Magazines: Culture Clash


One of the odder developments in the 1992 political debates was the emergence of "the culture war" as a major piece of the Republican argument. Certain parts of this war had, of course, been in place for a long time. "Liberal media bias" was the big bass drum of the right-wing revival, the sonorous cliché the direct-mail copywriters knew would always scare donors into sending another check. And followers of conservative publications had long read about tax dollars being funneled through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System to subsidize a saturnalia of vice, perversion, decadence, and Bill Moyers.

But it wasn't until 1992 that the hard right decided that America's moral decline was all Hollywood's fault. For the right, this was a new argument. The liberal virus had not just infected the elite but was eating into America's family values like sulfuric acid.

There you are, Joe and Jane Sixpack, coming back to your little home in Royal Oak or Ozone Park or Glendale after a hard day at the job. All you want is some laughs, so you turn on a sitcom or pop in a video, and what do you get? Liberalism! Seeping into the sacred American home like marijuana smoke!

"Look around our own country," Pat Buchanan thundered in the October Dimensions. "Do we not see the monuments of a counter culture that dominates the arts, theatre, literature, music, films, photography, education, and media?…the challenge and the duty facing this generation, who have the gift of a good, sound education, is to show your countrymen the way to recapture America's culture—from barbarism."

This "culture war" is the culmination of three trends, each of which intensified during the 1980s. The first trend is the explosion of publicity for movies and television. It is probably true that throughout Hollywood's history most producers, directors, and actors have been liberal Democrats. Most of the time, though, newspapers and magazines managed to restrict Hollywood news to the entertainment pages or the feature sections.

But in the '80s and '90s, notes London Times Los Angeles correspondent William Cash in the October 10 Spectator, Hollywood's publicists, after decades of battering, managed to break out of the feature section and have their products covered as hard news. JFK elicited punditry about the Kennedy assassination; The Accused prompted articles about date rape; Thelma & Louise provoked discussion about the status of women.

Allied with this trend was the unfortunate tendency of an increasing number of once-serious magazines to fill their space with carefully controlled celebrity interviews and profiles designed to promote movies. If you picked up an issue of Esquire, Vanity Fair, or Premiere during the '80s, you invariably encountered some of America's best writers straining to say something interesting about a film under restrictions that most political reporters would find intolerable.

Cash reports that this trend is continuing. The London Sunday Times has replaced its arts section with "The Culture," primarily devoted to Hollywood. And Tina Brown's first acts as editor of The New Yorker included firing the ballet critic, hiring a television critic, and making sure that a large number of the items in the "Talk of the Town" section were tied to new films or television shows.

Having captured all this space, actors had to say something to fill the pages. Simply having a nice figure or a cool haircut was not enough for 10,000 words in Esquire. So actors entered the punditry business, becoming what Cash calls "agony aunts, displacing writers and political commentators as interpreters of the American condition. Desperately seeking to legitimate themselves as serious people, they get themselves up as experts on matters ranging from AIDS to Zagreb."

Meanwhile, the Reagan and Bush presidencies ensured that an entire generation of conservatives and libertarians found government or public policy a far more alluring career than trying to paint, write screenplays, or create serious works of fiction or nonfiction. By choosing government careers, the "Third Generation" of young rightists ensured that the left would continue to dominate the popular culture.

So the liberals in charge of the film studios and the serious magazines rarely saw a conservative and had no idea why anyone would find liberalism unappealing. The Manhattan magazine world and the Los Angeles film world in the '80s were as hive-like as the world of the Washington policy wonk; the only difference was that Washington was dominated by people who called themselves political conservatives.

These dichotomies explain why the "culture war" became so vitriolic. The New Right attack on Hollywood was led by generals who had never acted in or written anything imaginative. Living art-free lives, these conservatives have never been able to give a persuasive alternative vision of what they want Hollywood to produce. Most tend to discuss things they do not like and rarely give examples of what they do like. And at least some of these conservatives seem to admire the films of the past not for the acting or for the script but because there was always a censor on hand to snip out the naughty bits.

