Hollywood Squares

Freddie nods approvingly at Conor Friedersdorf’s latest manifesto for conservative writers and entertainers at Doublethink online, and sure enough, it’s a good read. But I wonder if Hollywood’s laissez-faire approach to ideology extends to all stripes of conservatism, not just libertarian-minded fiscal tightwads. As one commenter put it over at the American Scene, would outspoken cultural conservatives get the same treatment as their fiscally conservative comrades-in-arms? One of Friedersdorf’s subjects seems to acknowledge this divide, noting that “hardcore social conservatives might find things a bit tougher,” but that’s about as far as the piece delves into the state of social conservatism in the entertainment industry.

One reason “liberaltarianism” has always seemed so plausible is the close cultural affinity between libertarians and progressive liberals. I’ve always imagined that despite their differences, the editors of Reason and, say, The Nation could get together and smoke a few joints on the weekend. This may be a result of coming up in the Age of Bush, but I have trouble imagining a similar rapprochement between Reason and National Review.

In other words, haggling over marginal tax rates or the stimulus bill seems less contentious than trading blows over abortion or gay marriage. The former is at least supposed to be an empirical question; the latter strikes me as a more fundamental, value-oriented disagreement. As the cultural apogee of crass materialism, I doubt Hollywood would exile anyone disenchanted with forking over piles of cash to the federal government. But what about someone whose worldview is an implicit challenge to the industry’s core assumptions?

N.B. – Freddie’s alternative hypothesis – that art is fundamentally at odds with cultural conservatism – is also plausible. But Hollywood and art aren’t synonymous, and the success of one film in particular implies that there’s a financial incentive to cater to a socially conservative audience.

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30 thoughts on “Hollywood Squares

  1. the thesis that art and cultural conservatism are incompatible is actually a more rigorous argument than that – art is fundamentally about evoking a response, usually at the expense of closed traditions and taboos, or at the very least by innovating on perspective. These are dangerous things to a conservative – I do not mean this as a critique, after all as a practicing muslim the idea of “art” in such a context as applied to the Qur’an is abhorrent.

    The example you gave of The Passion of the Christ is not a good one – thhat film was more of an event rather than evidence of a sustainable conservative filmgoing experience. The fact that the film shamelessly played off of hoar anti-Semitic myths about the Jews and Christ accouunts for more of its success than its reverence for Christ; I can name many other movies that have shown similar reverence for religiouos tradition, including Amazing Grace, Kingdom of Heaven and the Narnia film series. Example of positive spiritual characters abound in film – in places youd least expect, for example do you recall the prayer Aunt May did for Peter in the first Spider Man movie? And please dont neglect Shepherd Book from Firefly.

    The truth is that moviegoers leave their politics and religious identity at the tcket lobby. there is no “conservative audience” to speak of – and the supposed liberal-ness of hollywood is really just a reflection of popular culture which is itself, inexorably, moving leftwards. Hollywood lags, not leads.

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    • Aziz Poonawalla –

      That’s a smart point, but I’m not sure the entertainment industry and “art” are synonymous. Hollywood is about catering to a mass audience, and there are quite a few social conservatives out there. Art may be at odds with social conservatism, but I don’t think the entertainment industry should be, particularly when so many potential customers are self-identified social conservatives.

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      • To expand however inartfully(!) on Aziz’s point, Hollywood’s goal is maximizing butts in the theatre seat and DVDs in the home, both in the US and internationally. I think we often forget the latter point. My sense is that international audiences are less socially conservative than US audiences, so there is even less of a market for explicitly social-conservative-leaning fare.
        I also agree with Aziz about Passion as an “outlier.”

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        • Fair enough, but given the number of social conservatives in the United States and elsewhere (outside of Western Europe, are people more or less socially conservative than the United States?), you would think that some movies would be aimed at that particular demographic.

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      • i dont think my argument requires hollywood and art to be synonomous, but the main discussion really is pretty hollywood centric anyway. the entertainment consumer, I am arguing, is largely checking its politucal identity at the door. i think that theres no real market for “conservative” films because conservatives are watching the same movies as anyone else anyway. the industry is getting conservative dollars, so why would they need to specialize?

