Shut Up and Sing: Is Hollywood Actually Secretly Conservative?
It may seem like everywhere you turn another celebrity is speaking out against Donald Trump and his policies, but are there larger forces at play driving the entertainment industry forward?
Image via Taylor Lewis
On the night of (and the morning after) the 2017 Golden Globes, a liberal movie star and a conservative commentator engaged in two time-honored rituals: the impassioned cause-driven acceptance speech, followed by the withering ad hominem dismissal. The star in this case was Meryl Streep; the commentator was the then President-Elect of the United States.
The whole episode reinforced a classic narrative about Hollywood and politics. Earlier in the awards ceremony, Hugh Laurie quipped that it would be the last-ever Golden Globes: "I don't mean to be gloomy, it's just that it has the words 'Hollywood,' 'foreign,' and 'press' in the title." (The Golden Globes are put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an organization that disseminates US entertainment news abroad.) Streep picked up his thread, and in her widely-shared speech she claimed that the members of the film community at the Golden Globes "belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press."
And vilified she was—specifically, the next morning, on Twitter, by Donald Trump. He tweeted: "Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big." Later, he told the New York Times that he was "not surprised" that he had been criticized by "liberal movie people."
He stopped short of saying she should "stick to acting," but that's the common refrain from conservatives around awards season. Conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham wrote a whole book on the subject: 2003's Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America. The refrain conservatives return to on the subject hasn't changed much in the intervening years: it's the business of entertainers to entertain (what is Hollywood, after all, if not a business), but they insist on using their platform to push a political agenda.
Comparatively, far-right sites lit up with praise in the wake of Lady Gaga's seemingly apolitical Super Bowl halftime performance earlier this month: Tomi Lahren called it "a lesson in political modesty" that Streep should learn something from; on Breitbart's "Big Hollywood" vertical, Daniel Nussbaum announced that "Lady Gaga shocked the world simply by entertaining it," favorably comparing the show to Beyonce's explicitly political performance at the 2016 Super Bowl, claiming that "Pop songs are by definition catchy baubles meant to entertain."
"Big Hollywood" is one of Breitbart's key areas of coverage; it sits alongside "Big Government" and "Big Journalism." Andrew Breitbart launched Big Hollywood as its own site in 2008, after failing to convince Hollywood conservative group Friends of Abe to launch a website targeting liberal excesses in the industry. Scroll through Big Hollywood, and you'll see story after story about celebrity activism and liberal advocacy—short reports of celebrity quotes clearly presented as chum for Breitbart's ravenous tank of commenters. Lena Dunham is a favorite Breitbart punching bag, as stories about her regularly score upwards of 3,000 comments.
Sometimes, Big Hollywood takes a break from trolling liberal stars to write glowing posts about more right-leaning celebrities: "Mark Wahlberg Tells 'Out of Touch' Celebs to Shut Up About Politics," "Matthew McConaughey to Hollywood: 'Embrace' Donald Trump," "Reba McEntire: Fans Don't Pay 'Hard Earned Money' to Hear My Political Opinions." Most of the site's positive stories feature celebrities telling other celebrities to, in one way or another, shut up and sing. Big Hollywood is decidedly celebrity-centric, its critiques are leveled at the famous people in movies rather than the movies themselves.
The name "Big Hollywood" itself presumes that there's a monolithic power that needs to be investigated and subverted—specifically, by intrepid conservatives. But there are critics on the left who speak of Hollywood in similar terms; Meryl Streep's speech was met with scorn from the National Review, but it also roused the ire of the left-wing Jacobin magazine.
Complaints about the state of Hollywood are plentiful on both the right and the left—but when we say that, which Hollywood are we talking about specifically? Are the left and the right critiquing the same one?
In these kinds of critiques, "Hollywood" is almost always used metonymically. The name of the neighborhood stands in for the name of the industry, but it also stands in for the idea of a certain coastal, urban, celebrity-adjacent culture. To say "Hollywood" is to evoke an establishment, a hegemony, an aesthetic: a glittering realm full of bodies made beautiful by means of eleven dollar green juices and hundred dollar hot yoga classes; souls made empty by constant networking in ceaseless summers; "Hollywood" conjures up a kingdom of applause and self-congratulation—of gowns, stars, and golden statues—and it stirs up a complex brew of envy and distaste in Americans across the political spectrum.
For many conservatives, the problems with Hollywood are on full display every year at the Golden Globes and the Oscars—and when the left complains about "Hollywood," they're also often talking about awards ceremonies. But their complaints are less about the particular actors and more about systemic issues in the industry—why aren't there more female directors? Why aren't there more opportunities for actors and filmmakers of color? Why does the LGBTQ community remain so underrepresented?
Liberals also focus critiques of Hollywood on the films themselves: whose stories are we telling, and whose stories are we applauding? How formally bold or experimental is a "mainstream" work allowed to be before it is relegated to the avant-garde? The primary Oscar narrative for this year's ceremony is that the Academy will inevitably award Best Picture to La La Land, the safe, white, nostalgic, establishment-approved musical, rather than to Moonlight, an indie coming-of-age story about a queer black boy. The left sees Hollywood as a bastion of safe, white, nostalgic, establishment-approved art.
