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Hollywood's Three Big Lies

  • MICHAEL MEDVED

Recent surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans feel Hollywood is out of touch with their personal values.

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Michael Medved

A few years ago Universal Studios released Parenthood, starring Steve Martin. It was an entertaining movie with pro-family messages. But right in the middle of this PG-rated film were a few minutes with graphic depictions ... and references to nude photograph sessions ...

More recently, Tristar released Magic in the Water, a charming PG-rated film about a sea serpent. The picture is aimed at very young kids, yet for no discernible reason, it contains off-colour sex references and several uses of the S-word.

The American entertainment industry, which dominates popular culture here and throughout the world, appears to take perverse joy in presenting harsh, gritty and sometimes shocking material, even in movies made for children. Indeed, filmmakers seem to go out of their way to assault the basic values of family and decency, to which most people remain deeply attached.

No wonder that recent surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans feel Hollywood is out of touch with their personal values. Yet when the entertainment industry is challenged on these grounds, it denies the charges and justifies its excesses with three big lies:

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Lie No. 1: It's only entertainment it doesn't influence anybody.

I'm going to let you in on a secret: Even Hollywood doesn't believe this.

About a year ago, I was on a panel with executives of three major film studios. After I criticized the irresponsible behaviour of the movie industry, one panelist, furious, replied that while Hollywood is always blamed for the bad it does, it's never given credit for its positive impact. You don't acknowledge that a movie like Lethal Weapon III saved thousands of lives, he said.

I couldn't recall a life-giving message in this blood-spattered thriller. So I asked what he meant.

Well. He replied, in that movie, right before the big chase scene, there was an intense, three-second close-up showing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover fastening their seat belts.

He was suggesting that people would immediately imitate what they saw for three seconds, but the rest of the movie's ultra-violent 118 minutes would have no influence at all. Isn't that contradiction illogical and absurd?

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, doesn't think so. During a debate with me, he said that when his two children were younger, they watched a great deal of violent TV. They are now adults, Valenti said, and their integrity is preserved, and their values are intact, and their standards of conduct, I think, are pretty good.

Everybody has heard some version of this argument, but it misses the point. Just because the media don't influence everybody doesn't mean they don't influence anybody. When an ad runs on TV, no one expects it will sell that product to everyone. If the commercial influences just one out of a thousand people, then it's considered a success. In the same way, if TV and movies provoke just one in a thousand to behave in the irresponsible, destructive way that is too often glorified in the media, then those images have made a profound impact on society.

Of course, popular entertainment is not the only determinant of violent or promiscuous behaviour. But evidence from more than 60 major university studies shows that prolonged exposure to violent images on television does lead to more hostile, violent and aggressive attitudes and behaviour in real life.

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Lie No. 2: We just reflect reality. Don't blame us; blame society.

Paul Verhoeven, the director of Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, once defended his work by saying that as an artist, it is his job to hold a mirror up to nature. Art is a reflection of the world. If the world is horrible, the reflection in the mirror is horrible. In other words, it isn't Hollywood's fault if there is ugliness in entertainment, because Hollywood is simply showing the truth about an ugly society.

Really? If this is true, then why do so few people witness murders in real life but everybody sees them on TV and in movies? The most violent ghetto isn't in South Central L.A. or Southeast Washington, D.C.; it's on television.

About 350 characters appear each night on prime-time TV, but studies show an average of seven of these people are murdered every night. If this rate applied in reality, then in 50 days everyone in the United States would be killed and the last left could turn off the TV.

When it comes to depicting sexual behaviour, there is a similar discontinuity. A Planned Parenthood survey found that every year on prime time TV, there are 65,000 sexual references. Meanwhile, a U.S. Centre for Media and Public Affairs study reports that seven out of eight sexual encounters in TV dramas involve extramarital relations.

Reality? A 1994 University of Chicago study showed that sexual satisfaction is greater among married people than among single people. And married people on average have sex more often than single people. This is not Hollywood's reality, where the only kind of sex that seems to be banned is intimacy between husband and wife.

