This year was awash in pop culture milestones. George Clooney finally got married. So did Kanye West. Superhero films dominated the cinematic landscape, and reality shows continued to blanket our nation’s TV airwaves. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continued to show he has real comedy chops on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis. This was just one of several celebrity-driven stories that crossed over into the realm of social issues and politics. Here are five of the buzziest:
RIP: Robin Williams, Joan Rivers and Philip Seymour Hoffman: The tragic deaths of this trio of iconic celebrities were not overtly political on their surface, and yet in the days and weeks that followed initial tributes, difficult and enlightening conversations began. For instance, when Rivers died due to complications from a throat surgery, the world of comedy and feminists highlighted the trailblazing nature of her career. Rivers was a dominant force in what remains a disproportionately male art form. Rivers extended the comedy world, starting a path for the likes of Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman, and we’re all grateful for that.
Meanwhile, Hoffman’s death raised serious questions and newfound attention on the under-reported heroin crisis affecting some of our nation’s major cities. And the loss of the beloved Williams, was a sad reminder that depression can afflict any of us – even those who make it their business to make other people laugh.
The Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations: The celebrated 77-year-old icon was poised to begin a late career comeback. He had begun a new stand-up comedy tour, was planning a new sitcom at NBC – the home of his iconic “Cosby Show” and also had a Netflix special on the way to the forum. An offhand joke by fellow comedian Hannibal Buress, referencing past allegations of sexual assault made against Cosby, went viral and by December over 20 women had come forward alleging incidents of drugging and/or sexual assault over several decades.
Ex-models Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson, were two of Cosby’s most prominent accusers. Although Cosby has never been charged with a crime and his attorneys have repeatedly dismissed allegations against him, the controversy has cost him ties to institutions of higher education and seriously tarnished his once glowing image.
The late night comedy shake-up: After over 20 years at the helm of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the relatively apolitical Jay Leno handed over the reigns to the perpetually peppy Jimmy Fallon this year. The former “Saturday Night Live” star quickly put his own stamp on the durable franchise, scoring viral hits with a spoof of “House of Cards” and special appearances by first lady Michelle Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Meanwhile, David Letterman announced his upcoming retirement from his CBS “Late Show” and rolled out the red carpet for his replacement, the uniquely talented Stephen Colbert.
Colbert said goodbye to his long running in-character series “The Colbert Report” in December with a star-studded finale that featured Henry Kissinger, Samantha Powers, Big Bird, and many, many more. Comedy fans are very curious to see whether Colbert can translate his acerbic and overtly progressive sensibility for a late-night audience. We’ll find out in August of 2015, when Colbert is scheduled to take over Letterman’s chair.
Kim Kardashian “breaks the Internet”: Reality TV star Kim Kardashian had appeared in nude pictorials before – but her PAPER magazine cover in November really took the cake. Kardashian bared her backside in an exaggerated pose with the goal of “breaking the Internet.” The salacious photo predictably became a viral sensation, but it also sparked an interesting conversation about the fetishization of the female body and the not-so-subtle racial undercurrents of how Kardashian both presents herself and is presented. “In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black — it looks like Mrs. West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin’ idea,” wrote Blue Telusma in an op-ed for theGrio. Was Kardashian’s gambit offensive? The jury is still out.
Hollywood gets hacked: Two hacking scandals upended the Hollywood status quo in 2014. The first came in September when hackers made personal photos (including several nude images) of female stars like Kate Upton and Jennifer Lawrence public. Lawrence later compared the violation of privacy to a “sex crime.” “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” the 24-year-old actress told Vanity Fair in October. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting.” In November, an entire film studio was breached when North Korea-linked hackers compromised Sony Pictures Entertainment. Email exchanges, details of major productions and vital information of employees exposed .
The ensuing crisis eventually led the studio to pulls its controversial comedy “The Interview” – which portrays an assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un – from theaters ahead of its scheduled Christmas day release. The ongoing controversy continues as the federal government weighs the appropriate “proportional” response to the hacking.