We can agree, at least, that a lot of movie stars publicly espouse liberal politics, especially on social issues. They're #WithHer, they #StandwithPP; they give shout-outs to feminist and environmentalist and pro-LGBT causes in acceptance speeches—and the more visible these stars are, the more likely it is for their voices to be heard. But there may also be social pressure to drift left in Hollywood. "It's groupthink," says Erik Lokkesmoe. Lokkesmoe is the head of Aspiration Studios and Different Drummer, a PR firm that markets "smart films to soulful audiences" and focuses on "audiences and creators in the middle space"—or as Lokkesmoe puts it, markets that fall outside the focus of the current Hollywood marketing strategies "stuck in LA and NYC." "Any time you get the same people within the same geography watching the same shows and going to the same yoga studios and bars, that is going to create a monolithic perspective."
Concerns about a "monolithic" liberal culture in Hollywood have driven some conservatives to carve out spaces just for themselves. Friends of Abe, a private networking group for Hollywood conservatives, was founded in 2004 by actor Gary Sinise with the help of screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd. (Sinise declined our request for comment.) Its existence has never been a secret, but it carefully guards the names of its members. Chetwynd originally saw the group as a place for conservative advocacy, but Sinise wanted it to be a more of a private, supportive space; the former has described their stance as "Don't offer a spear, offer a seat."
Chetwynd stressed to me that Friends of Abe is merely a "fellowship" that has too often been sensationalized as a secret society. "[Friends of Abe] still exists, and there's a good reason for it to exist. In times like these, it's useful to have a place to go and not be concerned that something you say inadvertently … might give offense." He's hesitant to say that conservatives face discrimination, per se: "There's not really a blacklist. It's more of a whitelisting. People tend to hire in their own image—because they're simpatico. In any business, it's hard to swim against the tide."
But "swimming against the tide" can also have romantic, heroic, and even macho connotations. The branding of the Hollywood conservative as a rugged individualist has been used to great advantage by Hollywood's most famous conservatives, including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Dennis Hopper, Jon Voight, and Clint Eastwood. Conservatives see them as Hollywood's Dirty Harrys—at-times-literal gun-toting renegades who've defected from the liberal Hollywood establishment. It's easy for conservatives to project strength and honesty and toughness onto these figures; they're outnumbered and undaunted, like the Magnificent Seven or 300's Spartans. Reagan and Schwarzenegger leveraged this image into actual political power—and so, in his way, has Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is a celebrity. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and his lavish lifestyle and relationship history have been chronicled in the tabloids for decades. Trump is as "Big Hollywood" as anyone else featured on the Breitbart vertical—or, as actor Robert Davi wrote for them, "Donald Trump is the John Wayne of Politics." ("Big Hollywood" loves to feature actors willing to talk to the site; Jon Voight announced his Trump endorsement there).
Last year, Clint Eastwood gave an interview to Esquire in which he sounded both entirely like himself and exactly like Trump: "Secretly everybody's getting tired of political correctness, kissing up." "We're really in a pussy generation." "When I grew up, those things weren't called racist." Trump has used the renegade-republican-in-Hollywood handbook to build his political career, and his proximity to liberal celebrity culture allows him to sell himself as a cowboy, a transgressive, a badass.
The man arguably responsible for catapulting Trump to cultural ubiquity is Mark Burnett, the president of MGM Television and Digital Group who produced The Apprentice. Burnett, who created Survivor, is a founding father of reality TV, and has produced some of the genre's biggest hits: The Voice, Shark Tank, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?. Burnett's shows combine family-friendly fun with capitalist-friendly competition; they have broad appeal, but they've been hits with conservative audiences in particular. Burnett and his wife Roma Downey, who once starred in Touched by an Angel, produced the smash-hit series The Bible for The History Channel, which launched them into the next phase of their careers: producing faith-based film and television. The couple plans to launch "Light TV" with Fox this year, a 24-hour network for "Faith and Family" programming. (Neither Burnett nor Downey could be reached for comment.)
Thanks in part to Burnett and Downey, it's harder than ever to tell where "faith-friendly" entertainment leaves off and "liberal Hollywood" begins. Sony now has a faith-based acquisitions arm, Affirm Films, which has released modest hits such as War Room, Risen, Heaven is For Real, and Miracles from Heaven. The Christian film industry has grown and thrived since the 2014 drama God's Not Dead, which made $60 million on a $2 million budget. Mainstream stars and studios alike have taken notice of the genre's profitability, politics be damned.
In an interview with the Washington Post, director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman) conceded that lots of people who work on films have liberal politics: "Yeah, you have a lot of artists, you have a lot of writers, directors, costume designers … and generally, that's going to skew a little more to to the left." But he also rejected the idea that Hollywood is comprised of artists alone. "As far as Hollywood being liberal, that's the funniest thing I've ever heard. Look, who owns the studios? Viacom, Comcast, Disney. They want to make money. … Sony has a faith-based division and they make movies for, generally, for the right wing. The movie that came out after The Big Short is the Benghazi movie [Michael Bay's 13 Hours]."
