Hollywood's Three Biggest Lies

Authored By: Michael Medved


Hollywood doesn't want anyone to know how profoundly its distorted messages influence us.

by Michael Medved

I want to address a paradox. Why are we so desperately concerned about the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we put into our bodies, and so blindly unconcerned about the images and the messages from the mass media that we put into our minds? Those messages not only go into the mind; they go into the imagination and they go into our very souls. What's particularly astonishing is that we're so unconcerned about what children see.

I think the reason people don't look at media as carefully as they look at food is because we have been greatly impacted by three persistent and pervasive lies that Hollywood loves to tell about what it does. I want to look at those three lies, and then explain what we can do to try to answer these lies with the truth.

The three lies Hollywood tells us are: 1) movies and television are just harmless diversions. They only entertain people; they don't influence people. 2) The media just reflect reality; they don't shape reality; and 3) the entertainment industry just gives the public what it wants. If you don't like it, turn off the TV or skip the movie.

Let's consider these one by one.

Lie 1: We produce harmless diversion. We don't really influence people at all.

I have a very clear example of the hypocrisy at the heart of this claim. A few years ago, the CEO of a major film studio got up at a panel discussion and said, "The trouble with people like Michael Medved is that they never give us credit for all the great things that this industry achieves. For instance, you don't hear Michael Medved acknowledging that the movie, 'Lethal Weapon 3,' saved thousands of American lives." I was sitting on the stage feeling so obtuse. I couldn't think of any life-giving messages in "Lethal Weapon 3." So I asked.

The gentleman said, "Well, I think everybody else here understood it, even if you didn't. The fact is, just before Danny Glover and Mel Gibson go off on a highspeed chase, we had an intense close-up that was on screen for a full three seconds showing the two guys fastening their seat belts."

Consider the logic here. Somehow, people will imitate three seconds of fastening seat belts but they won't imitate the rest of the movie, which is full of eviscerations, lacerations, knife wounds, gunshot wounds, explosions, car crashes and all kinds of other anti-social behavior. How ludicrous is this? Many Hollywood movies and TV shows have an almost obligatory condom scene, and they want credit for showing this little magical latex talisman that makes everything OK. People are going to imitate the use of this device, but not the rest of it-the whole setup to get them into the situation where they use the device in the first place. We sell condoms but not premarital or irresponsible sexuality. Does this make sense? Of course not.

TV sells. That's the nature of it. You see 30 seconds of a commercial and all of a sudden you want to buy the product. So how, then, can one say that this 30 seconds is worth hundreds of thousands of advertiser dollars because it influences people, but the 30 minutes surrounding the 30 seconds has no influence?

Hollywood's fall-back defense of the "we don't influence" lie is that most people turn out OK. We don't become violent. Our children don't grow up to be violent adults, even though they watch lots of violent movies and television. There may be violence in the media, but the continuing prevalence of decent people proves that it doesn't have any bad effects.

This is the most illogical, deceptive, seductive, dishonest line in this whole debate.

Consider. How many Americans have ever seen an ad on television for the Lexus automobile? A hundred million or more. How many are so influenced by that ad that they go out and buy a Lexus? One in a thousand? One in a hundred thousand? That's enough. Most ads influence one out of a thousand or a hundred thousand- and the ad matters. In the same way, violent images that affect the thinking and behavior of one out of a thousand or hundred thousand viewers can have a huge effect on society, because the problem with crime isn't that everybody does it; it's that a few people perpetrate criminal acts again and again.

But there's more. Going back to the Lexus ad, even those who will never buy the car have been influenced. The car was redefined as something glamorous, something desirable, something sexy. A Lexus is a very nicelooking car, but so is a Buick. Because of the ad you say, "Oh, there's a $40,000 car. That's really slick. I wonder who's driving it. That's a status symbol."

The fact is that That is their real power. Even when we don't imitate directly what we see when it comes to sexual behavior or violence, repeated exposure to these images redefines that kind of behavior as desirable, as glamorous, as sexy-as normal. And for most Americans, particularly little children, their main view of the world beyond their own parents comes from television. And the behavior that you see again and again and again becomes normal. And that's why the real power of this medium is not only to change our idea of what is accepted in this society, but to change even more directly our idea of what is expected. And that brings me to the second lie.

Lie 2: We don't shape reality, we just reflect reality.

Lie 2 was expressed very well by the film director Paul Verhoven, who has given to our civilization such worthy gems as "RoboCop," and "Total Recall" and the film "Basic Instinct," which I had reviewed under the headline, "Basically It Stinks." Mr. Verhoven told me, "We're just artists, we just do what artists do. We hold the mirror up to nature and we show nature the way it is. The problem isn't what we show; the problem is society that is ugly, and violent, and horrible. We just show things as they are." This is the typical cop-out and excuse of every Hollywood apologist.

Every day, about 350 characters turn up on prime time on TV on all the networks. On average, on a given night of prime time, about seven of them are murdered. That means in two months everybody's dead! Prime time TV, by some estimates, has a violence and murder rate 1,000 times higher than our cities and towns. This is reality?

The screen actors Guild of America did a study of the balance of movie roles that go to men and women. Some 72 percent of speaking parts in the last five years went to men. On prime-time TV, 64 percent of all speaking parts go to men. Reality?

When it comes to sexuality, the distortions of reality are even more grotesque. One survey found that on a typical year on prime-time TV, there are 30,000 references to sexual intercourse. References to sex outside marriage are 13 times more common than to sex inside marriage. I've almost come to the conclusion that sex between husband and wife is the only kind of sexual activity that you're not permitted to show on television. This is Hollywood's mirror showing ourselves?

Every week, 140 million or so Americans go to church or synagogue Do you see this on TV? Instead, we watch Bart Simpson saying grace: "Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves. Thanks for nothing." A lovely message for the children of America. The only images of religious people you see are of people who are corrupt, crazy and crooked. It's a completely unrealistic stereotype, and it doesn't reflect what the people of America believe.

This notion that "we just reflect reality; we show the world as it is" is nonsense. Hollywood distorts reality and distorts reality in ways that I consider highly destructive.

And that brings us to the final lie.

Lie 3: We're just good businessmen. We give the public what it wants.

You hear this usually in the context that unless a movie has sex, bad language and violence in it, no one will come to see it. It's doomed at the box office. Let's just test this hypothesis.

One of the things I did in writing my book "Hollywood vs. America" was to look at the box-office performance of the previous 15 years of movies. Through that entire period, when more than 50 percent of movies were rated R. R-rated movies earned the least at the box office on average by far. PG-rated films earned on average two-and-one-half times what R-rated movies made. And yet during that same time period, the percentage of R movies went up and the percentage of PG movies went down.

Most movies that are rated R get the R not for violence or sex; they're rated R for language. Where is the constituency out there demanding foul language in movies? Have you ever heard of somebody leaving a motion-picture theater saying, "I really feel ripped off cause I didn't get to hear the 'F' word enough." Have you ever heard of anybody who complained about a movie that the language in it was just too clean? Who thinks like that? No one!

Why do they feel the need to throw sexual content into the movies where it doesn't belong?

Why do they feel the need to go so heavily into violence on TV? Of the top 25 rated TV series, the only one with intense violence is "NYPD Blue." The American people aren't clamoring for this stuff. So now you have an obvious question: Why do they do it?

I'll give you a little anecdote. At a social occasion a few years ago, I talked to a director whose work I very much admire. He had done a film just a year before- an R-rated movie-that I had liked very much. But it flopped at the box office. I told him about my conclusion that R-rated movies on average do less well than PG or PG-13 ratings. He agreed with me that the R rating was a handicap. "Then why didn't you get it changed?" I asked.

"We tried to get the rating changed but they wouldn't bend," he said. "I thought it was unfair-we didn't have violence, we didn't have sex, we just had some language. We had 14 'F' words and they gave us the R."

"But once they gave you the R. and you knew it was because of the 14 'F' words, did it ever occur to you just to go back and take out the 'F' words?"

The guy paused for a moment, and he sort of turned white. He said, "That would have been to compromise my artistic integrity."

An industry that confuses artistic integrity with "F" words is an industry that is fundamentally adolescent. Most of us outgrow the need to use foul language to prove our masculinity and shock the world. Not the overgrown adolescents who make feature films, or do TV. Their fascination with this material isn't based on money. It's based on the respect of their peers. People who make this material are terribly insecure, like all artists are, and they desperately want to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

Prestige is handed out in Hollywood based on the idiotic assumption that it's the purpose of art to shock people, to horrify people, to make people uncomfortable.

Traditionally, we've always had the notion that it's the purpose of art to uplift and inspire. Bach, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, wrote at the beginning of each of his more than 1,000 works the motto, "With the help of the Almighty God." There was a sense that it was the purpose of the artist to glorify God in some form. Dickens believed that, Shakespeare believed that, Cervantes believed that, Dante believed that, Tolstoy believed that. And they did art that perhaps even isn't that inferior to the art of Quentin Tarentino.

And this brings me to the final point: Can't we just say no? Hollywood says, "No one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to go see the movies. Nobody is forcing you to turn on the TV, nobody is forcing you to watch it. You can always just choose to turn it off. Meanwhile, shut up and don't bother us."

The great philosopher Joe Louis once said: "You can run but you can't hide."

That's the way it is with popular culture. You cannot avoid it. I have never purchased a Madonna tape or tickets to a Madonna concert. But I know who Madonna is. I know what she looks like. I know about her obsessions. I know her views. I have never chosen to be aware of Madonna. Movies and TV chose for me.

Most Americans didn't see the movie with Demi Moore, Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson called "Indecent Proposal." But almost everyone knows the plot-Robert Redford offers Demi Moore and her husband a million dollars if she would spend the night with him. Just reflecting reality, remember? But I went to a school where I heard 9-year-olds talking about it. They hadn't seen the movie, but they were saying, "Do you think your mother would do it if they gave her a million dollars? . . ."

The point is this: Saying to people that if they don't like the popular culture they can just turn it off is like saying that if they don't like the smog they can just stop breathing.

That's why this is an environmental issue. And at a time when we are demanding greater accountability of big corporations for their pollution of our air and our water, it's also appropriate to demand of these giant cultural conglomerates that they show more responsibility for their pollution of the cultural atmosphere we all breathe.

What can we do about the moral and cultural pollution? Here are a few suggestions.

In answer to Hollywood's first lie, that the media is only entertainment, we have to say "Messages matter." We must show greater discernment about the images and the values that we place into our imaginations and into our very souls.

Second to the lie that Hollywood just reflects reality, we have to know, teach and live the truth that what we see on screen isn't real. My impression is that the more TV one watches, the more depressed, the more self-pitying, the more helpless one is going to feel. We are in the grips of a cry-baby culture. Too many people see the world as worse than it is, as hopeless. That's a product of accepting media reality.

Last, to the lie that Hollywood just gives the public what it wants, we know it doesn't. But this suggests that boycotts and economic pressure are not going to change the situation because Hollywood isn't responding to the public audience anyway. Economic pressure alone isn't going to change things in Hollywood. What's going to change it is more people with conscience and values coming out and getting involved in the popular culture. For too many years we have left this business to the Oliver Stones and Quentin Tarentinos of the world. The fact is that when people of faith wash their hands and say they're not going to get involved with the movie business, that it's dirty, then you end up getting the kind of popular culture you might expect.

Give support, encouragement and commitment to the cause of not only complaining, but creating, not only damning the bad, but praising the good, and we can make a difference; we can change things. Popular culture will never be entirely wonderful, it will never be all perfect, but it can be better.

If we can work together as more responsible consumers-and creators- we can all play a role in that change.

Michael Medved is co-host of "Sneak Previews" on PBS and chief film critic of the New York Post. He has written seven books, including the highly controversial "Hollywood vs. America." Active in the Jewish community, he lives in Southern California with his three children and wife, the psychologist Diane Medved.

This article appeared in the August 1995 issue of "New Covenant" magazine. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published monthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.

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