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.