Entertainment

Does the Classic Hero Narrative Have an Inherent Liberal Bias?

Liberalism in Hollywood has been pissing off conservative bloggers lately. But do screenplays themselves tilt to the left simply because the free market craves those kinds of stories?

by Mike Pearl
Feb 25 2017, 3:30pm

Illustration by Tyler Boss

With President Trump now shaping US policy, it comes as little surprise that Hollywood is taking steps to oppose him. Last month's call to cancel the Oscars in protest of Trump by Todd VanDerWerff of Vox was doomed from the start, but overt liberal activism from the people who make and star in movies is a real thing. As of this month, the talent agencies WME-IMG and United Talent Agency have commenced creating PACs and staging rallies in opposition to Trump's immigration policies. 

But as the far-right internet content machine that is Breitbart will tell you (as often as it can), it's not just the people; the material Hollywood puts out has a liberal bias as well. According to an op-ed from last month titled "Rotten: Hollywood's Shocking Media Bias," the industry is telling stories to the American people that amount to "anti-men," "anti-gun" propaganda that ignore the world views of conservatives—and do so at its own peril. "[I]f it continues to ignore us—or worse, patronize us—only time will tell how low the U.S. ticket sales will fall," wrote Patrick Courrielche. And they are indeed falling.

But as a screenwriting student, I was told point-blank that being liberal in Hollywood is almost a prerequisite. The reason? The stories that work as movies are rooted in liberal ways of thinking. Liberalism, the theory goes, is pretty much baked into the "Hero's Journey" story structure, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell's oft-utilized outline for adventure stories. 

For instance, when I asked John August, writer of such movies as Big Fish and Go, and host of Scriptnotes, one of the most authoritative podcasts out there on the topic of screenwriting, he told me that movies tend to be about a hero "going up against a villain—often a system—that's designed to keep them in their place," and since the central tenet of conservatism is traditionally a love for the status quo, "movie heroes are the opposite of conservative." 

The world of highly profitable summer blockbusters generally overflows with these types of stories. Luke Skywalker leaves his life on a farm to join a literal rebellion against a literal Empire. Jake, the forgettable hero in the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, falls in love with one of the aliens on the planet his fellow humans are exploiting, and then ends up taking up arms against the system he used to be a part of. Wikus Van De Merwe follows a similar trajectory in District 9. So does Neo in The Matrix. 

"They're rebels. Rule-breakers," August said. 

Beyond summer sci-fi spectaculars, you'll notice that this formula also fuels many smaller and weirder movies like Dallas Buyer's Club, Sausage Party, and Spotlight. Rogues defy systems in love stories like Titanic, and Casablanca along with teen movies like Mean Girls and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In short, making your movie protagonist a rebel fighting a system is more or less the best way to ensure good box office receipts.

Conservative film critic Christian Toto begs to differ. "The 'system' the hero rebels against can be left-leaning," he told me. The conservative rebel protagonist he cited was the octogenarian hero of an indie film from 2012 called Still Mine. In that film, James Cromwell's character rebels against the government for the right to build his sick wife a house his own way, on his own damn private property.

Conservative to the core? Absolutely. Toto was quick to acknowledge however, that Still Mine was not exactly a summer blockbuster.

Toto sees untapped possibilities for conservative storytelling that would use essentially the same formula. "What about a ripped-from-the-headlines story of a homeowner who saved his family from intruders thanks to his gun collection?" he suggested. "Those tales may never be told. Yet they teem with potential all the same." 

Toto acknowledged that movies like Straw DogsDie Hard, and Taken offer a version of this saving-your-loved-ones formula, even without the overt Second Amendment angle. "They sell, and they're larger than life," he told me. But he envisions movies that prop up everyday conservative values. "Most folks don't have Liam Neeson's 'particular set of skills,'" he avers.

All three of those rather conservative films flirt with liberalism as well: Taken can indeed be read to imply that guns should be left in professional hands, Straw Dogs regards small town-dwellers as uncivilized troglodytes, and Die Hard has absolutely no love for eighties business culture.  

August sees this left-right overlap in movies as well. "Conservatives can see a lot in Star Wars that speaks to them: self-determination, religious expression, [and] small government." As for his own work, he told me Big Fish has conservative fans, because "it doesn't try to pigeonhole the Southern father into a set template, nor does it canonize his liberal reporter son." Instead, August said, it "shows them coming to appreciate each other without surrendering their viewpoints." 

Meanwhile, if you go further left on the political spectrum, it's clear that Trump's arrival on the political scene was seen as a call for movies to become more liberal, not less.

Last year, Marlon Lieber and Daniel Zamora of Jacobin Magazine pointed out that blockbuster movie rebels such as Katniss in The Hunger Games lack real revolutionary verve. They tend to rebel against their own rebellions—eventually finding that change is worthless, and the only good place to turn is inward. Then last month in an opinion piece attempting to dismantle the idea of Hollywood leftism, Mary McNamara of The Los Angeles Times acknowledged the rebellious nature of the hero's journey protagonist, but pointed out that Hollywood's biggest bias is toward the wealthy. "[W]e mostly like to watch people who seem richer than they should be," she argued. 

For his part, August pushed back when I suggested that there might be an even stronger liberal push from within Hollywood screenwriting faction now that Trump is president. August, who participated in the Paris version of the Women's March against Trump, argues that protesters such as himself just want "religious non-discrimination, governmental accountability vs. corruption, [and] not bragging about sexual assault," and that "[i]n any normal universe, these would be conservative values."

August told me that in the near future, he expects to see conservatives balking at what he calls, "stories of human decency and civic responsibility." August and his ilk create villains of course—often fascists, corrupt businesspeople, and evil politicians—and he argues that that doesn't come from a place of partisanship. Instead, screenwriters are focused on manufacturing heroes, and then "writing villains to oppose our heroes." 

"If, through their words and actions, people are choosing to fill that villain role [in the real world]" August added, "that's on them."

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