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    • Well, a Michael Bay joke certainly wasn’t predictable or hackneyed.

      Anyway, I hate to be the guy who sounds off on the same note over and over again (actually, I kind of like being that guy, because it’s a subject that interests me a lot), but I’m pretty sure that chart so many people seem to think is hanging in the sky — the one that shows where the line between “Art” and “Not Art” is, based purely on the “quality” of a work’s content — doesn’t actually exist.

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      • Quality can be pretty subjective, so perhaps that’s not the best determinant, but surely there’s a distinction between people whose sole interest is appealing to a mass audience for financial gain and people who want to create an artistic statement.

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        • Well, if you can find me someone whose sole interest is appealing to a mass audience, that makes things a little easier. But I suspect that even if his movies tend not to offer particularly coherent narratives (and regardless of the fact that he works in the blockbuster format — we’re not going to automatically take points away from people who prefer creating popular art, are we?), Michael Bay has some statements he wants to make, even if they’re just “Explosions are awesome.” (Which does not differ semantically from “Art for art’s sake,” IMHO.) I mean, if he didn’t, I don’t see how he could even have developed what critics have come to deride as “the Michael Bay style.”

          I dunno. Marshall McLuhan is very close to my heart, and with “the medium is the message,” he meant in large part that conversations about the “quality” of a work are not especially useful and distract us from the discussions we should be having. To him, what movies qua movies do was a lot more relevant than the supposed superiority of a Scorsese film to a Brett Ratner flick. I tend to agree, because I think he’s right, and because the conversations get a lot more interesting than “Oh, those mindless, foolish masses will pony up for G.I. Joe and anything else Hollywood serves up.”

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      • Hackneyed???

        Anyway, the whole “art” is subjective thing is an interesting debate. As a libertine, I am down with people liking whatever they are inclined to like (please don’t make me pay for it unless we are sleeping together, however).

        That said, it’s exceptionally easy to look at the crap that is out there and say “I can’t believe people are paying money to partake in this crap.” You don’t even have to be a snob to notice that. (I say that as someone who loved (LOVED) Live Free or Die Hard and Chronicles of Riddick.)

        If you have spent any time with the Christian Underbelly of pop culture, there is a lot of crap out there. Even the best of the best Christian stuff (Michael W. Smith, Flyleaf) is notable for merely not being awful. The christian movies out there (THIEF IN THE NIGHT!!!!) are spectacularly bad. Spectacularly. My goodness, you could write a doctoral thesis for psych on them. Even the best of the best ones (Best Two Years… “If you see only one mormon comedy this year, make it this one!”) are notable for the amount of enthuasiam it took to mix that much blandness with that much earnestness.

        If you want to expand your definitions of conservativism somewhat, you can start talking about Judd Apatow movies with their children-of-divorce deep cultural conservativism or talk about the conservative (as only The Brothers Grimm could be conservative) themes in the slasher movies of the 80’s.

        Aesthetics, however, are possible and it is possible to say “this is good, this is interesting, this is bad, and this is transcendently bad to the point where how bad it is is interesting” and Michael Bay and the Left Behind movies share that last category.

        Hard.

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        • I totally agree there are aesthetic judgments we can make, some of them even objective. And I find it really worthwhile to look at a work and say, “Here’s what I think it does right (or wrong), and here’s why.” I just don’t think the assumption that so often is made — “All of us intelligent people understand that this isn’t art” — holds water nearly often enough to be useful. If art is part of a cultural feedback system in which artists process the present and past and then spit out ideas that both anticipate and shape the future (and I think it is), it seems really foolhardy to dismiss the value as cultural artifacts of creators and creations with huge followings, just because they don’t meet certain of our own standards. And that seems like a valid point to make, because it’s interesting and because by saying, “Well, Hollywood isn’t art,” we suddenly cut one of the major sources of what certainly looks a lot like art to me out of the conversation.

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          • Yes, you are right.

            It irritates me when someone says that Norman Rockwell isn’t a “real” artist or that Thomas Kinkade isn’t one (the former irritates me more than the latter, I admit).

