That's Entertainment?

That's Entertainment?

Mini Teaser: Hollywood may dismiss its silver-screen version of a violent and debauched America as harmless fantasy, but to the rest of the world it's the real thing.

by Author(s): Michael Medved

This message, proudly proclaimed in a hand-lettered sign held aloft by a scowling, bearded Pakistani protestor during one of the angry demonstrations that followed September 11, continues to challenge the world's dominant power. In responding to such disturbing questions about the origins of anti-Americanism, glib commentators may cite the imperial reach of U.S. corporations, or Washington's support for Israel, or sheer envy for the freedom and prosperity of American life. But they must also contend with the profound impact of the lurid Hollywood visions that penetrate every society on earth. The vast majority of people in Pakistan or Peru, Poland or Papua New Guinea, may never visit the United States or ever meet an American face to face, but they inevitably encounter images of L.A. and New York in the movies, television programs and popular songs exported everywhere by the American entertainment industry.

Those images inevitably exert a more powerful influence on overseas consumers than they do on the American domestic audience. If you live in Seattle or Cincinnati, you understand that the feverish media fantasies provided by a DMX music video or a Dark Angel TV episode do not represent everyday reality for you or your neighbors. If you live in Indonesia or Nigeria, however, you will have little or no first-hand experience to balance the negative impressions provided by American pop culture, with its intense emphasis on violence, sexual adventurism, and every inventive variety of anti-social behavior that the most overheated imagination could concoct. No wonder so many Islamic extremists (and so many others) look upon America as a cruel, Godless, vulgar society-a "Great Satan", indeed.

During violent anti-American riots in October 2001, mobs in Quetta, Pakistan specifically targeted five movie theaters showing U.S. imports and offered their negative review of this cinematic fare by burning each of those theaters to the ground. "Look what they did!" wailed Chaudary Umedali amid the smoking ruins of his cinema. He said that a thousand rioters smashed the doors of his theater and threw firebombs inside because "they didn't like our showing American films." Ironically, the last movie he had offered his Quetta customers was Desperado-a hyper-violent, R-rated 1995 shoot-em-up with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, specifically designed by its Texas-born director Robert Rodriguez for export outside the United States (in this case, to worldwide Hispanic audiences).

Even the President of the United States worries publicly about the distorted view of this embattled nation that Hollywood conveys to the rest of the world. In his eloquent but uncelebrated address to students at Beijing's Tsinghua University on February 22, George W. Bush declared: "As America learns more about China, I am concerned that the Chinese people do not always see a clear picture of my country. This happens for many reasons, and some of them of our own making. Our movies and television shows often do not portray the values of the real America I know."

Ironically, the President assumed in his remarks that the Beijing students he addressed felt repulsed by the messages they received from American entertainment-despite abundant evidence that hundreds of millions of Chinese, and in particular the nation's most ambitious young people, enthusiastically embrace our pop culture. During the tragic Tiananmen Square rebellion more than a decade ago, pro-democracy reformers not only seized on the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of their movement, but indulged their taste for the music and fashions identified everywhere as part of American youth culture. American conservatives may abhor the redoubtable Madonna and all her works, but the youthful activists who brought about the Velvet Revolution in Prague reveled in her cultural contributions.

This contradiction highlights the major dispute over the worldwide influence of Hollywood entertainment. Do the spectacularly successful exports from the big show business conglomerates inspire hatred and resentment of the United States, or do they advance the inevitable, End-of-History triumph of American values? Does the near-universal popularity of national icons from Mickey Mouse to Michael Jackson represent the power of our ideals of free expression and free markets, or do the dark and decadent images we broadcast to the rest of the world hand a potent weapon to America-haters everywhere?

Telling It Like It Isn't

Of course, apologists for the entertainment industry decry all attempts to blame Hollywood for anti-Americanism, insisting that American pop culture merely reports reality, accurately reflecting the promise and problems of the United States, and allowing the worldwide audience to respond as they may to the best and worst aspects of our society. During a forum on movie violence sponsored by a group of leading liberal activists, movie director Paul Verhoeven (author of such worthy ornaments to our civilization as Robocop and Basic Instinct) insisted: "Art is a reflection of the world. If the world is horrible, the reflection in the mirror is horrible." In other words, if people in developing countries feel disgusted by the Hollywood imagery so aggressively marketed in their homelands, then the problem cannot be pinned on the shapers of show business but rather arises from the authentic excesses of American life.

