Hollywood is Political (But Not the Way You Think)

By  · Published on September 18th, 2012

The upcoming election might make the air feel a bit more politicized than it usually does, but there’s one arena that is investigated and interrogated for its supposedly partisan leanings far more often than every four years: the mainstream entertainment industry. Hollywood and prime-time television are continually called into question for supposedly left-leaning tendencies. Hell, there are even entire websites that profit off the flimsy thesis that Hollywood is an evil institution devoted to the full-scale indoctrination of feeble young minds into sullying the name of Ayn Rand and buying Priuses (Priusi?). However, the latest accusation made toward Hollywood as a liberal indoctrination machine came from an unlikely source: Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine.

While it’s interesting to hear these points articulated from a self-defined liberal rather than a conservative culture warrior (yes, I’m well aware of the irony of my column name when I write stories like this) who stands to benefit more from the critique, Chait makes several of the same stumbles that conservatives encounter when voicing this familiar argument, like failing to provide a stable definition of what institutions the term “Hollywood” describes or an adequate explanation for the process by which an institution made up of mostly liberal people actually translates into liberal products.

Truly Green Politics

But what the Hollywood as liberal argument most often fails to realize is that Hollywood is rooted firmly in an ideology all its own, one that wears neither red nor blue but permeates through much of American (and global) culture: the ideology of consumerism.

This is not so say that Hollywood is apolitical or free from criticism because its only reason for existing is to make money. On the contrary, Hollywood is very political. But Hollywood’s politics simply don’t translate into a distinct conservative or liberal platform.

Chait asserts that the routine conservative accusation that Hollywood continually represents liberal values within its manufactured narratives is correct; but the difference that the last twenty years has brought is a drastic reduction in the number of prominent conservatives that have taken the stage to make such complaints. To an extent, this is true. But that’s not because the right has made a slight tilt left.

Instead of Dan Quayle attacking the representation of single mothers on television, current elected conservatives criticize actual single mothers. However, Chait does have a point. While there’s the occasional Hollywood-dedicated conservative blogroll, there isn’t an onslaught of criticism directed toward fictional media narratives from the forefront of the GOP.

The media that conservatives have directed the bulk of their ire toward for nearly the past decade and a half has been the news media. The term “liberal media” seems to be rarely afforded to fiction anymore, whether on television or in movie theaters. But these complaints from conservatives are predominantly manifested through conservative media, like talk radio, Fox News, and conservative news sites, venues which are every bit as “mainstream” as their liberal equivalents.

What this fact points to is that our entire mainstream for-profit mediasphere – whether in news, radio, television, or movies – is undoubtedly pluralist and openly partisan. In the realm of news media, this pluralism has manifested in near-ideological exclusivity: we settle ourselves in the political camps in which we feel most comfortable (a peek at the links above demonstrates how complicit I am in this process as well). This is a decisive break from the history of prime-time television, in which everyone shared mass culture by virtue of the limits of tri-network broadcasting.

Nothing We Don’t Want

Television’s ubiquity proved difficult for those who wanted to stay rooted and unchallenged in their worldview. The Nat King Cole Show, for instance, was cancelled in 1957 because white viewers complained that they didn’t want to see a black man in their home. But now we don’t have to see anything we don’t want to. But just because we can choose our media doesn’t mean we can choose our “Hollywood.”

And this is where a stable definition of “Hollywood” becomes necessary in order to assess whether or not mainstream media has any distinct, unified, party-defined political bias.

If Hollywood can refer to any English-language, seemingly American-made media product that enters into popular discourse, then we’re shit-out-of-luck. Any observation about its ideological function would necessitate cherry-picking. An institutional conspiracy theory deserves a firm notion of the institution in question. Let’s call “Hollywood” a system of Los Angeles and New York-based multinational-conglomerate-owned studios that produce and distribute (mostly) narrative media to the majority of movie theaters, television networks, and home exhibition outlets in the United States. Hollywood, then, can easily be categorized as an economically-defined industrial system.

But if one were to continue to describe “Hollywood” as a vaguely-defined value system that persists in opposition to conservatism, one could continue (as Chait does) to wrangle titles as diverse as Avatar and Margin Call under the shared rubric of “Hollywood” despite the fact that the economic systems and institutional parameters which brought each of these films into being could not be more disparate.

To exhibit the absurd extent of this false trope, a religious conservative blogger recently deemed the new Lars von Trier film part of “Hollywood.” Try to imagine those two things as compatible for just a moment. Now uncross your eyes.

Cherry-Picked Apart

Ideologically oppositional political talk shows The O’Reilly Factor and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell have a closer affinity because of their shared infrastructure (both are on networks owned by Fox, which is in turn owned by News Corp.) than a $237 million studio-financed blockbuster and a $3.5 million film produced through (at least) six independent production companies. James Cameron and J.C. Chandor may vote for the incumbent come November, but that doesn’t suddenly make Margin Call a Hollywood film.

