No One Seems To Know What “Woke” Means Anymore—Here’s The Definition (And Plenty Of Examples)

Want to talk about "woke"? First, we have to talk about Cultural Marxism.

By Gina Florio6 min read
little mermaid
Disney/The Little Mermaid

Any millennial woman can remember the first time she watched The Little Mermaid. Ariel, the underwater princess, was known for her bright red hair and fair skin. Her sidekicks were Flounder, a fish who was scared of just about everything, and Sebastian, a fiery little crab who was assigned to protect her and keep a close watch on her every move. When Disney announced the new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, fans couldn't help but notice that the new Ariel looked a little different. In a huge departure from the original 1989 film, Ariel is played by Halle Bailey, a young black actress and one-half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle (they were discovered by Beyoncé on YouTube). This decision marks a significant milestone in Disney's ongoing efforts toward increased diversity and representation in its films.

The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel was meant to open new avenues for inclusivity in the traditionally Eurocentric world of fairy tales and Disney princesses. For Disney and progressive activists, this is not just about altering the hair and skin color of a beloved character; it's about broadening the scope of representation and inspiring audiences who haven't seen themselves reflected in such roles before. At least, that's what we've been told. Some fans of the original film expressed concerns about the deviation from Ariel's traditional image. However, many applauded Disney's decision, viewing it as an overdue but welcome step toward diversifying its roster of princesses.

Regardless of how Disney fans feel about Halle Bailey being cast as Ariel, it points to something that has been happening in mainstream culture for quite some time. Many content creators, especially those on the right, lament about things going woke. Everywhere we turn, things are becoming more and more woke. But what does that word actually mean? Is there a real definition, or is it just a boogeyman created by conservatives when they see something they don't like?

Where Did the Term "Woke" Originate?

The term woke has become a pivotal part of modern cultural and political conversations in the United States. We've been taught that it was initially used within the black vernacular English lexicon, and the term has evolved and has been absorbed into mainstream dialogue, often sparking intense debates about its precise meaning and implications. Black communities claim ownership of the word woke; it initially meant being aware of social and political injustices, particularly those affecting black individuals (such as police brutality, poverty, incarceration rates, etc.). The term is derived from the idea of "waking up" to the realities of supposed systemic oppression. Its use was popularized in recent years, largely due to movements such as Black Lives Matter. Erykah Badu's 2008 song "Master Teacher" also played a role in propagating the term, with the line "I stay woke" resonating with listeners.

The term woke has become a pivotal part of modern cultural and political conversations in the United States.

Today, we're told that woke represents an awareness of issues related to social justice and racial equality. It is about being conscious of systemic injustices and biases, and actively striving to challenge these structures. Woke individuals are expected not only to acknowledge the existence of systemic prejudice but also to work toward its eradication. In political conversations, woke has been used and interpreted in various ways, often along partisan lines. Progressives tend to use it positively, denoting someone who is enlightened and sensitive to social justice issues. They value the notion of being woke as it often underpins policies aimed at reducing inequality and injustice.

However, the term has also been co-opted by people on the right, who often use it pejoratively. To them, wokeness can signify an overzealous focus on identity politics and political correctness, which they argue can undermine free speech, societal cohesion, and objective reality. Woke has been used as a critique of what is perceived as the excesses of left-wing politics, identifying it as nothing more than a performance meant to gain social credit among the progressive institutions.

"Woke" Is Actually Deeply Tied to Cultural Marxism

Cultural Marxism is a term that has found its way into the modern political discourse, yet its definition and implications are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Broadly, it refers to a school of thought that applies Marxist theory to culture and the social sciences. The concept of Cultural Marxism originates from the early 20th century's Frankfurt School in Germany, formally known as the Institute for Social Research. Scholars at the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, among others, began to apply Marxist ideas beyond the realm of economics. They examined cultural and ideological factors as essential components in the class struggle, highlighting the role of mass media, art, and culture as potential tools of capitalist domination.

In this context, Cultural Marxism is an academic discourse that explores the role of culture in reproducing the capitalist system. It suggests that capitalist ideologies permeate cultural institutions, which in turn, subtly reinforce class dominance, systemic inequalities, and social hierarchies. However, Cultural Marxism quickly turned into a school of thought that was hell-bent on undermining Western civilization and traditional values through powerful cultural institutions such as media, academia, and the arts. Powerful rhetoric came out of Cultural Marxism and created the idea that everything in our society—from the job market to the criminal justice system to the rates of poverty—could be looked at through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed.

Put in simplest terms, woke sees everything through the lens of oppressor vs oppressed.

As a result, Cultural Marxism promotes identity politics, political correctness, and social justice movements (such as Black Lives Matter). The Frankfurt School's theorists claim that they did not aim to dismantle Western culture, but rather sought to understand how culture can uphold capitalist and other hegemonic systems. Regardless of their intentions, we are left in the aftermath of Cultural Marxism, and without it, we would never have arrived at wokeness. Civil rights activists identified that there were some serious flaws in the power structures of our country (rightfully so), but even after equal rights were granted, Cultural Marxism kept its hold on progressive politics and many minority communities. Put in simplest terms, woke sees everything through the lens of oppressor vs oppressed, and it also seeks to overturn these supposed power structures and ensure that the oppressed have their time in charge of the oppressor.