            If we want to call Michael Bay the Thomas Kinkade of Hollywood, I’d be down with that. Hell, not even. Kinkade has invoked actual emotions.

            He’s the Ed Hardy of Hollywood.

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  2. I don’t think there’s an issue here so much of their being a lack of demand for conservative films, or even that conservatives are incapable of making good art, but rather that conservative impulses are likely to be the same impulses that steer people towards particular professions, just as liberal impulses will tend to steer people towards other professions, and libertarian impulses towards still others. Conservatives are just less likely to become actors in the first place, so there are going to be fewer conservatives who produce good art.

    But on top of that, the fact is that relatively little popular art is ever going to be overtly political. That’s not to say that overtly political popular art doesn’t exist, just that when it is created it will inherently appeal almost exclusively to a particular niche audience and will only rarely actually affect pop culture outside that niche.

    So the result is that more often than not you will get relatively liberal actors and directors making popular movies that are not intended as broad political statements. But because they are made by relatively liberal actors and directors, that liberalism will have an inevitable pull on the direction of the film. I tend to think it’s this pull that conservatives are really complaining about, but it’s just not the sort of thing that the majority of people are really going to care about when they’re watching a film; in fact, this subtle and probably unintentional pull is the sort of thing that probably even makes for a better artistic endeavor.

    Where conservatives go off the deep end with all of this is that they then tend to think that the subtle pull is actually overt and intentional. When I hear and read conservative critiques of Hollywood, there seems to be this belief that just about any critically acclaimed movies are overtly political and that the solution is to make a bunch of overtly conservative movies.

    Put another way: conservative critiques of Hollywood often seem to reek of a political correctness that just misses the point of filmmaking, even popular filmmaking.

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    • Depends.

      I think that John Rambo was one of the most conservative anti-war films I have *EVER* seen. As a movie in its own right, it was pretty good. A hair depressing.

      The most anti-drug movie I have ever seen (and I recommend it to my friends with children that they may watch it before they have the drugs conversation) is A Scanner Darkly. Have you seen it? It’s an amazing movie. Very good. Very honest. Very conservative. (I found it significantly less preachy than Requiem for a Dream which turned into a comedy after 10 minutes.)

      There are a fair number (though surely not even close to parity) of conservative movies out there… but my definition of conservative includes stuff like “John Rambo” and Phillip K. Dick movies.

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  3. To clarify, the point isn’t that there isn’t any conservative art or movies, but that what people tend to mean when they say conservative art is culturally and socially restrictive, with positive moral uplift, no sex or drugs, etc. That is a narrow vision of conservatism, of course– but it happens to be the vision that people who are most likely to complain about movies have when they ask for more “conservative film.”

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  4. One of silliest parts of con whining about the entertainment industry is that it is just about the most rabidly capitalistic industry in the world. Anything that makes money will be copied and produced in a second. If the networks could get away with CSI: The Quad Cities, they would.

    Along with that there is some sort of assumption by Con’s that if they don’t like something then it must be liberal. Liberals are the boogie man for Social con’s after all. But where the hell are liberals shouting hazzah’s to how great the entertainment industry is. Liberals types have be pretty rounding criticizing the entertainment industry as much as social cons, albeit for different reasons.

    As Jay noted there have been plenty of “conservative” moves, although how you define that is an interesting question. Take the horrible oppressed Clint Eastwood, I think he has made a couple of movies. Con’s seemed to love his movies. Although I’m not sure they liked Unforgiven since it didn’t glamorize violence or that girl fighting movie or the Iwo Jima movie that actually had Japanese characters. I have to add as a card carrying liberal, Dirty Harry is a great movie.

    I think the whiners also tended to miss the explosion of violent action and martial arts movies in the 80’s. Then again Chuck Norris and Stallone were hounded out of the movies in the 80’s.

    When I have met con’s in person who try the conservatives can’t make it in Hollywood stuff, I usually just starting listing conservatives or republican’s who have been successful. It doesn’t take long before they say “stop” and generally STFU.

