At the risk of sounding like one of those tinfoil-hat wearing crazies you find wandering up and down the western seaboard in their hordes, let me say that Hollywood is propaganda. It’s not a particularly earth-shattering or ground-breaking thesis, but it’s an interesting one to tackle in a short column nonetheless. Our premise begins with the statement that Hollywood is propaganda. To wit, that movies produced in Hollywood construct a vision of what is the proper order of things, to which cinema audiences worldwide are compelled to follow. Whether or not this is deliberate social engineering or simply the byproduct of some inscrutable evolutionary process is a question for another time. For now, let’s just stick to the basic premise and explore some of its implications.
The idea that Hollywood, or mass media for that matter, is propaganda is hardly new, but it took on a character that you might not expect. In the 1940s, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, philosophers peddling a brand of European Marxist critical theory, wrote an essay titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in which they basically took the idea of Hollywood and mercilessly decried it as a tool of self-serving capitalist pig-dogs, as it were. The idea was that Hollywood was basically like any other capitalist-controlled means of cultural production, mass-producing cookie-cutter products designed to lull audiences into apathy and instill universal moral values aimed at upholding the incumbent ecumenical order of pax capitalista.
The Bogart-esque square-jawed hero or the Betty Grable pin-up icon so endemic to that time were apotheosized as the cultural ideals and lionized as paragons of individuality. But the truth was, according to Adorno and Horkheimer at least, that their very distinctiveness belied the calumnies of the beringed plutocrats pulling the strings behind the theater curtains. Because aesthetic distinctiveness was characterized by physical tropes — the square jaw, the delicately-placed lock of hair just so — these Hollywood icons, American heroes all, were not truly individual, but rather idealized archetypes for the teeming masses to aspire to while drudging in their soot-stained overalls and suburban kitchen-prisons the nation over. And aspire they would to these unreachable mirages — while remaining docile and inured to their class-based plight, foregoing the call to revolution on the fear that the very source of their Huxleyan soma — the capitalistic products of mass media — would be taken away from them, their mystic heroes revealed as the empty shells they truly were.
Of course, the critics of the theory decried it as another form of aesthetic snobbery, based on the problematic assumption that mass media products were inherently devoid of artistic value, or that their sole virtue was to showcase Clarke Gable’s latest hairdo. One might also find the idea of the autonomous capitalist propaganda machine somewhat far-fetched and tinfoil-y. Nevertheless, this narrative — that the products of mass media are worthless at best and mind-numbing tools at worst — persists to this day. How else would one explain that hipster friend who always watches independent films and turns his or her nose up whenever he or she hears of the latest Michael Bay explosion porn? Or that other guy who swears never to pay good money to watch a rom-com, especially if it features Ryan Reynolds’ signature cocksure grin?
The endless grind of paparazzi magazines delving in excruciating detail into the private lives of celebrities (especially those whose notoriety derives solely from reality TV) is only further testament to the strength of physical tropes persisting in the minds of the latter-day would-be proles, directing the current of popular discourse. You might think that making fun of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s latest romantic activity is the only acceptable response to such overblown triviality, but to what extent is the very act of snickering at the idiocy of it all a tacit buying-in into the behavioral patterns that the unseen masters of the media empire want to instill into you? Is the propagandistic machine of capitalism more insidious than you think, making people like us, who take pleasure in mocking these deservedly mock-worthy bits of pseudo-celebrity trivia, party to the machinations of the cultural industry?
But let’s move away from the whole capitalist pig-dog narrative, which is somewhat alarmist and unfashionable (communism died two decades ago, by Jove!), and talk about Hollywood as an instrument for expressing American exceptionalism. We are inured to the idea that Hollywood is all about promoting the all-American hero à la Bruce Willis, who kicks the ass of the foreign terrorist with the funny accent, giant Texas-sized asteroids or dumbshit alien invaders who can’t shoot straight. The recent film Battleship, a case in point, was all about the American Navy (there were other ships, but the American Navy was what mattered in the end) walloping the living daylights out of some token stupid alien invaders. It was a big ‘Murica hoo-yah flick with great Michael Bay explosions and appearances by navy veterans, a truly classic showcase of American exceptionalism on par with The Avengers, another film about American heroes kicking the asses of idiotic invaders.
Propaganda is a tool to up navy recruitment numbers, to be sure. But what kind of effects does Hollywood’s global distribution have on the popular culture and consciousness of international audiences? Does Hollywood enforce a vision of America as the continuing hegemonic power? Or does it paint a picture of a declining state determined to shore up its image by producing billion dollar flicks showcasing its military glories? Do Tony Stark’s terrorist-decimating adventures in the Middle East in the movie Iron Man send a signal that America can and should use its military prowess to intervene in foreign conflicts? Is the frequent portrayal of villains with Russian or British accents an indication that Hollywood wants to characterize villains as usually of another national or cultural ethos and history?
These are all open questions with no clear answers, because they are generalizations and stereotypes. It remains to be explicated whether or not Hollywood, as a whole, peddles a certain consistent brand or vision of America and Americans to its international audiences, and whether or not that vision actually influences international perceptions and values in the way that it is expected to influence American perceptions and values. It seems to me that the transmission of cultural products is almost every bit as important as other legitimate channels of international relations in determining the dynamics of international relationships and mutual understanding or misunderstanding. Hollywood is propaganda, sure. But in what ways the propaganda machine serves to affect the discourse worldwide on America and its cultural values is a more interesting question.