Starting in the seventies, popular culture thoroughly shed its postwar timidity and presented an image of America unrecognizable to those weaned on the pristine idealism of the black-and-white years. The moral signifiers that had defined popular culture have not only disappeared but been completely inverted, the heroes turned into villains. A 1991 study found that 40 percent of all murders on television were committed by businessmen. In Hollywood’s golden age, wrote the conservative film critic Michael Medved, “if a character appeared on screen wearing a clerical collar it served as a sure sign that the audience was supposed to like him.” By the seventies, religion had come to signify hypocrisy, or darker sins.
Medved has cited the 1991 version of Cape Fear as a window into how the moral center of Hollywood has been transformed. A remake of a 1962 thriller, the new version turned the killer into a distinctly Christian menace—Bible verses tattooed across his body, spouting religious aphorisms to justify his bloodlust. Cape Fear can also be seen in juxtaposition to another film that came out the same year: The Silence of the Lambs. The latter also featured a villain with offensive characteristics—“Buffalo Bill,” a serial killer who was trying to turn himself into a woman. Christian conservatives protested Cape Fear, and liberal gays protested The Silence of the Lambs. In the years that followed, Hollywood heeded and internalized the lesson about the perils of gay-bashing far more than it heeded the lesson about offending religion.
By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified. What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive. In the course of a generation we have come from a world in which the gentle liberalism of Murphy Brown incited furious right-wing denunciations to one in which the only visible political controversy surrounding Girls—a show that’s basically a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm—was its lack of racial diversity.
The funny thing is that, in the years since Hollywood lost its place of prominence in right-wing demonology, we now have a far more precise sense of its power. The fear that popular culture could exert some invisible pull upon the minds of its audience may have haunted its critics, but the industry’s defenders could just as plausibly deny that moving pictures exerted social influence at all. At the height of the nineties Kulturkampf, film lobbyist Jack Valenti breezily waved off Hollywood’s critics by insisting, “I haven’t found anybody who has said that movies cause anybody to do anything.” But new research—research that conservatives have failed to pay much attention to—badly undermines that line of defense.
Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.
Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.
Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.
In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.