Hooray for Hollywood?

The article of the day is Jon Chait's piece in New York addressing the question of Hollywood's liberalism. To simplify it a bit, Chait argues that conservatives are basically right in their belief that Hollywood liberals are warping our minds with left-wing propaganda, though they seem to have all but stopped bothering to complain about it. I find it hard to disagree with the first part of Chait's premise: Hollywood is, indeed, dominated by liberals. There are a few high-profile conservatives there (Bruce Willis, Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood), but they're a small minority. It's not hard to figure out why. Any industry that is made up of creative people is going to be dominated by liberals. Most novelists are liberals too. I'm sure most graphic artists are liberals. There's a whole lot of psychological research demonstrating that liberals tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity, open to experience, and interested in change than conservatives, while conservatives tend to be more conscientious and drawn to hierarchy and order (Prospect alum Chris Mooney details all this in his book The Republican Brain; there's a short version here). In other words, artists are going to be more liberal. Conservatives may not like it, but that's how it is and how it's probably always going to be.

The next question is what values are communicated by the products those liberals produce, and whether we have a problem with them. That's a very complicated question, and it covers things beyond the networks' prime-time schedules. For instance, you may have noticed that every time a group of friends is shown in an advertisement, enjoying a beer or ordering pizza or just kickin' back with their glowing hair and clean teeth, the group is always adorably multi-racial, unlike most groups of friends Americans actually have (or as Chris Rock says, "All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend"). You can see that as a message of hopeful racial harmony, or a pernicious denial of the continued reality of segregation. But it's certainly true that on some issues, Hollywood repeatedly delivers a message friendly to liberal values, like "Gay people are actually people." There are many other tropes and plot lines that conservatives find displeasing, like the greedy rich guy (your occasional Tony Stark notwithstanding), the fact that young beautiful people on screen often have pre-marital sex without it destroying their lives, or the fact that the Simpsons are pretty much the only family on television that goes to church every Sunday.

On the other hand, Hollywood reinforces some conservative values too, perhaps none more so than the idea that when you have a really serious problem, the best way to solve it is through the promiscuous use of firearms (it seems like every other movie poster features the star holding a gun, to make sure you know the film is super-actiony). Story lines involving abortion almost always follow this arc: girl gets pregnant, people urge girl to have abortion, girl considers it but decides that while it might be OK for other people it's just not something she could do, girl has miscarriage so the whole issue doesn't have to be resolved with anybody getting mad. What you never see is the more common reality of abortion: girl gets pregnant, girl has abortion, girl feels extraordinary relief and is able to go on with her life.

So while it isn't just a sea of liberal propaganda, the overall worldview does reflect the values of the people who create these cultural products. The final question is what impact all this has on what we believe about the world. While Chait cites a few interesting studies that utilized the introduction of television to analyze a poor country's immediate cultural changes, in America it's harder to sort out. A media effect that occurs over a long period of time and interacts with social influences and other inputs is extremely difficult to tease out with the tools social science researchers have available to them. That isn't to say communication researchers aren't always trying; for instance, there's a long line of research on what's called "cultivation," which says that over time television in particular shapes our view of how the world works. It isn't without its critics, but few doubt the basic premise that what we watch can influence what we think.

On the other hand, Hollywood doesn't create political movements out of whole cloth. America had black people for a long time before we actually got to see any of them on screen. "Ellen" didn't create the gay rights movement; the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, and the first gay character on a television show appeared two years later on an episode of "All in the Family." According to a report by GLAAD, last year 2.9 percent of all characters on scripted network shows were gay, which isn't exactly a tsunami of gayness. Yet when Joe Biden said that "Will and Grace" had an enormous impact on Americans' opinions about gay people, he was probably right, if not about that show in particular then about the fact that there are now a reasonable number of gay people on television. One of the things narratives are able to do is show us people we may not know as people, and it's easier to feel antagonism toward a kind of person as an abstraction than as an individual. It's not quite the same as having a gay brother, but it comes close. The creators of culture are influenced by culture; it's a complex and recursive process. And the more "mainstream" and thus influential a cultural product is, the less likely it's going to get way out ahead of what people already believe.

And like many things, what conservatives now see as liberal propaganda will eventually become just consensus. You're not going to see too many conservatives today complaining that a show about the 1960s portrays the civil rights struggle in a positive light, even though at the time there were two sides to that question, and conservatives happened to be on the wrong side. Nor are too many going to object that many female TV characters have jobs, while they should be at home making sure there's a scotch and soda waiting when their husbands come through the door. Eventually, they'll pretend they were for gay rights all along, too. Maybe by then Hollywood will have found a whole new set of liberal values to inculcate us with.

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