Someone may ask, what difference does it make? After all motion pictures never really mirrored the world as it is. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced on polished marble while the world was suffering from the Great Depression.

But back then the world on screen was more beautiful, heroic and optimistic than the real world. Today it's just the opposite. Most of us live in a much better world than the one depicted by the media. And while you are trying to lead a decent, restrained life, TV promulgates the notion that everybody else is having a wild, debauched time and that you may be missing out. That is the true power of mass media the power to redefine normal.

This is alarming because our children turn to the mass media as their main source of information about the adult world outside of home. Due to constant repetition, the harmful behaviour that kids see glamorized not only conveys powerful messages of what's accepted, but what is expected. We face the danger that the unreal world of movies and television will become, over time, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sociologist James Q. Wilson has pointed out a curious fact: On city streets where broken windows have gone unrepaired, the crime rate immediately soars. Why? The broken windows make an announcement to the public: Here standards have broken down. Here no authority applies. Come and do what you like, without consequences. Today, television and movies have become a gigantic broken window to the world. The portrayal of life without standards and misbehaviour without consequences sends the message that chaos reigns. For the moment, our residual common sense and traditions are resisting. But how long can we hold out?

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Lie No. 3: We give the public what it wants. If people don't like it, they can always turn it off.

This argument is based on the common assumption that most of us have a deep-seated craving and need for violent sex in the movies. But recent box-office returns prove that this is not the case. The most successful films of recent months The Lion King, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 have shown restraint in their use of sex and violence, and appealed powerfully to more traditional values.

In fact, for 20 years, movies rated G and PG for family audiences have done better on average than R-rated movies by a ratio of more that two to one. And yet the number of R-rated films has risen to over 60 percent of movies. Why? Because Hollywood hands out prestige and recognition based on the absurd notion that artistry is not the ability to inspire but the ability to shock.

The Lion King made more than twice the money of Pulp Fiction, but everyone in Hollywood knows and praises the director of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) while no one could name the directors of The Lion King (Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers).

The last part of the lie, which says If you don't like it, just shut it off, has the same logic as the statement If you don't like the smog, stop breathing. You may not listen to the pop singer Madonna. You never chose to put Madonna in your mind, but you certainly know who she is and what she stands for. Popular culture is everywhere, like the air we breathe. That's why the messages of pop culture are an environmental issue.

In Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore's character was offered a million dollars to spend one night with a billionaire played by Robert Redford. At a junior high school I visited, I heard children ask one another, If they gave your mother a million dollars, would she? They hadn't even seen the movie, but with the ads, the talk shows, the magazine covers and everything else, they still got its messages.

You can't escape the reach of popular culture. The sheer accumulation of this material has a tremendous impact on our lives.

That's why at a time when we are demanding that corporations bear responsibility for polluting the air and water, at a time when the outcry against the harm from smoking in public has had results, it is appropriate to demand that the entertainment conglomerates show greater accountability for polluting the cultural atmosphere that we all breathe.

We are at an historic moment in media history, a moment when people in the industry are finally beginning to listen and to change. Disturbing elements will never entirely disappear nor should they but we do seem to be getting more family-friendly alternatives, and these need to be supported. In the future, we may even have a chance to enjoy a popular culture as rich, diverse and fundamentally decent as the people who live in our world today.

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Acknowledgement

Medved, Michael. Hollywood's Three Big Lies. 2nd Pan American Conference on Family and Education. Toronto, Ontario May, 1996.

Reprinted with permission.

The Author

Michael Medved is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, best-selling author and veteran film critic. His daily three-hour program, emphasizing the intersection of politics and pop culture, reaches more than 2 million listeners in over 180 markets, coast to coast. He is the author of ten non-fiction books, including Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life, What Really Happened to the Class of '65, The Shadow Presidents and Hollywood Vs. America.

Copyright © 1996 Michael Medved
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