Why Hollywood's Liberal Reputation Is BS
If you've read some of my other articles, you probably know two things about me: I'm a Rust Belt transplant in Los Angeles and I have an unbearable tendency to make everything about me. Whenever I talk to someone from back home or fly back to visit (which is infrequent, because Northwest Indiana is like The Road if everyone also smoked meth to pass the time), I'm inevitably met with sneering questions asking if I "like living in HollyWEIRD," because Hoosier comedy. I had a family friend inform me that since I live in COMMIEFORNIA I actually live in a fascist police state, which is odd because I know for a fact that guy has spent significant time in jail for smoking weed and out in LA you can buy drugs legally in both kinds of pot store: A) Apple Store For Getting High and B) Why Do They Also Sell Knives.
Los Angeles, and the film industry specifically, has a reputation of being a bastion of lefty liberal bleeding-heart kale-likers. And, as someone who lives here and has worked in the film industry, I want to tell you that that's complete and utter BS. Hollywood is, as an industry, right-wing as Halliburton.
Blockbusters are Literally Military Propaganda
Oh, great, you think. Another so-called "comedy" so-called "writer" misusing the term "literally" for so-called "comedic effect." And to you, Imaginary Asshole, I say this: I mean "literally" literally.
Have you ever seen a movie, like, say, Battleship, and thought, "Hey, there's a lot of battleships in this movie Battleship -- how did they get so many battleships?" And the answer is, quite simply, they borrowed them from the actual-ass Navy. Of course, the Department of Defense isn't in the habit of doing favors, so there's a price. In return for letting Hollywood use a hundred-million-dollar ship, they got final say over the film to make sure that it painted the military in a sufficiently positive light while Rihanna exploded aliens or whatever that movie was about.
And sure, that's just a dumb movie based on a America's favorite grid-based guessing game, so who cares, right? Just because it had Oscar-winner Liam "I Played Oskar Schindler" Neeson in it doesn't mean it played an integral role in shaping the cultural zeitgeist. Unlike, say, the Marvel films, which are mostly military propaganda that reinforce the righteousness of American cultural hegemony. But in a fun, banter-y way!
Captain Marvel worked extensively with the Air Force, and in return was used as part of a recruitment effort. While this shit has been going on since basically Hollywood's inception, things got turned up to the MAXTREME in the 80s, as things so often did in those halcyon days. With confidence in the infallible morality of the US war machine plummeting in the wake of Vietnam for some reason, the DoD decided they needed to reform their image from "imperialist village-burners" to "totally rad dudes in neat planes" -- and that, kids, is how Top Gun was made. And it worked! Weirdly horny volleyball montages led to a 500% increase in Navy enlistment, and that's not even a Comedy Number.
Making movies is expensive. CGI ain't cheap, somebody's gotta pay to zamboni the corpses of PAs that died from exhaustion off set, and it's a matter of record that Tom Hanks refuses to eat anything except caviar-encrusted rack of endangered river dolphin while filming. Hollywood is all about minimizing cost to maximize profit, cutting corners any way they can. This means that it's now pretty much common practice for movies above a certain size to work with the military to save money, which in effect means the military is writing most of our movies. Man, of all the things we could have cribbed from the Soviet Union, why'd it have to be agitprop and not drunken bear circuses?
This isn't groundbreaking journalism I'm doing here. I'm not the first person to reach this conclusion. Plenty of people have talked about this before, and the general conclusion seems to be "Come on, lib-boners. It's oversimplifying to call this propaganda. Films just save potentially hundreds of millions of dollars and in return the Department of Defense determines the film's message!"
Letting the military have final say on a film has become incredibly widespread. Here's a response to a FOIA request showing films that were made with Pentagon assistance. There's films you'd expect (Top Gun, Battleship, Iron Man), and then there's films you'd very much not expect. (Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Indiana Jones? Ernest Saves Christmas, is nothing sacred?) The Military-Entertainment Complex might sound like something you'd see on a bumper sticker next to another bumper sticker that says "I KNOW the ONLY vaccine MY children need is ORGANIC GOAT PLACENTA, and I VOTE," but it's real. I mean, there's even a branch of the DoD dedicated to this: the Entertainment Media Liaison Office. Their website proudly claims they've been helping Hollywood "since 1917," when the highest-grossing films were Man Does Jumping-Jack and The Irish: A Menace to Our Good Cities, and the Best Manner of Traps to Deter Them.
"Liberal" Celebrities Aren't as Left as You Think
One thing that I dislike in any discourse about American media is the insistence on referring to Hollywood like it's a single, monolithic entity. With that being said, I am going to continue to indulge in that particular fallacy because it is both convenient and because I am a hack with no real principles, so if any execs reading want to hook up the Money Hose to my house and pay me to write a ruthlessly jingoistic film where America comes to Australia as benevolent conquerors, take note!
So, yes, there are exceptions to all of this. For example, Katheryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker didn't get any military funding, probably because that movie ends with a soldier who's been so thoroughly traumatized by the experience of war the he tells his own baby he hates it. But when I talk about "Hollywood" I'm speaking broadly about blockbusters, and frankly, there's a not-too-surprising reason why these films tend to have a rightward slant: a member of Donald Trump's cabinet finances them.
Okay, that's not the only reason, but it does demonstrate what I'm talking about. Even movies with an ostensibly left tone or themes of rebelling against oppression are usually just a commodified version of leftist ideas. Consider Rogue One, an entire film predicated on rebellion against a regime that uses overwhelming military might and superior technology to occupy and destroy a desert nation. It was written by the same guy who wrote a movie where the world has become a hellish dystopia because we strayed too far from the Light and Glory of Christ, but also there's really distracting and laughable product placement between all the brutal knife violence -- as Christ Himself ordained, amen.
It's really the most unintentionally perfect allegory for America since that guy shot a bald eagle and then ran it over in his SUV because it ate fish from his lake.
The people getting paid to write these blockbusters are rich, which means they have class solidarity with other Hollywood creators at the top level. It's why Ellen (net worth: $330M) and professional gay-rights-denier/hobbyist war criminal George W. Bush (net worth: $39M) are buddy-buddy.
It's why Larry David (net worth: $400M, maybe) supported professional CIA asset Pete Buttigieg despite literally being related to Bernie Sanders -- for the ultra-wealthy, class solidarity transcends even family ties. Although could you imagine how awkward that family reunion would be if Bernie confronts Larry about not voting for him? I can practically hear the tubas. I'm sure that both Ellen and Larry David are perfectly nice people (well, actually, having lived in LA for a few years, I'm not sure that Ellen is a perfectly nice person). I'm sure they both identify as liberal, but class solidarity takes precedence over any political difference. That's who mostly gets to make huge TV and blockbuster movies.
For every incredible Rob McElhenny who overcomes the odds and makes a hit show despite coming from nothing, it seems like there's five wealthy media scions making shows meant to appeal to the working class despite never having been part of it. And if somehow some dirty socialist like me actually managed to con their way into writing the script for a huge movie, would the money change me? After doing some soul-searching, I believe the answer is a resounding duh. I firmly believe that workers should own the means of production, but I also firmly believe that I should own a Sex Yacht.
Workers are Ruthlessly Exploited
So the products themselves can reinforce right-wing ideology. But surely, this being LIBERAL HOLLYWOOD, films and TV shows are made by a bunch of fringe-wearing hippies holding hands on a film set, right? Well, if you believe that, I've got One Weird Trick you can do to meet Hot Single Moms in your area (the trick is to give me all your money). If there's one thing that the American Right loves more than floating Kid Rock for various public offices, it's coming up with new and exciting ways exploit the poor -- Koch Industries actually discovered a way to power freight trains with the souls of public school teachers, but the technology was ultimately abandoned for "not meeting pollution quotas."
I wrote an entire article about some of the particular means by which Hollywood screws over the most vulnerable workers in any way it can, but because I'm a preachy hack it's an issue worth revisiting. If you work in film and you're not lucky enough to have collective bargaining behind you, Hollywood, like literally every other business, is trying to find a way to save money at your expense. There's obvious things I've mentioned in that previous article, such as subjecting PAs to working conditions that even Victorian orphan brokers would find unconscionable, but there's also a whole insidious array of ways that workers are exploited. If I listed them all this article would be the length of a sad Russian novel about a man who smokes a cigarette and then kills his father but it takes five hundred thousand pages.
Consider the plight of the "independent contractor," a term which invokes as much dread in the workers of Hollywood as "deferred payment" and "Hey, Ellen is going to be on set today." There's been a bit of a trend in the last decade or two where workers are slowly being redefined from "employees" to "independent contractors," mostly because being an independent contractor means your employer doesn't have to pay you overtime, provide health care, or contribute to unemployment insurance, Medicare, or Social Security. While California has attempted to combat turning everyone below the line into an independent contractor, the problem with a lot of these types of exploitation is that they isolate workers. Even if the company you're working for is breaking the law, how do you, a presumably relatively poor employee, stand a chance if you're suing one of the largest and most litigious rat-themed entertainment companies in the world? Many employees don't even feel it's worth it to try, even in the most clearly exploitative working conditions, like your boss extracting a pint of blood from you every day at lunch. You can't sue me if I'm just implying you're a vampire, Rupert Murdoch!
Even with legal protections in place, according to the IRS, you can still make your employees independent contractors if "You treated the workers as independent contractors because you knew, and can substantiate, that was how a significant segment of your industry treated similar workers." Don't forget: for the Managerial Class, "but everyone else was doing it!!!" is a valid legal defense, but if you try using that defense as part of the Internet Comedy Writer Class all you get is "Please, Mr. Kuechenberg, put your clothes back on -- yes, we know this is a zoo and that 'technically the animals are naked too.'"
But that's just the financial aspect. Hollywood is also notorious for risking people's lives. Now I've worked on many, many film sets, and the vast majority I've worked on have taken people's safety seriously. For example, I was a recurring extra on Westworld for months:
There was one day of filming that was particularly grueling. I was on set for more than twenty-four hours. We were in the desert, miles and miles outside of LA. When we were finally let go for the day, HBO agreed to reimburse all of us for a hotel room for the night so we wouldn't have to drive home while sleep deprived. That was very, very cool of HBO, especially because they were under absolutely no legal obligation to do that. If you're an extra and not in SAG-AFTRA, as most aren't, you have virtually no protections.
Deaths on set are like diehard Dave Matthews fans: not exactly frequent, but much more frequent than they should be. Perhaps unsurprisingly, stunt people are at a particularly high risk for dying. After all, Professional Car Flipper is easily the second most dangerous job in Hollywood, right behind Person Ellen Hunts for Sport. But it seems like with all of the pressure on set to do things as quickly and cheaply and possible, safety sometimes takes a back seat to saving money. Like when John Landis decapitated his lead and several children with a helicopter, got acquitted on all charges, and then threw a party to celebrate the one-year anniversary of getting off scot-free (a legacy of sleaze his son Max saw and vowed to one day surpass). But for every high-profile example of this, there are many, many more that get swept under the rug. This may also be part of the reason studios are choosing to shoot in other states where OSHA investigations tend to be much more lax. Like Indiana, for example!
The CIA Purged Leftists and Walt Disney Helped
With self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders coming within a hair's breadth of becoming the democratic nominee twice, it's possible that younger readers might not appreciate how much of a boogeyman the idea of socialism has been in the American political sphere. It was about as much of a political death sentence as advocating for a Constitutional amendment to make Uncle Sam gay, or mandating the inclusion of ponymeat in hamburgers. But this wasn't always the case: socialist Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes while in prison in 1920, and in 1939 the pro-worker, anti-capitalist book The Grapes of Wrath was a bigger sensation than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
But Hollywood was pretty much ground zero for McCarthyism, which put a stop to all that right quick. Besides all of the other considerations I've listed for Hollywood's neoliberal-at-best ideological leanings, it's also worth considering that there was an entire generation of the film industry which had virtually no open leftists. By the 1930s Hollywood already had a reputation as an insidious den of -- GASP! Unions!, which made it a favorite target of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Anyone who was even suspected of being left-leaning was blackballed or even jailed, but perhaps the most effective tool of the HUAC was, like Batman, fear. The HUAC was a group of the extremely wealthy and politically connected deciding that their personal morality was more important than the actual law -- also like Batman. They engendered a culture of paranoia in Hollywood because of all the informants they had, including the president of the Screen Actors Guild -- a dude by the name of Ronald Reagan, who, in addition to ruining America in new and exciting ways, was also a snitch.
