5 Myths We Only Believe Because They’re True In Hollywood, California
We use the word Hollywood as a shorthand for “movies,” or for “the movie industry,” or for “that terrible entertainment factory that keeps feeding us crap.” But Hollywood is also a physical location, of course. And while movies today are made all over the world, the industry has its roots in California.
California is quite a place. If it were its own country, it would be one of the biggest economies in the world, easily. Still, it is just one state—one state that has had, thanks to movies, an outsize influence on how we all see the world.
The Age Of Consent Is 18 In California, And Almost Nowhere Else
Adults can’t legally sleep with anyone under 18, we all know. In movies and TV shows, even characters famous for their lengthy sexual resumes draw the line if they learn their prospective partner’s under 18. “The only reason to wait a month for sex is if the girl is seventeen years, eleven months old,” says Barney in How I Met Your Mother. Or here’s Joey from Friends learning a girl is 16 and instantly cutting the conversation short, saying he'll won't see her for two years.
In the recent movie I Want You Back, it’s obvious to us that a girl Charlie Day’s character approaches is too young for him, but he only panics when she reveals that she’s not 19, she’s 17. And speaking of Charlie, Dennis in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia once blows up upon learning a target is 16. This is Dennis, who locks women in his room to keep them from leaving, and even he acknowledges the statutory definition of rape.
Characters react this way because the age of consent is 18. And yet it's 18 in few places worldwide and even fewer places in the U.S. The age of consent exists independent of the legal age of majority, much like the minimum ages for drinking or driving do (and also like the drinking and driving ages, the age of consent is 18 in some places, and some people say it should be 18 everywhere, but it is not).
The most common age of consent in the U.S., by far, is 16. Only in 11 states is it 18. Most of these are red states, incidentally. And even these states usually have an alternative “minimum age of victim” thanks to various exceptions; just three states say no one under 18 can ever consent: Idaho, Wisconsin, and California.
And yet many people think 18 is the age of consent. Some are very public about this belief, counting down to when girl celebrities will turn 18 (maybe this also counts down till she can legally pose nude, but that’s not how most people interpret it). They think this because they learned about age of consent from shows and movies, which defer to the California law for plots, even when they don’t take place in California. Friends and How I Met are in New York, where the age of consent is 17. I Want You Back is in Georgia, age 16. Always Sunny, according to experts, takes place in Pennsylvania, where the age is also 16.
Let’s give you two more examples, both from Texas. The recent miniseries A Teacher flips the common teacher-student romance trope by portraying the consequences realistically. It serves as an anti-grooming PSA—actual grooming, not “grooming” as a codeword for anything else—complete with warnings before and after each episode, so it is very careful to get the facts right, countering every defense of the central relationship.
Still, the story gives the boy’s 18th birthday some weight, for no good reason. Right after it, Kate Mara’s teacher character confides in a friend about the affair, saying it’s okay because the student’s 18. The friend tells her it’s still wrong. Kate Mara later goes to jail because a teacher sleeping with a high school student is illegal regardless of either’s age. But also, people saying this sex is wrong and people defending it should both agree his 18th birthday has no significance here. The Texas age of consent is 17. You’d think a sexual predator would know that.
The weirdest case surely comes from Transformers: Age of Extinction. We’ve previously written about and done a video on one memorable scene from the film:
A 20-year-old dates Mark Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter, saying it’s legal because they have a “preexisting juvenile foundational relationship.” He even carries a printed copy of the relevant Romeo and Juliet law in his wallet. The law he’s quoting, whose text they show on screen, actually doesn’t say anything about preexisting juvenile foundational relationships. It just says that if kids 14 or older have sex, the other person is not automatically prosecuted unless they're more than three years their partner’s senior.
“Gross,” we previously told you. “The writers could have just made her 18 and avoided all this.” But they couldn’t have, not if they wanted a plot where Mark Wahlberg threatens to press charges against his daughter’s boyfriend. And if they wanted that plot, they ... also shouldn’t have made her 17. In Texas, 17 is the age of consent, so her relationship with a 20-year-old (or 30-year-old, or 40-year-old) is legal even without any Romeo & Juliet law. To make this plot work, they should have made her 16.
“To Protect And Serve” Isn’t An Oath, Just A California Motto
Next time you hear of some act of mass violence or random death, in which police totally fail to intervene and save people, you’ll definitely also hear some people say, “Cops too scared to act? Whatever happened to ‘protect and serve’?” Protect and serve, of course, is the oath that every officer swears.
Except, police never do swear such an oath. If police do swear oaths, it’s to uphold the constitution or the law, not to protect and serve people. They are law enforcement officials. They do not sign up to be saints or martyrs. We’ve covered in some detail how cops lack any legal responsibility for protecting people.
So where does the phrase “to protect and serve” come from then? Well, it’s the motto—not the oath—of the LAPD. They chose it in 1955, after getting suggestions through a magazine contest. Some other police departments have since adopted it as a motto too, and it’s also now in the code of ethics for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, but you really know it from the LAPD, because their use of it led Hollywood to slap it in various portrayals of police in media.
In The Untouchables, a cadet says he wants to join up to protect and serve. The other officers treat this as a cliché, but the phrase is not an oath or motto for Chicago police or the Treasury (or even the LAPD in the 1920s, which is when the film is set).
Detroit officer Robocop says his prime directives are to protect and serve, a declaration laden with intentional irony.
Even the watch in the Elder Scrolls video games say the phrase. That’s quite impressive, that they should swear by not just something that originated from our world but by the slogan of one specific American city police department.
We all take our cues about police from media, whether we see police as heroes or as bumbling doofuses always scrambling for donuts. Oh yeah: Those pink donut boxes you keep seeing police and people eat out of in movies and TV? That’s another thing that exists almost nowhere in the real world. It’s just a California thing.
Everyone’s Favorite Cactus Grows In Just One Place
When we’re young, we all draw mountains with zigzag snow peaks. We draw the sun in the corner of the page, with big rays pointing outward. And we draw cactuses with arms pointing to the sky. You then might grow up and see all kinds of cacti that look nothing like that. Some are round little balls, while others are pancake shapes with big red fruits on top Were we just dumb children, always drawing cacti that one way?
No. We were all just drawing Carnegiea gigantea, the saguaro cactus. It’s a cactus that grows only in the Sonoran Desert in one corner of California and then Mexico and bits of Arizona. Lots of Hollywood films were shot in the nearby desert, so that image got implanted in all our heads. Funny how many more movies are set in the southwest compared to, say, Virginia.
A bunch of saguaros appear in Rango because Rango is a Western—even though Rango takes place in the Mojave, not the Sonoran, and the Mojave has no saguaros.
You can even find video games putting these cacti around the pyramids in Egypt. With one exception (Rhipsalis baccifera, which looks nothing like most cacti), cactuses of any kind don’t grow in Africa ... or Asia, or Europe, or Australia. Cacti are purely a New World plant.
Yes, in addition to having a unique culture, Hollywood exists in a unique ecological environment. For another example of that:
Do Frogs Go Ribbit Ribbit? One Does!
Talking again about what we believe as kids, we all start our childhoods by pursuing a crucial field of study: animal sounds. Cows go “moo,” sheep go “baa,” and frogs go “ribbit.” But most frogs you run into don’t go ribbit. They go “grawwwp.”
Most frogs go grawwwp, at least. But one type of frog does make a ribbit sound. It’s Pseudacris regilla, the Pacific treefrog. You might go your whole life without seeing one, unless you live on America’s Pacific coast:
That frog’s habitat includes Hollywood, so all movies use its ribbit sound when they want frog noises. Not because these movies are filmed in Hollywood—movies have to pipe in prerecorded animal sound effects; they can’t just capture ambient animal noises because sound doesn’t work like that. Movies use the Pacific treefrog because that was the sound the very first Hollywood movies used, and now every other movie uses those same effects.
One heroic IMDB user calling themselves Satantangoandcash compiled a list of hundreds of movies that feature the Pacific treefrog ribbit despite not being set anywhere in that frog’s habitat. Movies like To Kill A Mockingbird, set in Alabama:
... or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, set in Indiana:
Or Jacob’s Ladder, set in Vietnam (and in the mind of a man from New York):
At this point, we're having trouble telling what sound comes from frogs and what's just crickets, but that's because we learned about the outdoors from TV & movies; we think “night” sounds like whatever they tell us it does. For a while, we actually thought frogs don’t go “grawwwp” OR “ribbit,” they go “bud-wei-ser.”
Phones Give A Dial Tone When Someone Hangs Up ... In California.
The following trope is dying out thanks to cell phones, but you’ll still know it from older movies. Two people are talking on the phone. One person abruptly ends the call, and to show us they hung up, the movie plays a dial tone, which the listener hears.
At some point while hearing all these movies do this, if you yourself used a landline, you realized that when the other person hangs up, you don’t hear a dial tone. You hear that tone when you pick up the phone, before dialing, but not after the call ends. So, is your phone just a weird exception? Or are all movies lying, adding the tone purely for dramatic effect?
Neither. Phones did offer a dial tone when the other person hung up, if you happened to be in California. Originally, all of America was under one phone monopoly, the Bell System, until an antitrust lawsuit broke it up in the 1980s. All of America was under this monopoly ... except for Southern California, which had its own systems. California escaped the nation’s monopolies in various ways: The whole reason Hollywood became the moviemaking capital was that Edison had a monopoly on film tech, but his monopoly didn’t extend to California.
The following video goes into some detail about the mechanics of the different phone systems:
Southern California, where movies were made, used what's called a step-by-step system, while the rest of the country used far-end supervision. With far-end supervision, the telephone exchange figures out the call has disconnected and leaves the remaining party listening to silence. With the step system, the listener can actually hang up without the call disconnecting. But also with the step system, if the caller hangs up, the phone has nothing telling it whether a call has ended or whether it hasn’t even begun, so it plays a dial tone.
As with so much else, all movies defaulted to the California way of doing things, even when the movie doesn’t take place in California. Die Hard 3 takes place in New York, while the above video also mentions Mean Girls doing this, and that movie's in Illinois. Today, of course, the hang-up dial tone isn’t even a thing in California, because no one talks on the phone, they exclusively chat through website article comment sections.
Top image: FX