Television and movies in the United States could never have the same kind of revolutionary impact they wield in cloistered Third World villages. But the human brain is the human brain. In the United States, with our already expansive cultural frontiers, we can’t as easily measure the effect of popular culture. (We all got access to Glee at the same time.) Yet we can at least glimpse tiny corners of popular culture’s impact. A 2011 paper found that when An Inconvenient Truth appeared in a town—here, again, an uneven pattern allowed for experimentation—purchases of carbon offsets rose by half. The effect disappeared over time, as you’d expect from a single film that wasn’t followed up.
A trio of communications professors found that watching Will & Grace made audiences more receptive to gay rights, and especially viewers who had little contact in real life with gays and lesbians. And that one show was merely a component of a concerted effort by Hollywood—dating back to Soap in the late seventies, which featured Billy Crystal’s groundbreaking portrayal of a sympathetic gay character, through Modern Family—to prod audiences to accept homosexuality. Likewise, the political persona of Barack Obama attained such rapid acceptance and popularity in part because he represented the real-world version of an archetype that, after a long early period of servile black stereotypes, has appeared in film and television for years: a sober, intelligent African-American as president, or in some other position of power.
Just how liberal is popular culture? Part of this question can’t be quantified. In 1992, Medved, then still a film critic, wrote Hollywood vs. America, which built its argument around an exhaustive survey of the political inclinations of American film. Last year, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro did the same for television in Primetime Propaganda. Both books make a reasonably persuasive case that popular culture, in general, promotes liberal values and undercuts conservative values, especially sexual mores. What’s more, both authors live in Los Angeles and paint a vivid picture of a near-ubiquitous culture of liberalism in the industry.
Notable exceptions exist, but they are notable precisely because they are exceptions. Even the most memorable cases of right-wing cultural iconography have to offer a nod to the predominant liberalism of the industry in a way that the most liberal-message media don’t. Dirty Harry was followed by a sequel preachily denouncing right-wing vigilantism. In Red Dawn, the paranoid 1984 action film about a Communist invasion of America, the Cuban commander of the occupying Communist forces (don’t ask) ultimately lets rebel leader Patrick Swayze go free, and the story ends with a meditation on the evils of war. 24 eventually developed sinister greedy corporations as its Über-villain. Rocky IV ends, after vanquishing steroid-addled Soviet antagonist Ivan Drago, with Rocky delivering a plea for coexistence.
If you ask Hollywood liberals themselves about the liberalism of their work, the answer generally depends on how you pose the question. If you frame it in terms of social responsibility, they will happily boast about using their platform to raise their audience’s consciousness about racial tolerance or the environment or distrusting government officials. Pose the same question as an accusation of ideological or partisan bias—those are, after all, liberal values—then they will more likely deny it.
The denials generally take the form of a simple economic aphorism. The entertainment business is a business, so if its product leans left, it must reflect what the audience wants. One oddity of the Hollywood-liberalism debate is that it makes liberals posit the existence of a perfect, frictionless market, while conservatives find themselves explaining why a free market is failing to function as it ought to. (Here is the rabidly conservative Shapiro, sounding like Ralph Nader: “The market in television isn’t free … The issue is one of control. The corporations have it. The American people don’t.”)
The market in popular culture is free, but for the liberal defense—no propagandizing here!—to be true, studios would have to be single-minded profit-maximizing machines. Most of them aren’t. Making money is their main goal, but they do blend profit with their artistic sensibility, which is heavily influenced by their ideological perspective.
The history of Hollywood is a long tug-of-war between artistic conscience and the bottom line. Louis Mayer, fearing the backlash from William Randolph Hearst, offered $850,000 to the producer of Citizen Kane to suppress the film and burn the negative. The show Thirtysomething endured a series of advertising boycotts. One scene, with two gay male characters in bed together, cost ABC $1 million in advertising; another, of them kissing, cost an additional half million. Network president Roger Iger cited his “social and creative responsibilities,” and the executive producer noted, “I am grateful that ABC was willing to air the program at a loss.” Even some of the cheesiest and most commercial ventures feel the pull of social conscience. “We’re talking to young people every day, and a lot of responsibility comes with that,” said Doug Herzog, president of MTV. “We believe that through the medium of television we try to make the world a slightly better place.”