The November Premiere quizzes top Hollywood executives about political and cultural topics. Most appear highly confused by the conservative assault. Asked if studios "have a responsibility for the values embodied by their movies," Terry Semel, president of Warner Bros., explains that his films are crammed with morality, since "they have become more conscious of issues like smoking, drinking, drugs, seat belts and the environment….Everyone who gets in a car nowadays [in films] wears seat belts, even in Lethal Weapon." (Can we expect to see the Lethal Weapon films in driver's education classes?)

Joe Roth, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, explains that his studio's owner, conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch, has "real concerns about showing institutions in a bad light and excessive use of bad language, violence, and so on" but restrains himself from imposing his values on potentially profitable films.

And the studio bosses have little tolerance for conservatives who complain about their products. Mike Medavoy, chairman of TriStar, argues that the conservatives, if they were in charge, "would only have The Waltons and not The Simpsons, and that's not what the country is about." (Medavoy then issues an open invitation to Dan Quayle to come work for him and learn what Hollywood is really like.)

Tom Pollock of MCA is more thoughtful. "The right doesn't go to movies," Pollock says. "They criticize the movies. They use the movies to make money. They are not our audience. It's when you're getting the calls from the people who do go to movies, saying, 'We just don't want to see women hacked anymore, we don't care how much money you make,' then you sit up and take notice."

Pollock's comments offer a way to find a truce in the culture war. The entertainment industry is made up of capitalists who do not want to make products that no one wants to buy. The liberals who recognize this fact tend to deplore it. Lewis Lapham, in his editorial in the September Harper's Magazine, denounces Hollywood for being part of the "corporate elite" that believes that "what is moral is what returns a profit and what satisfies the bottom line….the gentlemen define education as a commodity and culture as merchandise."

Certainly the scriptwriter whose work is rejected after five rewrites has ample reason to denounce the bureaucracy of the film world. But the capitalist nature of the entertainment industry puts checks on the ability of filmmakers to produce works that consumers find threatening and demeaning.

Remember the craze of the early '80s for films in which women were tortured by demented psychos? Studios stopped making these savage films not because of protests or censorship but because filmgoers quickly became tired of the ceaseless brutality against women and profits dried up. Similarly, movies that offer political sermons instead of entertainment do not make money. Most of the films to which the right so strenuously objects are box-office bombs. Guilty by Suspicion, for example, was denounced by the neoconservatives for sanitizing the McCarthy era, but it quickly left the theaters.

Market forces also ensure that the filmgoer who wants products with "family values" can easily find them. The falling costs of animation production, while responsible for a few peculiar films (such as FernGully), also made possible Beauty and the Beast. And the rise of the video store has ensured that great films of the past are easily accessible. When filmmakers of the '50s or '60s wanted to depict a wealth-crazed plutocrat, they would often show the rich man's screening room, where the money-mad tyrant could see any movie he wanted. That once awesome power is now available to anyone with a VCR and three bucks (and the telephone companies, as they get into the home-entertainment business, may soon eliminate the need for a VCR).

To end the culture war, three steps need to be taken. First, the editors of Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, and other magazines should check their lust for Hollywood material. They might then learn that their readers' tastes are broader and more diverse than they believe—and their circulations might rise as their audiences are given more interesting articles to read.

Second, actors and directors should curb their tendency to talk about political subjects. Some actors—Robert Redford and Warren Beatty on the left, Tom Selleck and Charlton Heston on the right—have thoughtful things to say about politics. But most actors' reputations would improve if they kept quiet about subjects of which they know little.

Third, the conservatives who are entering political exile might find that their time would be well spent trying to produce art instead of constantly whining about the fiendish liberals. The right has too many policy analysts and not enough novelists and screenwriters. Films and books that celebrate traditional virtues will be produced not by clenched fists pointed toward Hollywood or Manhattan but by the lonely, hard, heroic effort of talented men and women freed from the corridors of power.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher in Silver Spring, Maryland.