The outgoing year is often depicted as an old, tired man with a beard down to his knees. But this year, that depiction felt all too true. With all the natural disasters and political unrest and international crises afoot, 2017 probably made us all feel older than we should.
Back in the day, many folks would turn to the world of entertainment to distract us from the world’s bad news. But this year, entertainment often was bad news: Hollywood’s alleged sexual harassers landed on the front page. Shooters used popular concerts to breed horror and fear. Entertainment itself grew more pointedly political, too. But some stars and celebs tried to make the world a little bit better, as well.
So before 2017 hobbles off the stage, let’s look at 10 of the year’s biggest influencers in the world of pop culture (listed alphabetically) —whether their influence was for good or ill.
Margaret Atwood: Sure, the 78-year-old author rarely appeared in the tabloids. But her most famous book, The Handmaid’s Tale, wasn’t nearly so demure. Amazon’s take on Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel took hold of the cultural zeitgeist in April and never let go. It became the first show from a streaming service to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama—one of five it collected. More tellingly, some women began wearing the show’s distinctive red robes and white blinkered bonnets at protests promoting feminism and decrying what protesters would consider religious extremism. But Atwood’s popularity in pop culture was far from over: Late this year, Netflix hitched its cart to the Atwood wagon too, rolling out its own miniseries based on one of her books. And while Alias Grace hasn’t quite become the rumbling cultural force that Handmaid’s Tale is, give it time.
Winston Churchill: For a guy who last drew breath in 1965, Great Britain’s great prime minister sure made a great impact in 2017. First, let’s turn to Darkest Hour, a biopic starring Gary Oldman as Churchill, focusing on the first days of Churchill’s prime ministry and culminating in the dramatic Miracle of Dunkirk. (Oldman’s likely a front-runner for Oscar consideration.) Not tired of Churchill, Dunkirk and World War II? Never fear. Director Christopher Nolan is there for you with Dunkirk, a time-shifting action drama where Churchill is never seen, but whose actions precipitated that fateful time. It’ll likely be up for scads of awards, too. And if that wasn’t enough, he was the subject of yet a third movie this year—the aptly named Churchill. Oh, and the war that Churchill is so intimately associated with is also the subject of the year’s top-selling videogame, Call of Duty: WW II. It’s made more than $1 billion, enough to keep the real Churchill supplied in cigars for quite some time.
Stephen Colbert: When Stephen Colbert dropped his faux-conservative schtick to take over CBS’s Late Show back in 2015, it soon looked like a big, fat mistake. Colbert’s erudite bent and cutting political barbs seemed out of step with the light, celeb-focused late-night club, and Colbert’s show languished well behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the ratings. Then came along a certain orange-coiffed reality-star-turned-president, and suddenly Colbert’s political tone felt oh so vogue. His show’s increased its audience by a whopping 23% this year, while Fallon has seen his own show tumble by 26%. Not everyone loves Colbert, of course. A certain orange-coiffed president has been especially critical. But in an age in which more and more people get their news from late-night clips than, y’know, actual news programs, few people are more influential than Colbert.
Gal Gadot: Jump back in time to, say, 2016. DC and Warner Bros. had released a string of critically panned superhero movies. Moreover, superhero flicks featuring women were considered box-office poison by some. Was there any way that a lovely but little-known Israeli actress could right D.C. and Warner Bros.’s sinking superhero ship? You bet she could. Thanks to Gadot’s charisma and director Patty Jenkins’ expert leadership, Wonder Woman became not just one of the year’s biggest blockbusters (think $412.6 million big) but one of its most critically praised films, too, holding a 92% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and harboring some outside Oscar hopes. The movie’s appeal is easy to see: Gadot’s Wonder Woman is not only insanely charismatic, but it bucked the trend of angsty antiheroes and became the sort of character we could easily, unapologetically root for—a refreshing change of pace in these troubled times.
