Hollywood is Political (But Not the Way You Think)

Culture Warrior

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.

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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