other foot in our current cultural rift. How many snarky—you might say bigoted—comments have you heard over the years about conservative cultural touchstones. Take the stratospheric rise of Tim Tebow. For young church kids who feel like the culture doesn’t reflect their experience, seeing a sports hero who was out and proud in his own right was empowering and mind-blowing.

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.

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