Now let’s distinguish the people who primarily work for Hollywood from the products Hollywood creates. Admittedly, a great deal of evidence (and some strong intuition) suggests that the majority of people who are employed in the Hollywood I defined above lean left. As academic and blogger Jeffrey Sconce convincingly asserts in a response to Ben Shapiro’s book “Prime-Time Propaganda,” Hollywood makes for a far more attractive line of work for liberal sensibilities:

“The writing staffs of most sitcoms…are dominated by whip smart, clever, witty arts/humanities majors from top universities. After college, they move to Los Angeles and live 3 to an apartment in the city’s less scenic outskirts, hustling to sell a script or get signed onto a show. That process can take months or even years, and even when it does happen, there is zero job security. Who else would fit this profile other than a starry-eyed liberal, someone who is so blinded by the romance of art, culture, and self-expression that they would willingly forgo a decent income, stable personal relationships, and a Bosch kitchen for a shot at punching up the dialogue on a David Spade movie?

The truly smart kids, like yourself Ben, all get MBAs and Law Degrees so that they can buy, sell, sue, and control foolish liberals at will. Don’t believe me? Just watch a young liberal artiste trying to buy a car, negotiate a mortgage, or do his or her taxes. It’s not a pretty sight…”

When working in isolation, yes, the narratives created by individuals working in the vicinity of Hollywood might manifest a more distinct liberal sensibility. The best evidence for this is not in Hollywood filmmaking, but the outskirts: the American independent filmmaker of the 80s and 90s. While these indie filmmakers had far fewer resources at their fingertips than those available through Hollywood, they enjoyed far more creative control. If you want to know what the work of an actual progressive American filmmaker looks like, see the early films of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, or Richard Linklater.

There are reasons these films weren’t made through Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the typical Hollywood employee – above the line or below – is thoroughly entrenched in an interdependent network of people and interests outside their own purview. Hollywood filmmaking involves little risk-taking for fear of alienating potential consumers. That’s how certain tropes of Hollywood’s particular ideology revealed through narrative – the inevitable administration of justice, happy endings with closure, “relatable” protagonists – manifest themselves in ways so ambivalent or contradictory that people on the left or right can be equally invested in the story and its characters.

Red Versus Blue

The red v. blue politics of Hollywood’s products are often vague and incoherent. Take this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, for example. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that the film is politically conservative given our present moment. Presenting a reluctant billionaire warrior who trickles down justice against a populist uprising can be read as elevating “job creators” and denigrating Occupy Wall Street. But the strings of Bane’s motive eventually unravels itself to be an empty, contradictory vessel for lightly referencing icons of political topicality without bothering to invest in them.

That Bane possesses no real desire for populism, nor an encompassing grudge against the very rich (mainly just Bruce Wayne in particular) greatly problematizes any sense of a coherent, applicable political message. The Dark Knight Rises saw gains in referencing Occupy Wall Street, but saw potential losses in risking a firm ideological stance.

The same can be true for the discrepancy between Hollywood’s means of production and the thing ultimately produced. Take the biggest blockbuster of our era, Avatar. The film conveys messages in favor of environmental consciousness and provides critiques of colonialism/imperialism, private military companies, and unfettered corporate greed. However, the mega-successful, corporate-owned film’s means of production and ancillary merchandizing hardly constituted anything resembling a “green” manufacture of goods.

Conservative critics might call this hypocrisy. I don’t. It’s perfectly consistent with Hollywood’s consumerist ideology in the context of its expanding global reach. But there’s one thing it’s not, and that’s a mode of liberal activism.

If Hollywood seems to have a liberal bias to the conserv-iest of conservatives, that’s because Hollywood is an institution that exhibits pluralist values. In other words, Hollywood isn’t conservative because it doesn’t exclusively endorse conservative ideals, and thus seems a threat to the far right. If Hollywood seems too conservative for progressives, that’s because Hollywood doesn’t have much investment in challenging the status quo. We liberals might be happy to have Cam and Mitchell in prime-time, but they’re hardly Dan Savage or Cynthia Nixon.

Towards the end of his piece, Chait makes the following observation:

“Notable exceptions exist, but they are notable precisely because they are exceptions. Even the most memorable cases of right-wing cultural iconography have to offer a nod to the predominant liberalism of the industry in a way that the most liberal-message media don’t…24 eventually developed sinister greedy corporations as its Uber-villain. Rocky IV ends, after vanquishing steroid-addled Soviet antagonist Ivan Drago, with Rocky delivering a plea for coexistence.”

These aren’t the exceptions, Mr. Chait. These seeming political contradictions are the guiding rule of Hollywood’s consumerist ideology. Hollywood is wholly, exhaustively political, just not the same way election year talking points are.

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