A couple months ago you may have seen this “news” video. Fox News claimed that The Muppets (and Hollywood in general) is sneaking their “liberal agenda” into the films we watch. Even kids films! How horrible. Last week the Muppets replied. The ridiculous media circus this created made me wonder… Is this true? Is Hollywood sneaking anti-capitalist ideas into their movies? Is Hollywood anti-capitalist? Is it even “liberal”? In this blog post I will briefly discuss the history of film and analyze how the films themselves and the filmmaking techniques perpetuates and rarely critique the American Dream.
Benshof and Griffin states, “American popular cinema has always centered on and dramatized the middle and upper classes, mostly as a way of supporting and celebrating capitalism” (161). Film made during early Hollywood used stories based on the Horatio Alger myth. The myth “reworked the American Dream for the turn of the century urban America and helped disseminate the idea that anyone could succeed in America if he simply tried hard enough” (Benshoff and Griffin 165). Films expressing this myth are found through out the history of film and essentially became the basis for classical Hollywood narrative structure. Classic Hollywood films are all about a man overcoming some hardship and gaining success. Success if often defined as getting money and the girl.
Hollywood’s ability to fabricate the Horatio Alger myth extended beyond their films. Audiences began to believe you could go to Hollywood and make it (as a filmmaker or actor). However, this was not the case. In Black Directors In Hollywood, Melvin Donalson argues, “In the motion picture business, which thrives on closed social networks, family affiliations, and venture capital, Hollywood powerbrokers have easily excluded [minorities and working class individuals] from the inner circles of creative development, financial planning, production, and distribution” (5) Those who found work in Hollywood were routinely exploited by Studio executives. When they tried to form unions they were treated the way workers across the country were. Being part of a union was considered un-American and communist. In fact, “movie moguls centered their industry in southern California because, unlike the East Coast, unions had not yet gained significant strength there. Consequently, the studios could pay day laborers much less money and force them to work under less than stringent workplace regulations” (Benshoff and Griffin 168).
Union busting was taken to the next level at the time the Congressional committee called House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to hold hearings to investigate whether communists were running rampant through the nation’s industries and the film industry took advantage of it. “Certain studio executives, like Walt Disney, used the opportunity to name and defame union organizers who had challenged them” (Benshoff and Griffin 180). In 1947, HUAC made “The Hollywood Ten” testify before them. They asked ten screenwriters and directors about the political affiliations and when answered or refused to answer they were indicted and imprisoned. A blacklist of filmmakers was created that destroyed many peoples career.
In the 1950s Hollywood continued to celebrate materialism and the glories of capitalist excess. They made escapist entertainment: historical epics, opulent musicals, and lush comedies. During this time Hollywood consistently shipped their film productions overseas to exploit cheaper labor. This is exactly what the rest of corporate America has done in the United States. There were always glimmers of hope. A so-called New American Cinema grew out of Beat filmmaking and new advances in 16 mm film production (Benshoff and Griffin 184) and created a counter-culture. Unfortunately these changes would assimilate into mainstream culture or completely disappear.
The return to conventional genres and formulas quickly eliminated criticism of capitalism and economic disparity. The Horatio Alger was again front and center in Hollywood. Films like Rocky (1976) used vaguely realist styles to retell stories of the American Dream. “In Rocky, a working class man makes a better life for himself through sheer determination and hard work, with little-to-no discussion of the institutionalized factors that, in the real world, work to inhibit such mobility” (Benschoff and Griffin 191). “Hollywood’s new films and many others of the era reflected a shift toward conspicuous materialism in the nations culture, a shift that was also reflected by the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980” (Benshoff and Griffin 192). Reagan promoted the American Dream and if you didn’t agree with what he said you were un-American. His Reaganomics encouraged individuals to indulge in conspicuous consumption. The gap between the rich and poor grew.
Today, Corporate Hollywood, whether it be work conditions or actual films and how they’re distributed have not changed much. When minorities or members of the working class make into the film industry it’s incredibly hard to work their way up. The lower jobs in the film industry are temporary organizations; it’s usually freelance work because studios purposely find non-unionized workers. For example, James Cameron is widely considered a left leaning filmmaking, but while Titanic vaguely deals with class issues, the climatic sinking of the ship was shot in waters off the coast of Mexico, where local extras were forced to stay in the water for hours in the middle of the night, and a number were injured.
As Beth Bechly states, these temporary organizations rely “more heavily on social mechanisms such as reciprocity, socialization, and reputation” (3). The biggest problem in this situation is it’s incredibly hard for people to stand up for themselves. According to Muir, “Short-term staff[s] are … less likely to join forces and campaign for their rights for fear they won’t be rehired” (13). These employees realize how important your reputation is in Hollywood. If they stood up for themselves everyone would know. Stephen Zafirau states, “Hollywood is ‘a small, incestuous world,’ one in which ‘everyone knows everyone.’ Maintaining a favorable reputation therefore becomes not only an object of necessity, but a fundamental piece of the day to day work [in] Hollywood” (102). Because these employees can’t stand up for themselves they get stuck at the bottom of the film industry, and never get to work their way up.
Even aspects of the industry meant for independent filmmakers isn’t what it looks like. Susan Christopherson states in Beyond the Self-expressive Creative Worker: An Industry Perspective on Entertainment Media, “[Film festivals] have become a money-maker for entrepreneurs who organize them” (81). There’s a fee to submit your film, and that doesn’t even guarantee it will be part of the festival. It means someone will watch your film to see if it should be part of the festival and “if you don’t get their attention in the first two minutes, you’re dead” (Christpherson 81). From the very beginning your creative control is slightly taken away from you. It’s smart to start your film a certain way to increase it’s chances of making a film festival, but it may have never been something you wanted your film to be. Once you get past this first stage, the lack of creative control continues. Only a few firms control the gateways to consumer markets and as Christopherson states:
Six conglomerates remain at the heart of production organization and creative work in US media entertainment. By driving the strategies of producers and directors who need capital to finance their film and television projects and access to ‘eyeballs’, the conglomerates directly and indirectly influence the organization of work and workforce strategies (76).
In conclusion, the vast majority of movies produced by the film industry perpetuate the American Dream and hardly ever critique capitalism. Studios shoot films in foreign countries to exploit cheap labor, and consistently use non union/freelance employees to save money. Nothing is more important than the bottom line. Studios willingly release bad products so they can make as much money as possible. These are all ways other industries take advantage of capitalism to maximize their profit. Hollywood does not hate capitalism. They use it to make as much money as possible. “If Hollywood was liberal, then the amount of race and ethnic based stereotypes that are perpetuated in the these hollywood movies wouldn’t exist” (Joyti Jian). Fox News talks a lot about liberal media and class warfare while they consistently villianize anyone who isn’t a white upper class male. Is it hypocrisy… or calculated rhetoric?