Are the Movies Liberal?

None of these stories can be said to reflect or advance the agenda of anything you might call the left. Mainstream American movies have, for decades, been in love with guns, suspicious of democracy, ambivalent about feminism, squeamish about divorce, allergic to abortion, all over the place on matters of sexuality and very nervous about anything to do with race.

I know there are exceptions, and I’m not trying to flip the script and reveal the reactionary face of Hollywood, though it’s true that in the years of the Production Code (from the mid-’30s until the late ’60s), Hollywood upheld a fairly conservative vision of American life. Nonmarital sex was strictly policed, interracial romance completely forbidden. Crime could not pay, and the dignity of institutions had to be protected. Even in the post-Code years, what mainstream American movies have most often supplied aren’t critical engagements with reality, but fantasies of the status quo. The dominant narrative forms, tending toward happy or redemptive endings — or, more recently, toward a horizon of endless sequels — are fundamentally affirmative of the way things are. What they affirm, most of all, is consensus, an ideal of harmony that isn’t so much apolitical as anti-political, finding expression not in the voting booth but at the box office.

At least since the end of World War II, the production of consensus has been integral to Hollywood’s cultural mission and its business model. During the war, the studios worked closely with the military to deliver morale-boosting, mission-explaining messages to the home-front public, a collaboration that helped raise the industry’s prestige and its sense of its own importance. In the postwar era, even as they faced challenges from television, the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the demographic volatility of the audience, the studios conceived their mission in universal terms. Movies were for everybody.

That article of faith has always been a hard sell in a society defined by pluralism and, perhaps more persistently than we’d like to admit, by polarization. The notion that movies in the second half of the 20th century reflected a now-vanished consensus is doubly dubious. The consensus was never there, except insofar as Hollywood manufactured it. Perhaps more than any other American institution, Hollywood worked to foster agreement, to imagine a space — within the theater walls and on the screen — where conflicts could be resolved and contradictions wished away. In the westerns, the cowboys fought the Indians, the ranchers battled the railroads, and the sheriffs shot it out with the outlaws. But the outcome of those struggles was the pacification of the frontier and the advance of a less violent, more benevolent civilization. In the dramas of racial conflict, Sidney Poitier and an avatar of intolerance (Tony Curtis, Spencer Tracy, Rod Steiger) found common ground in the end.

This wasn’t propaganda in the usual sense, but rather an elaborate mythos, a reservoir of stories and meanings that didn’t need to be believed to be effective. We’ve always known that movies aren’t real — we like to insist that watching them is a kind of dreaming — and that’s partly why we love them so much.

By “we” I mean the movie audience, a collective that for a long time implied a parallel form of citizenship, a civic identity with its own ideology. The best cultural history of American movies, by the critic and scholar Robert Sklar, is called “Movie-Made America.” The corollary to that title, and one of Sklar’s arguments, is that moviegoing made Americans.