A discussion on whether Hollywood films “invariably reinforce Western ideological values” and to what extent.
As Hollywood was the leading film industry during the development of early cinema, it is not that surprising that it still dominates the market. The culture it portrays is over-saturated in European cinema, in the sense that its stereotypes are widely accepted as the ‘norm’ and are internationally recognised. Indeed, during the 1920s, European countries “began to use legislative measures to resist Hollywood’s domination of their screens” (Ruth Vasey, 1993, p.214) In this essay it is necessary to briefly touch upon what is the Western ideology of Hollywood and what is not; and what is at the ‘other’ end of the spectrum. To help understand its success I will draw from writers like Paul Willeman (click [here] to read his entire essay) who looks particularly at the specificity of nationalism and how films outside of leading Western cinema are alienated.
Ideology of the West
where is it, what is it, and who utilises it?
Western ideology tends to vary depending on the source. It is not a ‘thing’ or a clearly-marked-out manifesto. It is a blurry set of beliefs that have pooled together from different cultures, states and countries that are constantly changing and being argued over. The most prominent ideology is enforced by the leading party in the US as it reaches a larger spectrum of people through (for the most part) the medium of Hollywood films and agitprop news feeds, e.g. CNN, FOX, SKY.
Most of these feeds will claim to be a middle-man simply giving us the facts – a well balanced update that puts across both sides of an argument – even though, as John Molyneux points out, “the idea that media news coverage is politically neutral or merely “reporting the facts” will not withstand a moment’s serious consideration” (Molyneux, 2011, p.55). But this idea is still idolised and embodied by reporters whom pick their words carefully to give the illusion of LIVE, unedited reactions. This is also true in film as most directors, producers and scriptwriters employed by Hollywood (although not limited to Hollywood) will express they’re political neutrality – they are just ‘creating entertainment’. This argument seems to hold water because it is made “without making overt the evaluative and interpretative terms that underpinned their object of study.” (Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, 2003, p.257)
So, let’s try to narrow down this messy pool of beliefs into the three most frequently valued ideals in popular Hollywood films.
1. The American Dream
oh, to be rich and free
This is something most of us have heard about. The Big American Dream: to be successful, stable and free. What ‘the dream’ doesn’t say is that it’s easier to achieve what it promises if you are (ideally) middle-class, have graduated from respectable schools and are Christian. If one is anything else then ‘achieving your dream’ requires substantial effort and proof of labour or intellectual worth before he/she can break away from the stereotypes of their ‘ethnic community’.
An example of this in Hollywood cinema is The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) directed by Gabriele Muccino. It is the biographical story of Chris Gardner, a black man who came from nothing, suffered homelessness as a young adult with his nine year old son, and was then hired from an internship position from which he went on to create a multi-million dollar brokerage firm. Even if this is a true story, we know from our every day experiences that it’s not true for everyone.
When we watch films like The Pursuit of Happyness, it is easy to be swept away by the emotions the film wants us to experience. It’s a feel good film – something people want to believe happens and could perhaps even happen to them.
2. America Saves the Day
coming again to save the motherfuckin’ day, yeah!
Another frequent Hollywood theme is the belief that because America has risen through industry, they are able to advise or help the rest of the world. This tends to be when the story is purely for American audiences. There is an apocalyptic problem solved by Americans and typically by Americans alone (not that this is restricted to America). Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) directed by Michael Bay exemplifies ‘America saves the day’ to the point that it detracts from the real theme of the story (if we can tell what the original themes were even meant to be underneath all the military-hoorah and explosions).
The American military comes across as more effective at combating the Decepticons (a threatening and powerful alien race) than the Autobots who have travelled across the galaxy to fight their ancient enemy. Such films, like Revenge of the Fallen, tend to be backed by the Department of Defence who allow military equipment to be borrowed for authenticity, but only when the American military is shown in a positive light. As described on the official website of the US Department of Defence, “transports and airmen running across the scene will look so convincing, viewers will swear they’re the real deal. And they’d be right.” (Donna Miles, 2007)
This ties in with the image of the American War Hero. It’s a way of showing national pride and loyalty to the flag, and imples that those who put state before themselves have good morals.
3. True Love & Apple Pies
how to be a good girl or boy
The final and perhaps most typical example of Hollywood ideals is that money (or stability) and respectability comes with true love and good behaviour. This is typical of the Romantic Comedy genre in particular.
Stories tend to start with a beautiful protagonist suffering from a broken relationship. Protagonist is then encouraged by concerned friends to find someone else. The lead protagonists will then fight against their attraction for each another. Sometimes one of them will seek fame or wealth – or have this thrust upon them – and settle for other men/women, distracting them from their ‘true love’.
Once the misbehaving lover settles into a routine of good-deeds or solves their selfish ambitions, they typically win the heart of the girl/guy they feared they had lost. This happens in Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis) when the protagonist, Phil, falls in love with Rita and tries every deceptive method possible to get her into bed. The humour arises from Rita’s inability to remember previous dates as Phil must relive the same day over and over again.
Rita overtly refuses him each time and Phil eventually settles for ‘easier women’ and abuses the people who annoy him because they won’t remember the next day. He sinks into despair and realises he’s happier making Rita smile, spending time with her and helping everyone in the town. This wins the girl, wins him respect from the townspeople and his co-workers, and thus the time-loop ends.
An Ideological Rut
it’s time to revolutionise the meaning of ‘culture’
From these examples we can better consider: do popular Hollywood films invariably reinforce Western ideological values? Yes, the majority of popular films do (but not invariably, as I will discuss later), just as popular Asian films reinforce Eastern values. If this is the case, then perhaps the question should be changed to why and what are the benefits or problems of this? Willeman tends to argue that the bad outweigh the good. In particular, he has said, “One very negative result is that ‘ethnic’ groups will be imprisoned, by arts funding bodies and local government practices, within a restrictive and fossilised notion of culture.” (2006, p.31)
Everything is Political
your views come from somewhere
Even if Hollywood is conscious of racial slurs and stereotypes, or attempts to remain “culturally and ideologically neutral, if not benign” (Vasey p.214, 1993) – which was imposed in the 1920s by Frederick Herron of the Motion Picture Producers and Distribution of America (MPPDA) – the producer is bringing his/her life experiences and values to the film. As a member of society constantly impacted by propaganda and his/her surrounding culture it is not possible to stand neutral.
Writer and director Andrew Niccol in an interview with Tommy Cook about his latest film, In Time (2011), is an example of this: “I make movies. I’m not in politics. But I think there’s probably enough [money] to go around, if you know what I mean.” (Andrew Niccol in: Cook, 2011) Here Niccol is saying that, he may pretend to Hollywood that he has no political agenda, but his film speaks for him and his belief that the distribution of wealth is unbalanced.
People cannot detach their lives from the material they create. This is especially true for film when its viewers apply their own life experiences and beliefs to the text. Each person brings their form of the world with them. So why is American ideology at the forefront of Hollywood – an international cinema – if Europe and Asia do not identify (or wish to) with its values?
Popularity vs. Regressive Media
understanding the purpose of the text and the facts outside of it
John Molyneux points out that the media industry claims to be a “reflection of the politics and values already held by the public. In other words they are “only giving people what they want”.” (2001, page 55) In the case of popular Hollywood films this is American ideology. If ‘giving people what they want’ is an accepted argument, Molyneux goes on to say, “[it] will serve to justify virtually all the mass media output – Fox News, The X Factor, Nuts and Bizarre, everything – provided that it is popular.” (2011, page 55)
Hollywood gives the impression that it believes it knows the underlying values of its audience, when this is globally not true and not ‘invariably’ the case for every American citizen. In fact, when some things are so popular they become a ‘phenomenon’ there is a harsh counter reaction against what it stands for and is often directed toward the people who enjoy phenomenons such as the Twilight Series, Justin Bieber and High School Musical.
Thus, as so far implied, “Hollywood is said to be a site of the people’s culture in the West.” (Willeman, 2006, p.38) Tell someone that from Britain or South America and the response might be an instant rebuke. While Hollywood may portray ideological values that lean closer to the government currently in power, this does not necessarily mean it portrays a ‘realistic’ representation of the West. This is best articulated by Willeman in his essay ‘The National Revisited’ (2006):
…insufficient attention is paid to the determining effects of the geographically bounded state-unity, and this encourages a kind of promiscuous or random form of alleged internationalism, which I would prefer to call an evasive cosmopolitanism masking (US) imperial aspirations. (page 34)
In essence: Hollywood and internationalism may be portrayed as a wonderful form of unity, but how is that unity achieved and who is actually included in this ‘equality’? What information is being selected for us and how do we not succumb to indoctrination? Asking these questions will lead into a long list of potential debates but it is necessary to ask them if our ideas as a society are going to evolve.
Challenging the Status Quo
‘it’s too tiring – I’d rather not think about it’
What is it about Hollywood, then, that makes it digestible or wanted? For one, it reinforces the status quo and is written in the tone of its target audience. After a long and tiring day many don’t want to be challenged or made to engage with ‘controversial’ ideas. Films that give information quickly and easily is a way to switch off, a form of escapism.
This brings us back to Molyneux’s discussion on ‘giving the people what they want’ as he goes on to say, “we must bear in mind that radical or challenging ideas always seem more difficult than ideas which reinforce the status quo.” (2011, page 59)
It also seems necessary to point out and remember that Hollywood is a capitalised industry and, at the end of the day, the corporation wants our money and attention. While Hollywood is not necessarily trying to indoctrinate us, it does know how to manipulate us in order to gain profit, as contemplated by Jonathan Beller:
Nowadays, as it enlists viewers to build pathways for its infrastructure, both as fixed capital and in themselves, Corporate America consciously recognizes that ramifying the sensual pathways to the body can produce value, even if the mechanisms of value production have not been theorized fully. (2006, page 6)
Films Outside the Hollywood Norm
they do exist – for the most part
Of course, not all films reinforce the status quo, like the recent film In Time (2011, Andrew Niccol). The basic premise is that humans have found a way to genetically stop ageing (immortality) past twenty-five, but once this age is reached they must earn every minute of their life henceforth. Time has become currency: you earn it. When a person’s time runs out they drop dead, which in this case means the rich are immortal and the working class are constantly struggling to stay alive one more day.
This is a very obvious parallel of the class divide and a timely release with the (currently ongoing) Wall Street Occupation. Compared to the usual reinforced idea that democracy and happiness will find a patriotic or “morally correct” citizen, In Time follows an unlikely “pair [who] robs banks and tries to redistribute the wealth to ghetto residents[. T]here are strains of criticism of not only the money-hoarding wealthy elite – the 1% in current protestor[sic] jargon – but of simplistic ideas to address economic imbalance.” (2011, Russ Fischer)
So, if this is not a normal Hollywood production and undermines its predominantly capitalist values, how did Niccol get away with it? He explains, “you say no character’s over twenty five years of age and there’s a ticking clock in every scene, they just go ‘where do I sign?’ They don’t read the script. Fortunately.” (2011, Andrew Niccol in: Cook) This statement alone shows that Hollywood isn’t looking for in-depth scripts; it wants a consumable story and familar dreams it knows sell, such as a cast of ‘beautiful actors’.
In Time is praised by some, like web film critic Bob Chipman, as succeeding at being openly controversial: “While it unmistakably has something to say about income gaps and free markets and social justice, it manages the balancing act of being about something without being preachy.” (2011, Chipman, 04:20) Whereas others like Russ Fischer think it is a failed Robin Hood pastiche that suffers under the glare of Hollywood action-movie aesthetics.
On the one hand, if films like In Time and V for Vendetta (2005, James McTeigue) managed to pervade Hollywood screens despite not reinforcing US Western ideology, the issues with national cinema is then a matter of communication and making ‘controversial’ behaviour acceptable if it is directed toward an overtly fascist or ‘evil’ system. But on the other hand, this might mean the executives of Hollywood – those who commission scripts – are hired based, in part, upon their beliefs, which then dictate the kind of films allowed to be produced; not necessarily the writers and producers themselves.
As mentioned earlier, the Department of Defence in America is also known to influence scripts. In 1986 the Pentagon gave money to the film Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott, which caused an increase in military enlistment. There are a number of forces impacting the media that come out of Hollywood and the ideology within these productions seems to be overruled by those injecting the most money into the project.
Going back to the original question it should by now be clearer that even after such analysis, this is an ambivalent topic. Defining Hollywood’s ideologies will always be ambiguous if the only way to define them is to compare what they say with what they produce: films enriched with “American values” or open to creative, political opinion. Do Hollywood films reinforce Western ideology? If it was possible to give a more concrete answer based upon a (sliding) scale of one-to-ten: yes. It is not too outlandish to say that nine films out of ten conform to the “typical Hollywood formula”.
Groundhog Day, 1993 [film]. Directed by Harold RAMIS. UNITED STATES: Columbia Pictures.
In Time, 2011 [film]. Directed by Andrew NICCOL. UNITED STATES: Regency Enterprises, New Regency & Strike Entertainment.
The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006 [film]. Directed by Gabriele MUCCINO. UNITED STATES: Relativity Media, Overbrook Entertainment & Escape Artists.
Top Gun, 1986 [film]. Directed by Tony SCOTT. UNITED STATES: Paramount Pictures.
V for Vendetta, 2005 [film]. Directed by James MCTEIGUE. UNITED STATES: Vertigo Comics, Virtual Studios & Silver Pictures.
BELLER, J., 2006. The Cinematic Mode of Production: attention economy and the society of the spectacle. USA: Dartmouth College Press.
Escape to the Movies with Movie Bob: “In Time”, 2011 [online video]. Directed by Bob CHIPMAN. [viewed 24 November 2011]. Available from: [HERE]
COOK, T., 2011. “Director Andrew Niccol IN TIME Interview; Talks About Adapting Stephenie Myer’s THE HOST”. Collider.com [online], n.p. Available: [HERE] [Accessed 23 November 2011].
FISCHER, R., 2011. “‘In Time’ Review: Andrew Niccol Tries to Occupy Sci-Fi”. Film: blogging the reel world [online], n.p. Available: [HERE] [Accessed 23 November 2011]
MOLYNEUX, J., 2011. Will The Revolution Be Televised? A Marxist analysis of the media. LONDON: Bookmarks Publications.
VASEY, R., 1993. Foreign Parts, Hollywood’s Global Distribution and the Representation of Ethnicity. In: COUVARES, F. G., ed., 1996. Movie Censorship and American Culture. USA: Smithsonian Institution.
WILLEMAN, P., 2006. The National Revisited. In: VITALI, V., & WILLEMAN, P., ed., 2006. Theorising National Cinema. UK: St Edmundsbury Press.
YOSHIMOTO, M., 2003. National/International/Transnational: The Concept of Trans-Asian Cinema and the Cultural Politics of Film Criticism. In: VITALI, V., & WILLEMAN, P., ed., 2006. Theorising National Cinema. UK: St Edmundsbury Press.