What is “wokeness”?
The meaning of the term and how media gets labelled “woke.”

The term “woke” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “[being] aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues.” However, the interpretation of the word has changed and is now describing a misuse of social themes in a way that becomes preachy, unjustified, and upsetting to other people. Your most recent encounter with this word was likely in a negative context where someone was describing the negative backlash associated with properties that receive the woke label. Such as the famous saying in our society “go woke go broke,” which essentially means that if your film, advertisement, or other entertainment property is “woke,” it will be automatically undesirable. Now, there is a great deal of evidence supporting the validity of this claim. Popular film franchises and commercials that are labelled as woke are known to perform poorly at the box office and show a significant drop in product sales. 

A famous film franchise that was criticized for being woke is Star Wars. This started with The Last Jedi, the second film in the sequel trilogy, where the overtly progressive themes were noticed by audiences. The franchise was quickly labelled as woke, and this reputation appears to have caused major damage as this film failed to meet box office expectations. This was unheard of for a high-profile franchise like Star Wars which was previously considered an automatic success. 

I found that the problem with this film was not the fact that women were playing a major role. In the original series, Princess Leia was integral to the story and became an iconic and beloved character. The issue was the writing of the characters. The main protagonist, Rey, had no character arc or struggles. From the start, she already possessed the strength to accomplish amazing things. In The Last Jedi she was even able to compete with Luke Skywalker, which within the story is completely illogical given the former’s experience and strength. The same goes for other major women characters, such as Rose, who received no development or reason for the audience to care about them the same way they did about Leia. This resulted in audiences not buying the stories and feeling that the film was prioritizing social messaging over what fictional stories are supposed to prioritize: story. Thus, they felt that a message was being unsubtly forced upon them.

Elsewhere, a famous commercial campaign from Gillette also showcased the dangers of wokeness. In January 2019, the razor company released a commercial with the tagline: “We believe in the best of men.” This commercial discussed the topic of toxic masculinity in depth and received major backlash and the woke label. The brand subsequently lost US$8 billion, which further shows the major stain that “being woke” brings. 

While these properties deserved their criticism for being woke, I feel that this criticism is losing its meaning. The word typically refers to a misuse of social themes, but I have noticed it is starting to be misused itself. There appears to be a misconception circulating that anything that has even the slightest social messaging is “woke” by default. This idea has led people to automatically label new movies as woke because they appear to be slightly progressive in their characters or themes, such as featuring a diverse cast. This is the crux of the viewpoint; it conflates the terms woke and progressive. But they are not the same thing. 

A progressive property typically refers to a message that is built up properly for the benefit of all people. I rarely ever hear the word progressive used in criticisms the way the word woke is, which emphasizes their difference. Woke is the word that refers to social themes getting misused, but the mindset that all progressive themes are automatically woke is not accurate. According to this mindset, it would make much of the great entertainment of the past be considered woke. For example, the original Star Trek was known for its discussion of social themes. One episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” featured two aliens who mostly looked the same with shades of black and white, but one had the black shade on their right and the other had it on their left. When we reach their home planet at the end of the episode, it has been destroyed from within. Additionally, the famous X-Men comic book series was inspired by racism in the ’60s, depicted through the conflict between the mutants and humans. According to this mindset, both iconic stories (and many more) would have to be woke due to their inclusion of social themes. However, as they demonstrate, merely having social themes does not make something “woke,” as social themes can be found in many stories without heavy backlash. 

One of the basic functions of stories is to teach a lesson, hence the abundance of social themes. However, simply using social themes does not preclude a story from being “woke.” Based on my knowledge, I have created some criteria to help determine whether a property should receive the woke label: 

1. It must be unsubtle. A key aspect to the success of social themes is subtlety, so that the audience can still view it as a story. If it is unsubtle, it will have an immediate negative effect, since the audience will feel the message is forced upon them. For example, the Star Trek episode has a moral about the illogical and deadly nature of racism. However, the message is depicted well, as we simply see the effect on the planet at the end as opposed to telling us or focusing heavily on it. This small inclusion of it is more effective by allowing subtlety and not letting the message dominate the viewing experience. 

2. The message must be fundamentally broken, such as saying women are inherently better at everything than men. This is an inaccurate and toxic message that will not resonate with most audiences. The message itself must be truly rooted in equity. 

3. It is aimed at the wrong audience. The infamous Gillette ad falls under this, as it contained a message that attacked masculinity. However, it was advertising a product aimed at mainly men, so this is another aspect of failure. A film planning to employ a specific message should know who its audience is and recognize how to appeal to them. 

Staff Writer (Volume 49 & 50) — Yusuf is in his fourth year completing a double major in English and Cinema Studies and a minor in History of Religions. He first joined The Medium in 2022 when he sought to get involved in the on-campus community. He has developed strong writing skills throughout the experience and enjoys learning about new topics he wouldn’t know about otherwise. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *