Jonathan Chait has a long, and important, essay in New York about the extent to which our popular culture is liberal. But while I think the piece is required reading, and that Chait is largely correct about the extent to which Hollywood values are essentially if not particularly articulately liberal values, I want to quibble with him on a few issues. I don’t really think the culture war is over, it’s just in a new phase. And it’s important to acknowledge that for all the liberal values it espouses, Hollywood employment can be astonishingly, shockingly illiberal in a way that impacts and diminishes the breadth and depth of the liberalism that’s reflected in the content the industry produces.
It’s true, as he writes, that “Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago.” But it’s not as if other groups haven’t risen up to replace them. Retailers may have become comfortable rebuffing organizations like the Million Moms when they complain about something as anodyne as Archie Comics that portray gay people getting married and serving in the armed forces. But as the reaction to TLC’s All-American Muslim, a reality show that explored the lives of an interconnected group of Muslim families in Michigan, shows, conservative groups can be shockingly effective when their target is a minority with less social capital than the gay community. Home-supply giant Lowe’s and travel booker Kayak both pulled their ads from the program in response to a boycott organized by a front organization, the Florida Family Association. Just because conservative agitation campaigns have moved from condemning gay characters to treating the portrayal of Muslim families as normal Americans as a suspect practice doesn’t mean they’re not still active, and that they can’t still be effective.
Chait also suggests that the very fact that The Dark Knight Rises was hailed as a conservative movie suggests that conservatives have largely ceded the debate. That’s a debate that depends in part on how conservative you believe The Dark Knight Rises is. But it also doesn’t really take into account the effort to build a parallel structure to Hollywood to create and release deeply conservative movies like the anti-abortion film October Baby, which made $5,355,847 at the box office, or Act of Valor the rah-rah Marine movie that took in $70,012,847 domestically and another $10 million overseas. If liberals are able to use mainstream Hollywood to, as Chait puts it, use “their platform to raise their audience’s consciousness about racial tolerance or the environment or distrusting government officials,” on a broad but not particularly deep level, conservatives are using their cultural products to rally people who are already deeply invested in a shared set of ideas, whether that abortion is wrong, or that unquestioning praise of the troops is critically important.
And while Chait points out that Hollywood is an industry that makes liberals and conservatives talk somewhat differently about the market than they do in other spheres—”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,” he writes—he ignores one of the strangest disjuncts between Hollywood’s stated and practiced values, and one the deepest drivers of the shallowness of Hollywood liberalism: the striking illiberalism of the industry’s hiring practices. The Hollywood liberals who shape the worldviews Chait discusses are largely white men, and the actual patterns of employment in the industry are the kind of nightmare stories liberals like to tell about what American life would look like under conservative rule. I’ve repeated these statistics to many times that I’m exhausted by them, but no discussion of how liberal Hollywood is can really be an honest one unless it’s acknowledged that in the 2010-2011 television season, women were just 15 percent of writers and that women of color directed just one percent of episodes, or that in 2009, the pay gap between white men and minority writers of both genders in television was $23,325. These are maddening numbers that represent a fundamental and powerful contradiction between the ideals of Hollywood and its practices, and that shouldn’t be ignored just because the ideas in a lot of films and television shows are fundamentally if not exceptionally liberal. Powerful Hollywood liberals should not be allowed to walk on hiring practices because their work reaps results a decade and a half down the line, and we should not assume that the liberalism espoused by Hollywood content is truly representative of the spectrum or priorities of liberalism, particularly given the portrayal of women and people of color, when they actually get roles in front of the camera.
But while I have some issues with Chait’s analysis, I think the section of it that deals with the actual impact of television, something the people who make it have a rather inconsistent relationship to, is fascinating. In particular, he cites two studies about the impact of television on family size and attitudes about gender in Brazil and India:
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…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.
In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.
There are other interesting examples that point to more targeted impacts from more targeted points, like a short-term boom in carbon offsets purchases inspired by An Inconvenient Truth that faded without cultural reinforcement. And that points to one of the challenges of using culture to bend the curve—it’s been more effective in terms of attitudes and passive behavior than in activating audiences to actually take action. Part of that may be because audiences don’t necessarily assume policy or health information in scripted programming to be real. But it may also be because a lot of Hollywood liberals are more comfortable setting the table than serving a meal with designated dishes. As Chait writes, “If you ask Hollywood liberals themselves about the liberalism of their work, the answer generally depends on how you pose the question. If you frame it in terms of social responsibility, they will happily boast about using their platform…Pose the same question as an accusation of ideological or partisan bias—those are, after all, liberal values—then they will more likely deny it.” It makes sense that folks who create culture would want their impact to be in the same space, to create the kind of atmosphere where an audience is entirely bought into the scenario laid out for them, but forever, rather than for an hour or two.