Hollywood's cultural responsibility

Still cleaning out browser tabs from way back. This one is from August last year, a Jonathan Chait essay on how liberal views dominate Hollywood. As much as conservatives dominate Fox News, liberal viewpoints tend to dominate most other channels and most Hollywood movies.

Few will find that surprising. What's more important is Chait's survey of the available evidence of the power of movies and TV on society, and the evidence says it's powerful.

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.


A trio of communications professors found that watching Will & Grace made audiences more receptive to gay rights, and especially viewers who had little contact in real life with gays and lesbians. And that one show was merely a component of a concerted effort by Hollywood—dating back to Soap in the late seventies, which featured Billy Crystal’s groundbreaking portrayal of a sympathetic gay character, through Modern Family—to prod audiences to accept homosexuality. Likewise, the political persona of Barack Obama attained such rapid acceptance and popularity in part because he represented the real-world version of an archetype that, after a long early period of servile black stereotypes, has appeared in film and television for years: a sober, intelligent African-American as president, or in some other position of power.

Hollywood industry insiders deny a liberal bent to their work, claiming they're only following market demand, leading to an ironic configuration of the conservative-liberal debate on the topic: 

The denials generally take the form of a simple economic aphorism. The entertainment business is a business, so if its product leans left, it must reflect what the audience wants. One oddity of the Hollywood-liberalism debate is that it makes liberals posit the existence of a perfect, frictionless market, while conservatives find themselves explaining why a free market is failing to function as it ought to.

The power of popular culture is often underestimated, as is the value of art in general. Some of the examples noted above are why I've become less tolerant of lazy stereotypes or tropes in even the lightest of Hollywood movies. Argo was a skillfully crafted movie, but it played so loose with the facts that I can't in my heart embrace it as fully as I would had it been brave enough to stand by the truth. (Spoiler alert here) When the crowd I saw the movie with burst into applause as the plane lifted off the tarmac at the end, just eluding dozens of angry Iranian guards with guns giving chase in jeeps, I couldn't help feeling saddened that once again Hollywood felt the need to conform the truth to a more cartoonish narrative arc for commercial reasons. There's an entire section of the Argo Wikipedia entry titled Historical Accuracy which addresses the discrepancies. I felt the same unease with A Beautiful Mind, which scrubbed many less savory elements from John Nash's life to make him a more palatable hero: anti-semitism, homosexuality, a child he fathered with a nurse who he abandoned, and his divorce, among others.

[The phrase "based on a true story" is one of the great cheats in filmmaking. It excuses you to bend the facts but still capture the amazement of a credulous audience which won't ever bother to investigate what liberties the filmmakers took.]

Even movies which aren't based on historical facts bother me when they grab and reuse defective modules from the Hollywood library. Pitch Perfect was a cinematic stick of sugar, but it resorted to several popular stereotypes of Asians that made me cringe (I refer not to the quiet Asian singer with the bangs, but the no-fun bookworm of a roommate and her stone-faced friends).

The most common retort to all of this is that it's just a movie, and nobody cares or should care. But it's not just a movie, as Chait notes. These works of art carry cultural tropes that burrow into our brains and leave germs that sprout at an almost subconscious level.

And that's how I sense Hollywood's cultural influence operates, not as overtly as, say, those who claim that the use of guns in movies leads to shootings in direct emulation, but at a more subtle level. In a recent post I discussed two versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, strong and weak. If there was a theory of Hollywood's influence on our cultural norms, I'd subscribe to a weak version of it.