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Who needs the Hollywood left?

The hysteria over political correctness in university curricula seems, at last, to have run its loopy course. We rarely hear anymore that classes in cross-dressing are driving Shakespeare and Milton off required-reading lists, or that manhating feminists are taking over entire departments, leaving the terrorized males dazed and impotent. I guess Dinesh D'Souza and Camille Paglia ran out of horror stories - or big-bucks speaking gigs - at long last.

I confess I was a bit sorry to see headlines die; it was flattering, after all, to read and hear, day after day, about the enormous power and influence of leftists and feminists. But I needn't have worried. There is a new official enemy of the people, said by the mainstream media to be waging and winning the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of America: the "Hollywood Left."

It started with Dan Quayle's attack on the creators of Murphy Brown. Then there was last year's denunciation of the "new Hollywood McCarthyism" by Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times. According to Stanley and her celebrity informants (who chose to remain anonymous because, it was implied, they feared for their careers), such "left-wing" "superstars" as Ron Silver, Rob Lowe, and Morgan Fairchild wield so much coercive power over Hollywood movies and movie stars these days that it is professionally risky to assert in public any right-of-center views. (That such actual superstars and power brokers as Mel Gibson, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger do so regularly did not occur to any of Stanley's "sources.")

Not to be outdone in the realm of fear and loathing, Harpercollins added to the political paranoia with PBS movie critic Michael Medved's bestseller Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, a 383-page diatribe against Hollywood's "alienated ideological agenda." In Medved's view, it is the goal of the powers that be in Hollywood to drive traditional values - family, patriotism, and religion - from the silver screen, to the dismay of the much-cited "middle-American majority," who crave such wholesome fare.

Where the hype about academic revolutionaries was hard to support - since few people, even those with children in college, ever saw any evidence of the revolutionary goings-on said to be rampant in college classrooms - the Hollywood situation is different. Everyone who watched the Academy Awards last April, for example, did indeed see several major stars - Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Richard Gere, for example - making impassioned political pleas. And everyone who watches any televised art or entertainment awards show or reads any of the popular celebrity/entertainment magazines, for that matter, has witnessed public "political activity" on the part of celebrities.

Given all this attention, it's no wonder people believe the right-wing propaganda about Hollywood being in the thrall of radical activists: It can certainly look as if movie stars spend all their time saving forests, endangered species, abused children, Third World refugees, and more.

There are many reasons why the creative world is more likely than other segments of the population to be at least liberal and more concerned with social evil and injustice. Dan Quayle is not wrong about the "left-leaning tendencies" of media creative types. Moreover, Hollywood stars, more than almost any other class of paid workers, have enormous freedom in their private lives. They are wealthy beyond Robin Leach's wildest dreams and so personally popular they can get away with quite a lot of dissident activity without losing their livelihoods. They have the great luxury, in terms of money, job security, and free time, of acting as political spokespersons and demonstrators for whatever causes attract them. This is no small thing, and we should be grateful for their efforts in donating and raising money and speaking out in favor of unpopular positions to those likely to be swayed by the opinions of stars.

Or so I have believed until recently. In fact, the whole question of the "Hollywood Left" - as constructed by the media and acted out by the stars themselves - has begun to make me nervous. The myth that these people have, in fact, any power at all over the content of Hollywood films is ludicrous and serves to obfuscate, for an already-confused public, the actual economic and political workings of the movie industry.

But more than that, there is something insidious about the model of activism put forth by these celebrities. To the extent, and it is a great extent, that their visibility and media access make them stand-ins for what the vast majority of fat less visible activists actually care about and do, the very concept of politics - of what a meaningful action or serious issue might actually be - becomes hopelessly muddled.

Reality check: The truth is that the Hollywood movie industry and its product are among the most politically backward bastions of economic and cultural power in this country. A survey of any recent box-office Top Ten list will quickly reveal that racism, sexism, and the glorification of violence in the service of illegitimate power are thriving in Hollywood as never before. And the Hollywood Left has absolutely no inclination or power to do a thing about it. Indeed, any notion that movies today reflect left-wing (or any other) ideas can be quickly put to rest.

In the weeks between the announcement of the Academy Awards nominations and their presentation, for example, the Top Ten list included a single movie - The Crying Game - that was not a cartoon, a macho action/adventure, or a mindless comedy.

The Award nominees themselves were hardly left-wing. The big "serious" films of the year - Unforgiven, A Few Good Men, Scent of a Woman, Hoffa, Chaplin - even at their best - were traditional "great-man" epics of male power and glory in which traditional values about race, class, gender, or social justice went unchallenged. Indeed, they were shored up against the grain of some very problematic story lines.

And when it came to the award for best actress, the industry could not come up with a single major American movie in which a woman had a significant enough role to warrant nomination. The five nominees starred in foreign films or small, marginally distributed and viewed films - the likes of Passion Fish and Love Field.

In its sexism, Hollywood is the most medieval of all American cultural institutions. Only a handful of women are ever allowed to direct films or star in serious films with serious roles. Women earn 34 per cent of what men earn in every job category in the industry and play only 36 per cent of all roles. And children, animals, and cartoon characters are gaining on them. The situation with people of color, especially Asians and Latinos, is even worse.

If there were a "Hollywood Left" worth mentioning, there would be some protest about all this. But these highly visible and vocal activists are strangely silent when it comes to the plight of their co-workers or the dubious, not to say dangerous, politics of the films they star in. They are, as their bosses know, no threat at all to the status quo, on-screen or behind the scenes. They star in films full of sexism, racism, gratuitous glamorized violence, and sheer idiocy twice a year, right on schedule. And if the product they promote and the workplace that affords them such privilege and stature are filled with injustice and outrage, well, you won't hear them saying so. Or, more to the point, doing anything about it. As Marge Tabankin of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee has said, "They leave the industry at the door" when they act politically.

