The Cultural Ascendancy of Ayn Rand

From TV shows to encyclopedias, comic books to scholarly journals, Rand's cultural prominence in recent years has skyrocketed. Chris Sciabarra tells the story.
Chris-sciabarra

Admirers of Ayn Rand's writings revel in the fact that two decades after the author’s death, sales of her combined works continue at a brisk pace. But Rand’s cultural impact can be measured in ways far beyond book sales. It stretches from academia to comic books to electronic media.

In this year-end essay for the Atlasphere, I’d like to take a brief look at the extent of that impact by surveying both scholarly and popular references to the author — which, by any measure, have increased exponentially.

Of course, mere mentions of Rand do not necessarily translate into influence, especially when many of the mentions are negative. But there is truth to Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” The fact that Rand has so profoundly entered the Zeitgeist is something that needs to be celebrated. What we are witnessing is nothing less than Rand’s cultural ascendancy as an iconic figure.

As a Rand scholar myself, I continue to trace her growing impact on academia. Rand’s thought is the subject of serious treatment in more and more journals, encyclopedias, texts, and books.

Her ideas have been discussed in publications as diverse as The Monist, Catholic World, Germano-Slavica, College English, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Journal of Popular Culture, and the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Encyclopedias that had previously ignored her — Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopedia of Ethics, American Writers, and so forth — now routinely include her among their references.

Excerpts from her work are also included in anthologies in economics, political science, sociology, and philosophy, while full-length book studies are being published by trade and university presses alike — an upsurge in scholarly attention that has been noted by such periodicals as The Chronicle of Higher Education and the now-defunct Lingua Franca. Even CliffsNotes includes three Rand titles in its series!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that, as a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which is now well into its fifth year of operation, I’m seeing an inordinate increase in submissions from scholars all over the disciplinary and ideological map. The journal is now indexed by more than a dozen high-profile abstracting services in the social sciences and humanities, including, surprisingly, The Left Index and Women’s Studies International.

We have featured spirited discussions of Rand's theory of knowledge, her aesthetics, and even her influence on the counterculture and progressive rock (through the band Rush), and will be publishing two issues in honor of the Rand Centenary in 2004-2005.

In addition to the encouraging growth of Rand references in scholarly circles, there has been a remarkable growth in such references throughout popular culture. That development is not measured solely by her influence on authors in various genres — from bodybuilder Mike Mentzer (the late author of Heavy Duty) to fiction-writers Ira Levin, Erika Holzer, Kay Nolte Smith, James Hogan, Karen Michalson, Edward Cline, and so many others. It is measured also by the number of Rand-like characters or outright references to Rand that have appeared in fictional works of various lengths and quality.

Among these are works by William Buckley (Getting it Right), Tobias Wolff (Old School), John Gardner (Mickelsson’s Ghosts), Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), Don De Grazia (American Skin), Gene Bell-Villada (The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand), Matt Ruff (Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy), J. Neil Schulman (The Rainbow Cadenza; Escape from Heaven), Orlando Outland (Death Wore a Fabulous New Fragrance), Laci Golos (Sacred Cows are Black and White), Victor Sperandeo (Cra$hmaker: A Federal Affaire), Mary Gaitskill (Two Girls, Fat and Thin), Sky Gilbert (The Emotionalists), Robert Rodi (Fag Hag), and Tony Kushner, whose play Angels in America, recently adapted for HBO, includes a discussion of the “visible scars” from rough sex, “like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel.”

The Kushner drama is not the first time that Ayn Rand’s name has been uttered on television, however. Rand has made her way into so many television programs that I’ve lost count! From questions on Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to the canceled Fox series Undeclared and such current series as The Gilmore Girls and Judging Amy, the Rand references are plentiful. In the sci-fi series Andromeda, there is a colony called the Ayn Rand Station, founded by a species of “Nietzscheans.” In Showtime’s Queer as Folk, a leading character, free-spirit Brian Kinney, is described as “the love-child of James Dean and Ayn Rand.”