The Simplest Way To Define "Woke"

But in order to fully understand wokeness, we have to identify that these supposed power structures are based on genetically inherited attributes such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Progressives and woke activists believe that a hierarchy exists in regard to these attributes; combine that with the oppressor vs. oppressed model from Cultural Marxism, and you have the perfect intersectional diagram of who is the oppressor (white, heterosexual, male) and who is the oppressed (minority, LGBTQ, female).

But woke doesn't just stop there. The concept of wokeness must include the fight to overturn this hierarchy of oppression. It must be dismantled—that's the real activism of woke politics. That means white, heterosexual, "cisgendered" men need to be taken away from positions of power and be replaced with anyone who falls in the oppressed category. Even within the oppressed category, there are levels. A "cisgendered" female has more power than a black female. Someone who identifies as trans is more oppressed than a minority. Progressives will use an arbitrary scale of oppression to determine who deserves the most attention, praise, and sympathy. Sometimes it depends on the history of whatever group you fall into (black individuals are automatically oppressed because of the history of slavery in America), while other times it depends on how you are perceived by society (ie, if you are "misgendered," you are facing a robust amount of oppression). The more oppressed you are, the more opportunities you get and the more progressives uplift you as a hero.

In order to overturn this so-called hierarchy of oppression, the woke mob believes that all arms of power in the country—government, academia, Hollywood, the economy—need to use a quota system based on race, gender, and sexual orientation in order to correct these perceived inequalities. That's why white characters or historical figures in entertainment need to be filled with minorities, even if they were once real-life people.

Here's an even easier way to define woke to anyone who might have trouble explaining it: Wokeness is a progressive activism rooted in Cultural Marxism that sees the entire world through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed, seeking to overturn a perceived social hierarchy based on people's inherent attributes, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.

How "Woke" Took Over American Culture

In broader cultural conversations, woke has found its way into various domains, from arts and entertainment to academia and corporate America. It has influenced how films are made, what books are published, how curriculums are designed, and how companies approach diversity and inclusion. Being woke in these contexts often translates into supporting inclusive practices and narratives that challenge certain power structures. Because wokeness is determined to dismantle the oppressor vs. oppressed model, progressives are obsessed with replacing anything that has been traditionally white with a minority. Because in the woke mind, white is inherently racist and oppressive, and minorities are always the innocent victim. That's why we have ended up with so many movies and TV shows that replace previously white characters or historical figures with someone who is black, Hispanic, Asian, etc. That's how we've ended up with the popular term blackwashing, which refers to black individuals (or other minorities) filling the role of white characters or figures.

One notable instance of woke blackwashing is in the 2018 historical drama Mary Queen of Scots. The movie cast Gemma Chan, a British actress of Chinese descent, as Bess of Hardwick, and Adrian Lester, a black actor, as Lord Thomas Randolph, both historical figures who were white. Chan defended her casting, saying that it was a chance to get actors of color on-screen. Another example is seen in the Netflix series Bridgerton, a period drama set in Regency England. Despite the historical context, the show features a racially diverse cast, including black actors Regé-Jean Page and Golda Rosheuvel in leading roles as the Duke of Hastings and Queen Charlotte, respectively. While the show's creators acknowledge the diversity as an intentional anachronism, it has nonetheless sparked conversations about representation and historical accuracy.

Similarly, the 2020 musical film Hamilton made waves with its casting of predominantly black and minority ethnic actors to play the Founding Fathers of the United States. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, noted that the casting was a way to "pull the future into the past," allowing the audience to relate more directly to the historical figures.

A British miniseries was recently released on Channel 5 called Anne Boleyn. It had three episodes and claimed to tell the tale of Anne Boleyn—but from Anne's perspective. "You may know the history, but you don't know her story," reads the caption on the Instagram reel that promoted the show in May 2021. But Anne Boleyn, a real (white) woman who once reigned as Queen of England in 1533, was played by black actress Jodie Turner-Smith. We've even seen black characters appear on a Vikings show on Netflix called Vikings: Valhalla. There is no historical context whatsoever that would support the idea of Vikings being black. Other historical figures who have been blackwashed in various movies and shows include Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, and Friar Tuck.

These are just several examples of the wokeness that has permeated Hollywood. And if there was anything that would indicate the inverse of this, such as a fair-skinned island girl (who is originally from Hawaii) being cast as Nani in Lilo & Stitch, there is tremendous uproar online, because the core of anything woke indicates that white people (or anyone who remotely appears to be white) can never, ever take the place of a minority. Thus is the worldview of oppressor vs. oppressed, and it's one that distorts reality and history.

But it doesn't end with race. Hollywood has also made a conscious shift toward more representation of the LGBT community. The inclusion of LGBT storylines in mainstream movies and television shows is an endeavor to break away from the "oppressive" idea that heterosexual couples are the only ones who experience romance and correct the perceived claim that LGBT individuals have been marginalized by straight people for centuries. In the past, LGBT characters were accused of falling into stereotypical roles or being confined to specific genres, and critics said their narratives were rarely explored with the depth and complexity they deserved. Now, shows like Pose, Euphoria, and Sex Education are leading the change, providing more portrayals of LGBT characters. It's pretty much impossible now to see a movie or TV show that doesn't involve an LGBT storyline, even if it's ill-fitting and doesn't add anything to the story (i.e., Bridgerton and The Last of Us). Because if there isn't an LGBT plot, that just points to how much these groups of people were discriminated against in the past.

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