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  5. “But what about someone whose worldview is an implicit challenge to the industry’s core assumptions?”

    What are the specific core assumptions you mean? As far as I can tell, Hollywood (and other producers of popular entertainment — though I’m wary of attributing “core assumptions” to any group made up of so many different companies and individuals) has frequently made room for satire of or even savage attacks on itself and the rest of the entertainment industry. The paradox is that although it may be the apogee of crass materialism, Hollywood loves putting out movies about how abstract ideals are what are really worth living (and dying) for. But that’s just because people love that theme, and I honestly think believe in it, even if they demonstrate frequent cognitive dissonance in its application.

    One of the big problems with “conservative” art in the sense Freddie is talking about — the kind of art evangelical Christians think there ought to be more of — is that it tends to favor didacticism over presenting an honest view of the world. Most people, it seems, instinctively shy away from art of any stamp that says “This is how things should be” if it doesn’t do a really, really good job of establishing “This is how things actually are” first. There are plenty of very “liberal” movies that go wrong this way too, and I would agree with some socially conservative commentators that those movies sometimes get a pass (from, say, Oscar voters) because the message is “We must respect other cultures/sexualities/the Earth” and not “Internet pornography can ruin your soul.”

    I think, as Jaybird says above, there are actually plenty of movies that espouse conservative-y values without being so heavy-handed (look at Superman! I mean, dude literally turns back time). But conservatives of the type who complain about Hollywood shut those out. There are so many limits on what qualifies as acceptable to them — restricted violence, no sex, no make-believe; right there, that’s three of the big mainstays of storytelling — that your average producer can hardly be blamed for not wanting to back those types of projects.

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    • Moff –

      I agree with Friedersdorf insofar as conservatives should stop complaining about ideological imbalances and start producing quality stuff that may occasionally explore a sympathetic political subtext. My question – and it’s something I wish the article had explored in greater detail – is whether those with socially conservative views find it more difficult to get ahead in the entertainment industry. Now, maybe social conservatives are only interested in producing didactic, preachy movies that are completely lacking in artistic quality. Maybe that’s why movies with an obvious socially conservative sympathies are pretty rare. But maybe there are implicit barriers to advancement for outspoken social conservatives in the entertainment industry. As I said, it’s an open question, and one I think is worth exploring in greater detail.

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      • I can’t see how it would ever be possible to know this. The movie and tv industries are notoriously hard to break into and often brutal to work in. if anything social con’s who blame their politics are going to get crap because they can’t accept what a difficult industry it is to work in.

        Social con’s seem to want major movies and tv that specifically aim to soothe and please them. Anything that doesn’t the apparently view as eeeviillll liberal brain washing.

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        • Yeah, I’m not opposed to anyone pursuing a question further, but I just think in this case, it’s pretty simple. The Hollywood community isn’t especially amenable to social conservatives, any more than the hedge fund community is especially amenable to avid Marxists. Plus, no one in Hollywood sees a lot of money to be made, or artistic satisfaction to be gained, from going against their peers’ grain and getting into bed* with social conservatives. There already is a not-insubstantial market for socially conservative movies, after all; if non–social conservatives were dropping piles of cash to acquire those films, someone in Hollywood would want to go after that growing audience. So I don’t see what implicit barriers there are beyond “Most of us in this industry don’t like a lot of your ideas” and “The bulk of our audience doesn’t seem to be interested in them, either.”

          *Metaphorically, of course! Heavens.

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      • “Socially Conservative sympathies”.

        Did “The 40-year Old Virgin” have socially conservative sympathies? I’m under the impression that it is a perfect example of socially conservative sympathies. Off the top of my head, I’m trying to think of a movie with more sympathies than that one. Robert Duvall’s “The Preacher”? Without delving into Disney titles, I am honestly having trouble coming up with a more socially conservative-sympathetic movie.

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  6. What about Tyler Perry movies? Pretty sure most of them do well. And while I suppose this is debatable, I’ve always found them to be VERY socially conservative.
    Is it different because he’s a black social conservative making movies for other black social conservatives? Or perhaps because he dresses in fatsuit-drag?

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