Polls tell that Mitt Romney enters his convention with a huge likeablity gap between himself and President Obama, and it is supposedly the job of his convention to fix that with testimonials to his likeability such as his wife gave tonight. The only problem, seeing the election through the prism of The Backlash Era is that “likeablity” no longer seems to be a trait that has any meaning in our culture.
For most of the past three decades, likeablity was the highest calling an American could strive towards. America churned out Aww shucks, cuddly, rough edges shaved away figures like we minted Hershey’s bars. On the big screen, stars like Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan - slightly shambling, glowing with good intent actors you just wanted to give a big hug to became our national icons. On the small screen, likeability was the sine qua non of network programming from the Cosby Show to Friends to the institutionalization of likeability with American Idol and the whole reign of the popularity competitions. In politics, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, we went gaga for a warm smile and an ability to “relate.” Even at the end of the run, George W Bush largely won his office by being more friendly and remembering more people’s names than the aloof, condescending Gore.
But something happened in the last ten years and suddenly across the culture, we’ve stopped looking for new best friends.
In the movies, the new generation of stars is more known for their brooding intensity than their vivaciousness. Stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner have their charm but they do not seem like huggers. Channing Tatum, the one star of their generation who has a sort of goofy boy next door quality projects more of a low wattage likeability than the pure nuclear powered charm of a young Hanks or Roberts. The most conventionally likeable star of their era, Zak Efron, has yet to score a major hit outside of the High School Musical francise, itself a legacy project from an earlier time. The most likable of genres, the light romantic comedy has all but imploded at the box office, replaced by hard-edged, nastier comedies like Ted and The Hangover.
On television, the popularity contests are on the wane, their primacy on the cultural stage long since forfeited. No genre has truly taken their place yet but such as network television is, it too is dominated by harder edged comedies than we would have seen of yore; shows like Modern Family where the cast is delineated by the various neuroses and manipulative tendencies. The real center stage has been given to the cable dramas however; shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc. where the protagonists tend not only to be unlikable in the conventional, non-threatening sense, they are downright homicidal.
Look at the real barometer of our culture, the most followed on Twitter list. You’ll find the exhibitionist (Gaga, Minaj), the aggressively clueless (Kardashians), the angry, the aggressive but you’ll be hard pressed to find a single person who could be termed “likeable” on there. Except maybe Justin Beiber. And Oprah. A tiny minority anyway in a sea of bombast and self-promotion. (Shameless no-talent self-promoters are never likeable; like open wounds, you can feel bad for them but never really enjoy them).
Perhaps politics is the one exception in our land where we want someone just to be a buddy you can get in a big bear hug and scruff their hair when they get down. Perhaps. Mitt Romeny will spend much of the next two day’s trying to make himself as likeable as President Obama supposedly is. (Myself: I’d slit my own throat before I tried to survive a lunch with either of them.) We’ll see if it works. And if it does whether it takes him anyplace he wants to go. Or will he find that in the Backlash Era, we’re so conditioned to distrust and dislike everyone that people who are openly nasty and deceitful are the only ones we really like?