I spoke with Corby Pons, who founded Wit PR with partner Marshall Mitchell, about this tension between art and commerce. Wit PR does publicity aimed at "thoughtful, aspirational, spiritual audiences"— audiences that often defy political categorization, some of which undoubtedly lean right. Recent films Wit PR has marketed include A United Kingdom, Hidden Figures, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, and Patriots Day. Pons has a history in politics (he served as a legislative aide for Congressman Walter B. Jones), and he currently lives in LA where he has worked with most major studios. "I think America has a fixation on the artists, and it's like looking through a straw hole at the industry," he told me. "Studios, networks, labels, etc. are in the bottom line business. There is a tension between how far to push the envelope while not losing the consumer. It's the yin and yang of liberalism and conservatism daily."
Erik Lokkesmoe was a speechwriter for the George W. Bush administration who simultaneously held an executive position at Walden Media, and now markets films through Different Drummer that focus on the "in-betweeners"—or as he sometimes calls them, "The Christians Who Drink Beer Audience." Recent films Different Drummer worked on include Lion, Sully, and Fury; an in-betweener himself, Lokkesmoe rejects political labels and was an early advocate of the #NeverTrump movement.
When I asked him whether he thinks it's difficult to be a conservative in Hollywood, he responded, "Make great art that makes people money—it's a simple formula. Do that and no one will care about your politics. There is a tremendous amount of common ground, things that can be done for the common good. Is the orphan crisis liberal or conservative? Is civility liberal or conservative? Are heroic acts, astonishing generosity, sacrifice and beauty liberal or conservative? These are human, not political themes."
Because of his Friends of Abe association, one might expect Lionel Chetwynd to directly advocate for "conservative film," but he expressed similar sentiments to Lokkesmoe's. "Because of my reputation," he told me, "I am regularly approached by people who say, 'Hey, I'm a conservative, just like you, and I have this conservative film script that I'm trying to get out there, can you help me?' And I can't. Because if you're using your craft to push a political point of view … that is going to spoil the basic honesty of it."
Political stridency can doom a film to a short shelf life. But storytelling craft, Chetwynd argues, has staying power: "The great films, they often have an ambiguity. Look at the films that we admire. Take Citizen Kane. There's no doubt that Orson Welles detested Randolph Hearst. … But by the time you're through watching that film, you do understand the total complexity of Hearst. You still don't like what he did, and you still know in the end that he was not a good influence in society. But you do understand him, and his truth, and what happened to him, and why he became what he became. It's presented fairly."
And perhaps Chetwynd has a point: it's in the interest of studios to put out politically ambiguous films, because openly ideological films cut off access to a large portion of the potential audience. Film scholar David Bordwell has written about intentional ambiguity as a screenwriting strategy: "A Hollywood film tends to pose sharp moral polarities and then fuzz or fudge or rush past settling them. … The constitutive ambiguity of Hollywood movies helpfully disarms criticisms from interest groups … It also gives the film an air of moral seriousness."
In his book The Persistence of Hollywood, film theorist and historian Thomas Elsaesser traces the ideological ambiguity of Hollywood film back to the Hays code of 1934, which put strict limits on what was allowed to be shown on film: "Classical Hollywood excelled in creating movies that were ambivalent and even duplicitous, without becoming incoherent: a strategy of multiple entry-points that permitted different audiences to have 'access' to the film emotionally and intellectually." In the same passage, Elsaesser quotes Robert Zemeckis' answer to a question about the political position of Forrest Gump: "My film is a party to which everyone can bring a bottle."
This isn't to imply that ideological ambiguity in the movies is always a strategic decision: there are lots of reasons to make politically oblique or morally ambiguous films, and many of our richest, most rewarding pieces of art have endured precisely because they puzzle and challenge us. But political ambiguity opens a film up to a wider audience, and whether that wider audience is a perk or the primary objective is always up for debate.
Hollywood's conservative critics tend to go after the stars, while its liberal critics go after the system—but there's enough criticism coming from both sides of the spectrum to make one think that "Hollywood" and all that the word represents must contain multitudes. Its artistic and ideological goals are held in tension with its business goals, and the result is a popular cinema that is pretty equally agreeable and disagreeable, to viewers on both sides of the political spectrum. Hollywood is, perhaps intrinsically, centrist—as many businesses are.
Andrew Breitbart famously believed that "politics is downstream from culture," and I do think he had a point: When I spoke with Lokkesmoe, he called Washington the "city of power" and Hollywood the "city of influence," going on to say, "I would argue that the storytellers and songwriters have far more influence over society than any legislator." In the current political climate, when so much high-stakes legislation is up in the air, it's easy to feel inclined to challenge that statement even while agreeing with its essential principle. Art and culture have an immeasurable impact on the life of a country, but to attribute an inherent and partisan politics to Hollywood is to miss the point of the industry entirely. To be invested in the meaning of popular art is to be invested in the shaping of our collective imagination and our shared values. It is to care about the reservoir of stories and images that will inform our thinking, and the next generation's thinking, for years to come. Art can transcend the political, but it is never apolitical.
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