When a group of film industry folks accused of having Communist sympathies decided to turn the tables by questioning the legitimacy of the HUAC, it was huge news. A group of brave underdogs fighting against an unjust system! Just like in the movies! The Hollywood Ten, as they were known, took on The System and lost incredibly hard. They were literally sent to prison for questioning whether it was okay for a committee with virtually no oversight to ruin people's lives for belonging to the wrong political party. While in prison one of them turned squealer and ousted twenty other people with "Communist sympathies" in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
It probably doesn't come as a shock to you that this anti-leftist hysteria was used by unscrupulous opportunists to further their own interests. If it does shock you, let me be the first to welcome you to America! (You'll acquire a taste for the added sugar in everything eventually, don't worry.) Walt Disney wasn't too happy about all the labor strikes that were going on in his animation studio, in case you couldn't tell by workers wanting to be fairly compensated are portrayed as literal drunk clowns in Dumbo:
So Disney was all too happy to name names of people in the union leadership that were trying to get his studio unionized, including labor leaders like Herbert Sorrell and others who were leading strikes against Disney at the time. Disney said of these strike leaders, "In my opinion they are Communists. No one has any way of proving these things." While in a sane world this would be a moment of introspection where everyone learns that this might be a witch hunt based on feelings and opportunism, Walt Disney's opinions were considered basis enough to take these union leaders to court, even though Sorrell's animation strikes were explicitly opposed by the Communist Party. People like Disney had no qualms about tapping into the Red Scare to stop their workers from making insane requests like "weekends" and "fair pay" and "please, Mr. Disney, my children! Grinding their teeth into powder to add to the ink won't make your goddamn mouse come to life! Let them go!" I'd argue that the effects of this period in Hollywood history are still being felt today. Setting back the acceptance of leftist politics in Hollywood is the Red Scare's second most unexpected side-effect, the other being that this guy got to have sex with Marilyn Monroe:
There's Too Much Money to be Made
Everything I've talked about here is probably a symptom of a larger problem. A lot of what I've talked about could probably be solved, or at least alleviated, by stronger union representation for lower-level workers. But no matter what measures are taken, the core issue will still exist: the main problem with the film industry is that it's a victim of its own success. There's just too much money to be made for major films to be anything other than right-leaning.
You think a certain rat-themed entertainment company that's rapidly subsuming all competition that made approximately $70,000,000,000 last year DOESN'T have a vested interest in making sure tax law isn't more rigidly enforced? Do you think a company that literally made more money last year than all of Luxembourg wants there to be more regulations around monopolies? I wouldn't be surprised if the next Avengers movie has Captain America punch out CyberOsama with the help of the good patriots at Raytheon Murder Solutions then turns to the camera and deliver a stirring monologue on how this wouldn't have been possible if the Free Market was left to languish under the oppressive thumb of Regulation, *eagle screech sound,* because this is America, baby, and if you got the money, you make the rules.
The more money the film industry makes, the more money it can spend to make more money. While there have been a few off years, the general trend of the film industry is pretty clearly upward. Which is weird, because I seem to remember there being a lot of handwringing about how home video will kill the film industry. And then a lot of bellyaching about how piracy will kill the film industry. And then a lot of kvetching about how streaming will kill the film industry. And then a lot of moaning about how hooking the pleasure center of your cerebral cortex directly into the Bonernet will kill the-- oh, wait, that one hasn't happened yet.
The point is that Hollywood is a big business, and as we all know, the Republicans are the party of Serving Big Business Explicitly -- unlike the Democrats, the party of Serving Big Business Implicitly. That's why between 2009 and 2012, the Motion Picture Association of America increased their spending on lobbying over 2,000%. (These are all good reasons to check out the many wonderful films being made in non-US markets, art cinema, and indie films.)
Here's the central problem of mega-blockbusters: The more popular and widespread a movie is, the more money they make. Maximizing profit means targeting as broad a demographic as possible, which almost inevitably means the film reinforces the status quo. Studios are generally hesitant to wager hundreds of millions of dollars on a film that might cause boycotts or turn off large swaths of the population -- the larger the swath, the larger the share of potential ticket sales. Why do you think so many movies star white people? It's not because of our recipe for delicious egg-and-mayo salad jamboree. This phenomenon is why critical darlings with a leftist message like Parasite (made outside of the Hollywood system), despite being seen as a huge success, made just over a third of what almost-universally-panned Suicide Squad made. And besides that, there's something to be said about how most films, by their nature, revolve around a few principle characters -- which means, by accident or design, most films glorify a narrative of individualism.
Ultimately, I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad for consuming media. I am literally, as I write this, wearing a Game of Thrones-branded shirt, because I am roughly as cool as a Mini Cooper going five miles under the speed limit. So yeah, next time your uncle posts on Facebook that coronavirus is a Chinese hoax meant to turn Americans gay and Hollywood is helping, just remember how far to the right the American perspective is skewed if he thinks Los Angeles is an exercise in Marxist utopianism.
William Kuechenberg is a film and television writer seeking representation despite talking mad shit in this article. If this dumb article made you interested in starting a union at your place of employment, check out the many excellent resources available from the AFL-CIO.