This argument runs counter to every statistical analysis of the past twenty years on the distorted imagery of American society purveyed by the entertainment industry. All serious evaluations of movie and television versions of American life suggest that the pop culture portrays a world that is far more violent, dangerous, sexually indulgent (and, of course, dramatic) than everyday American reality. George Gerbner, a leading analyst of media violence at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded after thirty years of research that characters on network television fall victim to acts of violence at least fifty times more frequently than citizens of the real America.

If anything, the disproportionate emphasis on violent behavior only intensifies with the export of American entertainment. For many years, so-called action movies have traveled more effectively than other genres, since explosions and car crashes do not require translation. This leads to the widespread assumption abroad that the United States, despite the dramatically declining crime rate of the last decade, remains a dangerous and insecure society. On a recent trip to England, I encountered sophisticated and thoughtful Londoners who refused to travel across the Atlantic because of their wildly exaggerated fear of American street crime-ignoring recent statistics showing unequivocally that muggings and assaults are now more common in London than in New York. On a similar note, a recent traveler in rural Indonesia met a ten-year old boy who, discovering the American origins of the visitor, asked to see her gun. When she insisted that she didn't carry any firearms, the child refused to believe her: he knew that all Americans carried guns because he had seen them perpetually armed on TV and at the movies.

The misleading media treatment of sexuality has proven similarly unreliable in its oddly altered version of American life. Analysis by Robert and Linda Lichter at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, dc reveals that on television, depictions of sex outside of marriage are nine to fourteen times more common than dramatizations of marital sex. This odd emphasis on non-marital intercourse leads to the conclusion that the only sort of sexual expression frowned upon by Hollywood involves physical affection between husband and wife. In reality, all surveys of intimate behavior (including the famous, sweeping 1994 national study by the University of Chicago) suggest that among the more than two-thirds of American adults who are currently married, sex is not only more satisfying, but significantly more frequent, than it is among their single counterparts. One of pop culture's most celebrated representatives of the "swinging singles" lifestyle today, Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City, recently published a best-selling book full of revealing confessions. In Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm, Cattrall describes a life dramatically different from the voracious and promiscuous escapades of the character she portrays on television. In the intimate arena, she felt frustrated and unfulfilled-as do nearly half of American females, she maintains-until the loving ministrations of her husband, Mark Levinson, finally enabled her to experience gratification and joy.

Even without Cattrall's revelations, anyone acquainted with actual unattached individuals could confirm that Friends and Ally McBeal hardly represent the common lot of American singles. On television and at the movies, the major challenge confronted by most unmarried characters is trying to decide among a superficially dazzling array of sexual alternatives. The entertainments in question may suggest that these explorations will prove less than wholly satisfying, but to most American viewers, single or married, they still look mightily intriguing. To most viewers in more traditional societies, by contrast, they look mightily decadent and disrespectful.

Consider, too, the emphasis on homosexuality in contemporary television and movies. In less than a year between 2001 and 2002, three major networks (NBC, HBO, MTV) offered different, competing dramatizations of the murder of Matthew Shepherd-the gay Wyoming college student beaten to death by two thugs. No other crime in memory-not even the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson-has received comparable attention by major entertainment companies. The message to the world at large not only calls attention to homosexual alternatives in American life, but focuses on our brutal and criminal underclass.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) publishes an annual scorecard in which it celebrates the number of openly gay characters who appear regularly on national television series, and recently counted more than thirty. This trendy fascination with homosexuality (as illustrated by the worshipful attention given to Rosie O'Donnell's hugely publicized "coming out") obviously overstates the incidence of out-of-the-closet gay identity; all scientific studies suggest that less than 3 percent of adults unequivocally see themselves as gay.