Selena Gomez: The former Disney starlet didn’t make this list because of her music (though she did release a handful of singles, including the the top 10 “It Ain’t Me“). First, she was the driving force behind Netflix’s wildly popular but spectacularly controversial show 13 Reasons Why—a show predicated on the suicide of a young, bullied high schooler. (The show was so popular and so potentially troubling that Focus on the Family released a guide walking parents through some of its issues.) The story, Gomez said in an interview with CNN, “hits very close to home.” Perhaps her next project may involve organ donation, given that the 25-year-old also received a life-saving kidney transplant this summer, too. “I got to the point where it was really kind of life or death,” she said on the Today show. “It’s really hard to think about or swallow.” She also spent some time talking about her own faith during a Hillsong Conference this year—reading a letter she’d written to herself. “You are enough because you are a child of God who has been pursued from the very beginning,” she wrote. “You are enough because His grace has saved you and covered you.”
Stephen King: The prolific horror/fantasy author seemed like he had his fingerprints on everything that went bump in the … er, screen. Let’s start with It, arguably one of the year’s “it” movies. The flick, based on King’s 1986 novel, scared up nearly $327.5 million in North America, making it the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. But King wasn’t done: His Dark Tower series also inspired a movie of the same name that collected $111 million more. His novel Gerald’s Game and novella 1922 were both turned into films as well (the latter by Netflix). And lest we forget, Netflix’s own mammoth phenomenon Stranger Things feels like a homage to King’s works—especially It. Oh, the guy’s still writing, by the way: He released the bestselling novella Gwendy’s Button Box, and he co-authored another bestseller, Sleeping Beauties, with his son, Owen.
Jon Snow: Winter finally came to Westeros, and Jon Snow is ready—even though he seems to have a curious reluctance to wear a hat. He’s become perhaps the central character in HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones since his mysterious resurrection in Season 6—warning folks of the White Walkers, wooing the Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen and having (as viewers discovered at the end of Season Seven) a strong claim for Westeros’ Iron Throne himself. Speaking of kings and queens, the show claims its own dubious crown—as television’s most pirated show. But no matter: despite its unrelenting content issues, unremittingly bleak outlook and hackers’ penchant for leaking shows online, HBO still reports that more people than ever are watching Game of Thrones: 16.5 million folks tuned in for August’s Season Seven finale.
Taylor Swift: It’s been quite the year for Swift, even by Swiftian standards. Her single “Look What You Made Me Do” landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40 and was examined and dissected as if it was an ancient religious text. Two other singles, “You Belong With Me” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” topped out at No. 2. And then there’s her album, Reputation—her fifth straight No. 1 disc, setting a record. In an age where no one buys albums any more, she moved more than 1.2 million copies in her first week, making it the year’s top-selling album. And let’s not forget that she became one of the faces of the year’s sexual harassment story, suing a Colorado D.J. who grabbed her rear in 2013. She earned just $1 in damages, but she didn’t ask for more. And really, it’s not like the singer’s hurting for money.
J.J. Watt: Harvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Yep, it was a horrific year for hurricanes, and these four combined caused 103 deaths, destroyed thousands of houses, crippled infrastructures and wreaked $200 billion in damage. But in the midst of the devastation, millions rallied to help, including hundreds of celebrities—none more prominent than Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. In an effort to help Houston recover from Harvey’s windy wrath, Watt started a fund—hoping to raise a few hundred thousand dollars. The final tally: $37 million, thanks to more than 209,000 donors who chipped in. “There are not enough words to thank you all for your generosity,” Watt said in a statement. “If there is one thing that I have taken away from these last few weeks, it is the reassurance of how much good is out there in our world.”
Harvey Weinstein: Sexual harassment allegations against a dizzying array of powerful men dominated the latter part of 2017—so much so that when Time selected its annual Person of the Year, it chose people, plural, that the magazine collectively called “The Silence Breakers.” But the avalanche of revelations and allegations all began this year with Harvey Weinstein, a legendary Hollywood kingmaker whose harassment and abuse of women was apparently a dirty, open secret in Tinsel Town. The New York Times’ original expose of Weinstein, featuring accounts from stars like Ashley Judd, blew the doors clean off the secret and began an avalanche of horrifying revelations from both Hollywood and Washington D.C., destroying careers along the way. Lots of folks could share this spot, of course—the Kevin Spaceys and Louis C.K.s—and many more may find their way here. But revelations about Weinstein set this truth train in motion, and high time, too.