This was distressingly clear at the Academy Awards ceremonies which chose this year - God knows why - to honor "women in film." In the light of the sexist horrors I just named, all of which reached untold heights in 1992, it was not surprising that feminists chose to protest. Women's Action Coalition, a 4,400-member national organization said to be supported by Hollywood activists, organized and were out in force all day demonstrating - although only MTV covered this aspect of the Awards. They asked all the presenters and nominees to wear lapel pins in support of women in the industry. Not a single star, inside or outside the hall, said a relevant word in protest against Hollywood sexism. And I did not notice a single WAC pin amidst the sea of jewel-studded ribbons opposing AIDS and violence.

I was shocked at this failure on the part of people like Sarandon, Geena Davis, and the many other members of the Women's Political Committee. There is no other institution I can think of, including television, the U.S. Congress, and the National Association of Manufacturers, in which women do not network, caucus, and lend information and support to each other. But in Hollywood, where jobs and roles and vehicles in which women are treated with dignity are nil, these women - among the wealthiest and most culturally influential in the world - dared not risk saying a word that might upset the smooth workings of the industry. And what, after all, would they have risked?

The Academy Awards was only the most visible example of the contradictions within the Hollywood Left. Organizers of the national march on Washington in support of gay and lesbian rights, at a moment when the issue of gays in the military was so hotly debated, invited celebrities to speak at the rally. Cybill Shepherd and Judith Light showed up.

Considering the number of closeted gays in the industry and Hollywood's abominable record on treatment of gay themes in movies - television wins that battle hands down - one can only wonder about Sarandon's political choice to speak out about Haitians with AIDS in Guantanamo Bay and remain silent about the plight of gays in her own community and workplace.

Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Hollywood Left's visibility is its recent highly publicized link to national politics. The invasion of Washington by Hollywood types for the Clinton inaugural festivities, for example, and the legitimacy it has lent their brand of "leftism" in the public mind, would be depressing if it weren't so ridiculous. I followed with dismay the never-ending statements and actions of such supposed ideological heavy-hitters as Kim Basinger and Barbra Streisand, both of whom were smugly and self-righteously in your face all that week.

To hear these two tell it, fur-wearing, the ingestion of animal flesh, and the effect of stories like Hansel and Gretel (in which bad things are done to good children) on our collective well-being are the issues of the day. Basinger was actually heard to assert that "you can judge the health of a society by the way it treats its animals." And Streisand's impassioned plea for what amounts to censorship of classic fairy tales was taken so seriously that she has since been mentioned as a candidate for the Senate.

I have nothing against vegetarians. I would not wear a mink coat. I do not want to see the rain forests or Waiden Pond die. I happen to think Hansel and Gretel is an empowering story of childhood heroism, but I certainly don't object to Streisand's disagreeing with me. Most emphatically, I share Sarandon's and Robbins's views on the Haitians.

My concern has to do with the strangely abstract positions and even stranger definitions of politically meaningful behavior put forth by a group of people who seem to think that activism is a matter of rhetoric and media symbols rather than a programmatic set of actions to promote social change through organized, collective effort. Progressive politics, to the extent that these people come more and more to represent it, has become exactly what the scoffers at "political correctness" charge: a self-indulgent, self-righteous expression of moral purity on the part of people who have nothing at stake and no clear connection to the real world they moralize and philosophize about at such length.

For Kim Basinger, who owns an entire town, or any of the other stars who spend much of their time on multi-acre expanses of unsoiled natural beauty, to lecture people living in inner cities surrounded by violence and danger and disease about the plight of minks and exotic trees and the dangers of Hansel and Gretel is truly bizarre.

And so these events have led the media into an orgy of Hollywood-left-bashing. Everyone from Pat Buchanan to Jay Leno has had something to say about the smug self-satisfaction of these playboy politicos with their obscure causes and effete moralizing. Too often, I find myself nodding in embarrassed agreement.

Sarandon's plea, before a billion-person global audience, that we allow Haitians with AIDS to enter the United States may have seemed like a politically correct, even inspiring, action to many leftists. It did feel good to see someone so prominent announcing to the world that she is "one of us." But looking at her statement strategically, it was a hollow gesture which, most annoyingly, kept Sarandon from doing something far more appropriate, meaningful, and potentially effective, given the thematic focus and the women's protests at this particular event.

No one, including Sarandon, actually thought Bill Clinton was watching the Awards to get the latest nugget of policy wisdom from a movie star in a gold lame gown. On the other hand, the guys that pay her zillions to do a single movie might well have been listening if she, wearing a WAC pin and speaking for an organized group of industry women, had asked for a few reasonable things - like dollars, roles, and power - for the women she works with. The press would have been at least as upset, of course, but for better reasons.

After all, it is that sort of behavior that, since the 1960s, has been responsible for what progress women have made in the public, professional world. It worked at Newsweek, at Time, and at The New York Times, to name only a few of the maledominated media strongholds that have been forced to answer to demands of women workers.

But, as Geena Davis said in an interview after the Oscars, "I really can't complain because most of the good roles these days come my way."

Elayne Rapping, professor of communications at Adelphi University, appears in this space every other month. She is the author of "The Movie of the Week," recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.
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Title Annotation:media coverage of political activity by celebrities
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:2388
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