For purposes of perspective, it is useful to contrast the pop culture focus on gay orientation with media indifference to religious commitment. A handful of successful television shows such as Touched By An Angel and Seventh Heaven may invoke elements of conventional faith, if often in simplistic, childlike form, but ardent and mature believers remain rare on television and at the movies. The Gallup Poll and other surveys suggest that some 40 percent of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis-more than four times the percentage who go to the movies on any given week. Church or synagogue attendance, however, hardly ever appears in Hollywood or television portrayals of contemporary American society, while mass media feature gay references far more frequently than religious ones. This is hardly an accurate representation of mainstream America, and the distortion plays directly into the hands of some of our most deadly enemies. In October 2001, an "official" press spokesman for Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terror network summarized the struggle between Islamic fanatics and the United States as part of the eternal battle "between faith and atheism." Since the United States represents by far the most religiously committed, church-going nation in the Western world, this reference to the nation's godlessness gains credibility abroad only because of Hollywood's habitual denial or downplaying of the faith-based nature of our civilization.

The ugly media emphasis on the dysfunctional nature of our national life transcends examples of widely decried, tacky and exploitative entertainment, and pointedly includes the most prodigiously praised products of the popular culture. In recent years, some 1.5 billion people around the world watch at least part of Hollywood's annual Oscar extravaganza, and in April 2000 they saw the Motion Picture Academy confer all of its most prestigious awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay) on a puerile pastiche called American Beauty. This embittered assault on suburban family life shows a frustrated father (Kevin Spacey) who achieves redemption only through quitting his job, lusting after a teenaged cheerleader, insulting his harridan wife, compulsively exercising and smoking marijuana. The only visibly loving and wholesome relationship in this surreal middle class nightmare flourishes between two clean-cut gay male neighbors. The very title, American Beauty, ironically invokes the name of an especially cherished flower to suggest that all is not, well, rosy with the American dream. If the entertainment establishment chooses to honor this cinematic effort above all others, then viewers in Kenya or Kuala Lumpur might understandably assume that it offers a mordantly accurate assessment of the emptiness and corruption of American society.

Explaining Media Masochism

This prominent example of overpraised artistic ambition suggests that the persistent problems in Hollywood's view of America go far beyond the normal pursuit of profit. While American Beauty director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball might well aspire to critical acclaim, the movie's producers always understood that this tale of suburban dysfunction probably would not be a slam-dunk box office blockbuster (though the Oscars ensured that it did quite well commercially). The most common excuse for the ferocious focus on violence and bizarre behavior-the argument that the "market made me do it" and that public demands leave entertainment executives with no choice-falls apart in the face of the most rudimentary analysis.

Every year, the American movie industry releases more than 300 films, with a recent average of 65 percent of those titles rated "R"-or adults only-by the Motion Picture Association of America. Conventional wisdom holds that the big studios emphasize such disturbing, edgy R-rated releases precisely because they perform best at the box office, but an abundance of recent studies proves that the public prefers feel-good, family fare. A recent comprehensive analysis confirms the conclusions on this point in my 1992 book, Hollywood Vs. America. Two economists, Arthur DeVany of the University of California at Irvine and W. David Walls of the University of Hong Kong, summarized their research: "This paper shows that Medved is right: there are too many R-rated movies in Hollywood's portfolio. . . . We show that, as Medved claimed, R-rated movies are dominated by G, PG and PG-13 movies in all three dimensions of revenues, costs, return on production cost, and profits."

The other argument in defense of the entertainment emphasis on troubled aspects of American life involves the inherently dramatic nature of social dysfunction. According to the celebrated Tolstoyan aphorism, "All happy families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This logic suggests an inevitable tendency to highlight the same sort of unpleasant but gripping situations so memorably brought to life by eminent pre-cinematic screenwriters like Sophocles and Shakespeare. Divorce and adultery offer more obvious entertainment value than marital bliss; criminality proves more instantly compelling than good citizenship. In an intensely competitive international marketplace, the dark-even deviant-obsessions of the present potentates of pop culture may seem to make a crude sort of sense.

