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The Big Answer


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Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment

a book by Michael Parenti

(our site's book review)

TV and film are not popular culture, but marketed mass culture, says Parenti. The stuff coming out of Hollywood, says the author, supports militarism, imperialism, racism, sexism and authoritarianism, and producers who put forth TV and movies not supportive of these themes will get sidelined or worse. The corporations which control the media use their power to "legitimate the hegemonic ideological system," in Parenti's words.

Corporations which control the media use their power to support the militarist, authoritarian, ideological system
Corporations which control the media use their power to support the militarist, authoritarian, ideological system

All this may be true, but it is hard to reconcile these ideas with some of our viewer experiences of Hollywood fare. For instance, a ton of movies come at us that show the FBI, CIA, and/or the U.S. military as heroically doing good works around the world, while another ton of movies depict these organizations as full of self-promoting, ass-kissing, backstabbing, corrupt individuals out to sell out anyone (coworkers) or anything (America/the world) if there's a fast buck in it for them. So are the corporations which control the media fighting amongst themselves over the message or what? Or is it that when foreign investors fund movies they try to make our country look bad because they hate (or are jealous of, or are afraid of) America? Who can say? But we are surely getting mixed messages rather than merely monolithic creations all towing the party line!

Although many TV and movie actors are liberals, for the most part, the primary influencers of television and movie scripts are the mostly conservative owners of the TV studios and movie studios. Parenti says that "What the media actually give us is something that is neither purely entertainment nor purely political. It is a hybrid that might be called 'political entertainment.' The entertainment format makes political propagation all the more insidious."

Tobacco Smoking and Tobacco Smoke Both Kill
Tobacco Smoking and Tobacco Smoke Both Kill

Smoking is an interesting subject because of the totally perverted way that the media handles it, we feel. When the TV networks were prevented from showing cigarette ads, the tobacco companies just laughed. Who needs them?

As any fool can see, the way both Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol deal with such prohibitions is to do something immensely more profitable: put the ads in the TV shows and movies covertly. When big stars smoke and make it look glamorous, kids and young adults sit up and take notice.

When studios produce lots of movies and TV series with lots of smoking in them (e.g., Mad Men), and tons of movies about the 50s and 60s, and everywhere the best looking, healthiest, most athletic, most heroic, and sexiest stars are the ones who are smoking, the message gets through to our young both loudly and clearly.

Smoking message in movies: heroic individualist rebels flaunt rules and smoke wherever they please
Smoking message in movies: heroic individualist rebels flaunt rules and smoke wherever they please

And when smokers are asked to put out their smokes in restaurants, bars, museums, meetings, and other places, and the star either refuses, punches the person, denies he is bothering anyone, or insults the requester, few doubt that the message is that the person is a heroic individualist who is better than others, not a conformist sheep like the requester, not a loser like everyone else who is dying to smoke but doesn't have the courage, and that the only way the viewer can be as self-assured, cool, and heroic as the star is if he starts smoking anywhere he pleases, flaunting rules and ordinances, acting heroically and like a winner rather than a conformist sheep. The young who are still forming identities, but are not quite sure who they are, get behavior modeled to them by these stars that shows just exactly what individualists, heroes, nonconformists, rebels, winners, and cool people are like, and they rush to buy some smokes so they too can be like this. If the alternative is being a cowardly conforming sheep, an uncool loser, then how can they NOT start smoking?!

The young are presented with 2 images: the cool (smoking) rebel and the loser (nonsmoking) sheep—so they choose the smoking rebel to imitate
The young are presented with 2 images: the cool (smoking) rebel and the loser (nonsmoking) sheep—so they choose the smoking rebel to imitate

The author tells us that big distributors manifest a reluctance to support films that deal with controversial subjects, owing to preconceived ideas about what kind of subject matter makes profits. So we get slashers, romances, comedies, teen movies, kids movies, cop shows, lawyer shows, and lots of violence, sexiness, car chases and crashes, shootings, stabbings, hit men, and military actions. None of these are controversial—they are the bread and butter of Hollywood.

Rarely does collective action save the day in movies and series. One or two heroes always go in to save the day—Hollywood takes its heroic individualism theme VERY seriously. Even when it's ridiculous. Obviously a guy surrounded by angry thugs will get shot, stabbed or clubbed immediately. Nope. The bad guys come after the one or two heroes one at a time, choosing karate in spite of being armed, and the good guy confidentally wins all fights. It's as if the bad guys aren't really killer thugs after all—they merely wanted to get in some karate practice!

So why can't communities or agencies or organizations be heroic? Why are larger amounts of people always too lazy, corrupt, bureacratic, or dumb to be effective? Because group processes take time and the one or two hour limit of entertainment formats don't have the time. And because the American ideal of heroic individualism is the biggest value subscribed to by many of the right-wing corporations that control the studios. And because it's difficult to raise stars to superstar status (which equals—ka-chingggg—profits) if they are shown as mere members of a large group. No producer can afford to bankroll dozens of personalities as the stars—they want the majority of the actors to be background characters getting union scale per day.

Parenti says that "Far from being the free and independent media of a cultural democracy, the entertainment industry is the centralized domain of a rich oligarchy. The media regularly undergo a rigorous political censorship from their financial backers, producers, and studio and network officials." He says we should read books and be active in the community and give the slick Hollywood creations the cold shoulder, and that we need to organize politically to pressure the media into creating better and more politically diverse offerings. (See The US is an oligarchy, study concludes.)

We need to throw open our windows and tell Hollywood that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore
We need to throw open our windows and tell Hollywood that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore

Now you can see another reason why the media uses the heroic individualism theme obsessively. They want us to be passive sheep that adopt the media's values, buy the advertisers' products, and—above all—see how much of a "loser" we would be if we took effective organized action, boycotting studios, pressuring the powers-that-be in Hollywood that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore (throwing open a window and shouting is optional) and we don't want to see any more propaganda, disguised ads for vices that affect kids mostly, or constant violence that insults our intelligence. In Parenti's words, we want "the chance to move away from a lobotomizing, propagandizing mass culture and toward media that offer a more faithful engagement with life in all its beautiful, intriguing, amusing, awesome—and sometimes dreadful—realities." See Your Children Are Under Attack.

Reject the lobotomizing, propagandizing, mass culture propaganda of movies
Reject the lobotomizing, propagandizing, mass culture propaganda of movies