In the WB’s One Tree Hill, Rand’s work was practically showcased in an episode entitled, “Are You True?” The main character, Lucas, is given Atlas Shrugged by a fellow classmate. Increasingly frustrated by his troubles on the basketball court, Lucas is told “Don’t let ‘em take it — your talent. It’s all yours.” By the end of the episode, we hear Lucas’s voice-over as he walks to the basketball court: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark.” Reading from the John Galt speech, he tells us, “Do not let the hero in your soul perish.”

Another barometer of Rand’s cultural ascendancy is the extent of her permeation into illustrated media, especially comic books. (And I’m not just talking about the classic 1991 Revolutionary Comics series about Elvis Presley, Elvis Shrugged.) Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, is well known for his incorporation of Randian themes into his work. Among Ditko’s comic book heroes, one will find The Question and Mister A (as in “A is A”). His Randian-inspired characters have made their way into the work of Alan Moore, who rejects Rand’s ideology while integrating references to her in his comics, and Frank Miller, of Batman-Dark Knight fame, who credits Rand’s Romantic Manifesto as having helped him to define the nature of the literary hero and the legitimacy of heroic fiction.

Rand's impact on comics is fitting, as she herself was no stranger to illustrated media; she authorized King Features to produce an illustrated condensation of The Fountainhead, which began a thirty-installment run on Christmas Eve, 1945. Rand wrote much of the actual copy that was used for the series. The Illustrated Fountainhead was syndicated in over thirty-five newspapers from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago.

Rand understood the importance of using such a popular genre to spread her ideas. She recognized the comic strip as a legitimate literary exercise in fiction, “a variation of stage or movie technique,” which can successfully dramatize ideas (Letters of Ayn Rand, Dutton, 1995, p. 386). In fact, her own introduction to Romantic literature was The Mysterious Valley, an adventure story serialized in a boys’ magazine, with rich illustrations of its hero, Cyrus, upon whom Rand based the physical look of her ideal male protagonists.

Her recollections of the power of illustrated media may have led her to express exasperation with “[m]odern intellectuals [who] used to denounce the influence of comic strips on children ...” (“The Comprachicos,” in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Signet, 1975, p. 232).

All the more fitting, therefore, to find Rand showing up even in the Mother of All Illustrated Media: Cartoons! In an infamous South Park episode called “Chicken Lover,” Atlas Shrugged is presented to Officer Barbrady, who has recently learned how to read, and who, upon seeing the massive size of Rand’s novel, laments his achievements in literacy.

More philosophically astute, perhaps, are the Rand references on The Simpsons, the longest-running animated show in television history. As William Irwin and J. R. Lombardo tell us in The Simpsons and Philosophy (Open Court, 2001):

[I]n “A Streetcar Named Marge,” Maggie is placed in the “Ayn Rand School for Tots” where the proprietor, Mr. Sinclair, reads The Fountainhead Diet. To understand why pacifiers are taken away from Maggie and the other children one has to catch the allusion to the radical libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand. Recognizing and understanding this allusion yields much more pleasure than would a straightforward explanation that Maggie has been placed in a daycare facility in which tots are trained to fend for themselves, not to depend on others, not even to depend on their pacifiers. (p. 85)

When Rand has become so much a part of the vernacular that her ideas are filtered through cartoons and comics, fiction and film, I think it is safe to assume that she has not only survived culturally, but flourished. And for those who are enamored of Rand’s philosophy, the cultural apex will be reached when her ideas are so embedded in both academia and in the American psyche that they will have brought about a veritable intellectual revolution. Stay tuned.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University. He is the author of the “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy, which includes Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY, 1995), Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995), and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State, 2000). He also co-edited, with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (Penn State, 1999), and is a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He maintains an expansive web site, which includes links to his frequently updated “Not a Blog.”

6 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
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I wonder why people like to patronise the work of an individual after they have died, I say, if you like it, you like it, you don't need a major event to push you in that direction. I wonder, would people patronise my article on BAD_SYSTEM_CONFIG_INFO errors more, if I died.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.