This approach, however, ignores the striking lessons of Hollywood's own heritage and the wholesome basis on which our star-spangled entertainment industry came to conquer the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, the American movie business faced formidable competition from well-developed production centers in Italy, France, Germany, England and even Russia. Obvious political disruptions (including the brutal intrusion of fascist and communist tyranny) helped U.S. corporations triumph over their European rivals, and drove many of the most talented individuals to seek refuge across the Atlantic. But even more than the historic circumstances that undermined America's competitors, Hollywood managed to dominate international markets because of a worldwide infatuation with the America it both exploited and promoted. Without question, iconic homegrown figures such as Jimmy Stewart, Mae West, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Jimmy Cagney and John Wayne, in addition to charismatic imports like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Greta Garbo, projected qualities on screen that came to seem quintessentially, irresistibly American. As film critic Richard Grenier aptly commented during a March 1992 symposium:

Aside from the country's prominence, there seems to have been an irresistible magnetism about a whole assemblage of American attitudes-optimism, hope, belief in progress, profound assumptions of human equality, informality-often more apparent to foreigners than to Americans themselves, that the outside world has found compelling. Over many decades these attitudes became so entrenched in world opinion as 'American' that in recent times, when certain Hollywood films have taken on a distinctly negative tone, America has still retained its dramatic power, Hollywood, as it were, living on its spiritual capital.

In other words, in its so-called Golden Age, the entertainment industry found a way to make heroism look riveting, even fashionable, and to make decency dramatic. In contrast to the present day, when most of the world watches American pop culture with the sort of guilty fascination we might lavish on a particularly bloody car crash, people in every corner of the globe once looked to our entertainment exports as a source of inspiration, even enlightenment. As the English producer David Puttnam revealed in an eloquent 1989 interview with Bill Moyers, he cherished the days of his childhood when "the image that was being projected overseas was of a society of which I wanted to be a member. Now cut to twenty years later-the image that America began projecting in the 1970s, of a self-loathing, very violent society, antagonistic within itself-that patently isn't a society that any thinking person in the Third World or Western Europe or Eastern Europe would wish to have anything to do with. America has for some years been exporting an extremely negative notion of itself."

The change came about in part because of a change in the people running the major studios and television networks. As movie historian Neal Gabler perceptively observed in his influential book, An Empire of Their Own, Hollywood's founding generation consisted almost entirely of East European immigrant Jews who craved American acceptance so powerfully that they used celluloid fantasies to express their ongoing adoration for their adopted country. Their successors, on the other hand, came from far more "respectable" backgrounds-in some cases as the privileged children and grandchildren of the founders themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, they sought to establish their independence and artistic integrity by burnishing their countercultural credentials. To illustrate the magnitude and speed of the change, the 1965 Academy Award for Best Picture went to the delightful and traditionally romantic musical, The Sound of Music. A mere four years later, that same coveted Oscar went to Midnight Cowboy-the gritty story of a down-and-out male hustler in New York City, and the only X-rated feature ever to win Best Picture.

From the beginning and through to the present day, the leaders of the entertainment community have felt a powerful need to be taken seriously. The creators of the industry were born outsiders who earned that respect by expressing affection for America; the moguls of the later generations have been for the most part born insiders who earned their respect by expressing their alienation. This negativity naturally found an eager international audience during the Vietnam War era and in the waning years of the Cold War with the widespread dismissal of the "cowboy culture" of Reaganism. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, anti-Americanism remained fashionable among taste-setting elites in much of the world, appealing with equal fervor to critics from the Right and the Left. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, for example, the beleaguered Russian Communists and the indefatigable mujaheddin might agree on very little-but they both felt powerful contempt for the freewheeling and self-destructive mores of American culture as promoted everywhere by the Hollywood entertainment machine.

Even as post-Cold War globalization enhanced the economic power and political influence of the United States, it helped the entertainment industry sustain its anti-American attitudes. With the removal of the Iron Curtain, vast new markets opened up for Hollywood entertainment, with developing economies in Asia and Latin America, too, providing hundreds of millions of additional customers. Between 1985 and 1990, inflation-adjusted revenues from overseas markets for U.S. feature films rose 124 percent at a time when domestic proceeds remained relatively flat. As a result, the portion of all movie income derived from foreign distribution rose from 30 percent in 1980 to more than 50 percent in 2000. James G. Robinson, influential chairman of Morgan Creek Productions, was right to have predicted to the Los Angeles Times in March 1992: "All of the real growth in the coming years will be overseas."

The fulfillment of his forecast has served to further detach today's producers from any sense of patriotic or parochial identification, encouraging their pose as Americans who have nobly transcended their own Americanism. A current captain of the entertainment industry need not ask whether a putative project will "play in Peoria"-so long as it plays in Paris, St. Petersburg and Panama City. As I argued in the pages of Hollywood Vs. America in 1992: "While the populist products of Hollywood's Golden Age most certainly encouraged the world's love affair with America, today's nihilistic and degrading attempts at entertainment may, in the long run, produce the opposite effect, helping to isolate this country as a symbol of diseased decadence."

Why Do They Watch It?

With that isolation increasingly apparent after the unprecedented assault of 9/11, the question remains: Why does so much of the world still seem so single-mindedly obsessed with American entertainment, for all its chaotic and unrepresentative elements?

The most likely answer involves what might be described as the "National Enquirer appeal" of Hollywood's vision of life in the United States. While waiting in the supermarket checkout lines, we turn to the scandal-ridden tabloids not because of our admiration for the celebrities they expose, but because of our uncomfortable combination of envy and resentment toward them. The tabloids compel our attention because they allow us to feel superior to the rich and famous. For all their wealth and glamor and power, they cannot stay faithful to their spouses, avoid drug addiction, or cover up some other guilty secret. We may privately yearn to change places with some star of the moment, but the weekly revelations of the National Enquirer actually work best to reassure us that we are better off as we are.

In much the same way, Hollywood's unpleasant images of America enable the rest of the world to temper inevitable envy with a sense of their own superiority. The United States may be rich in material terms (and movies and television systematically overstate that wealth), but the violence, cruelty, injustice, corruption, arrogance and degeneracy so regularly included in depictions of American life allow viewers abroad to feel fortunate by comparison. Like the Enquirer approach to the private peccadilloes of world-striding celebrities, you are supposed to feel fascinated by their profligate squandering of opportunity and power.

In this sense, American pop culture is not so much liberating as it is anarchic and even nihilistic. Our entertainment offerings do not honor our freedom and liberty as political or cultural values so much as they undermine all restraints and guidelines, both the tyrannical and the traditional. As Dwight Macdonald wrote in his celebrated 1953 essay, "A Theory of Mass Culture": "Like 19th century capitalism, Mass Culture is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolving all cultural distinctions." Amplifying Macdonald's work, Edward Rothstein of the New York Times wrote in March 2002: "There is something inherently disruptive about popular culture. It undermines the elite values of aristocratic art, displaces the customs of folk culture and opposes any limitation on art's audiences or subjects. It asserts egalitarian tastes, encourages dissent and does not shun desire." It should come as no surprise, then, that even those who embrace the symbols and themes of American entertainment may feel little gratitude toward a force that casts them loose from all traditional moorings, but offers no organized system of ideas or values by way of replacement.

Patriotism and Profit

In 1994, I participated in an international conference on the family in Warsaw and listened to the plaintive recollections of a troubled Polish priest. He recalled the days of the Cold War, "when we listened in basements to illegal radios to Radio Free Europe so we could get a little bit of hope, a little bit of truth, from the magical land of America." After the collapse of Communism, however, America's message seemed dangerous and decadent rather than hopeful. "All of a sudden, we're struggling against drugs and free sex and aids and crime-and all of that seems to be an import from America. It's like the message of freedom that we heard before was only the freedom to destroy ourselves."
On a similar note, an American businessman of my acquaintance traveling in Beirut struck up a conversation with the proprietor of a falafel stand who announced himself an enthusiastic supporter of the radical, pro-Iranian terrorist group, Hizballah. Ironically, his small business featured a faded poster showing a bare-chested, machine-gun toting Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. My friend asked about the place of honor provided to an American movie hero. "We all like Rambo", the Hizballah supporter unblushingly declared. "He is a fighter's fighter." But wouldn't that make the Lebanese dissident more favorably inclined toward the United States, the visitor inquired. "Not at all", was the response. "We will use Rambo's methods to destroy the evil America."

This love-hate relationship with Hollywood's twisted imagery also characterized the 19 conspirators who made such a notable attempt to "destroy evil America" with their September 11 atrocities. During their months and years in the United States, Mohammed Atta and his colleagues savored the popular culture-renting action videos and visiting bars, peep shows, lap dancing parlors and Las Vegas-immersing themselves in Western degradation to stiffen their own hatred (and self-hatred?) of it.

In response to the terrorist attacks and to the onset of the war that followed, leaders of the Hollywood community expressed some dawning awareness that they may have indeed contributed to some of the hatred of America expressed around the world. Beyond a brief flurry of flag-waving, and the generous contributions to the 9/11 fund by leading celebrities from Julia Roberts to Jim Carrey, members of the entertainment elite showed a new willingness to cooperate with the defense establishment. Working through the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC (originally created to enlist Hollywood talent for shaping virtual reality simulators for military training), creators of movies like Die Hard, Fight Club and even Being John Malkovich brainstormed with Pentagon brass. Their purpose, according to several press reports, involved an attempt to concoct the next possible plot that might be launched against the United States, and then to devise strategies to counteract it.

In a sense, this unconventional program acknowledged the fact that violent, demented, anti-social and conspiratorial thinking has come to characterize a major segment of the entertainment establishment. How else could an objective observer interpret the idea that the military turned first to millionaire screenwriters in order to understand the thought processes of mass-murdering terrorists?

Beyond this strange collaboration, top show business executives met with Karl Rove, political representative of President Bush, in an attempt to mobilize Hollywood creativity to serve America in the war against terror. The well-publicized "summit" discussed public service ads to discourage bigotry against Muslims in America and additional productions to give the United States a more benign image in the Islamic world. A handful of top directors, including William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist and the excellent, Rules of Engagement) expressed their willingness to drop all their pressing projects and enlist full-time to help the American war effort. In this determination, these pop culture patriots hoped to follow the example of the great Golden Age director Frank Capra, who served his country during World War II through the creation of the epic Why We Fight series.

Alas, the White House and the Pentagon failed to take advantage of the self-sacrificing spirit of the moment, or to pursue the entertainment industry opportunities that presented themselves after September 11. As the trauma of terrorist attacks gradually recedes into memory and the nation loses focus on its sense of patriotic purpose, the popular culture is displaying few long-term changes. Perhaps a more positive attitude toward the military may be the chief legacy of the deadly attacks-an attitude publicly celebrated so far in a handful of movies (Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers), incidentally, all produced before the September 11 catastrophe. More significant changes, involving a new sense of responsibility for the images of America that pop culture transmits around the world, never even merited serious discussion in Hollywood. For the top entertainment conglomerates, this may count as an unseized opportunity for public service, but also a missed chance for corporate profit.

In his February speech in Beijing, President Bush held the Chinese students transfixed with a picture of America that departed dramatically from the visions they had received from made-in-USA music, movies and television. "America is a nation guided by faith", the President declared. "Someone once called us 'a nation with the soul of a church.' This may interest you-95 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and I'm one of them." Bush went on to appeal to the family priorities that have characterized Chinese culture for more than 3,000 years: "Many of the values that guide our life in America are first shaped in our families, just as they are in your country. American moms and dads love their children and work hard and sacrifice for them because we believe life can always be better for the next generation. In our families, we find love and learn responsibility and character."

If Hollywood's leaders placed themselves within the context of the wider American family, they might also learn responsibility and character-and discover that a more wholesome, loving and balanced portrayal of the nation they serve could enhance rather than undermine their worldwide popularity.

Michael Medved, author of Hollywood Vs. America and Saving Childhood, hosts a nationally-syndicated, daily radio talk show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture.

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