Today, American film is among the most internationally supported commodities. Financially, its contributions are enormous: the industry is responsible for the circulation of billions of dollars each year. Since its explosion into the new media markets during the mid-twentieth century, film has produced consistently growing numbers of viewers and critics alike. Sparking debate over the nature of its viewing, film is now being questioned in social, political, and moral arenas for its potential impact on an audience.
Critics claim that watching films is a passive activity in which the viewer becomes subconsciously absorbed, and creates a reliance or “addiction” to the medium, and thus can be influenced by any perpetual concepts or images. Advocates, however, argue that viewing such programs is an active process in which audience members are able to choose to what they are exposed, and interpret messages based on their individual needs and background.
Perhaps both views are too extreme. Film from the 1950s to present, as will be explored in this essay, is an extremely useful medium, often underestimated within the label of “entertainment”; unfortunately, it may be partially responsible for current socio-cultural problems, too. The critical question, then, is whether film has fostered the progress of a more open-minded America, or rather hindered its development through the perpetuation of antiquated concepts of stereotypes, densensitized violence and breeding of normalcy.
Whether or not a naïve approach to film as an inclusive medium holds true to fact, however, is questionable. Since its popular arrival in American culture during the 1930s, film has sparked controversy over its social, political and moral claims, creating a desire for close media control and censorship. The very first film Production Code of 1930 aimed at monitoring and censoring material, and was instituted to keep Hollywood’s moral standards in check. As described by Francis Couvares, films needed to be censored “precisely because they arouse strong desires and strong antipathies in an untrustworthy public.” Advocates of censorship insisted that movies directly affected behaviour, usually for ill, creating general crisis and confusion over the moral implications of the medium. Charting movie attendance rates, for example, the WCTV (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) of the 1950s argued that youths were in a greater danger of becoming “addicted” to movies than they were of becoming addicted to alcohol.
An examination of the film by decade reveals that although advocates of censorship insisted that movies directly affected human behaviour, usually for the ill, the following fifty years of film discourse in America was further enhanced by the blurred lines over the social and moral accountability of the medium. The 1950s were rife with paradoxes: they were a time of prosperity and poverty, and of freedom and discrimination. The Cold War, the civil rights movement, suburbanization, the Beat generation, rock and roll, and the rise of television were all landmarks of the mid-century decade. Filmmakers interpreted the era’s most provocative and often contradictory issues for a mass audience; McCarthyism, optimism and pessimism about the future, women’s consciousness and identity, teenage rebellion, racism, social justice and injustice, and the threat of militarism all translated visually onto the silver screen. As described by Steven T. Ross in Movies and American Society, “movies were often able to say what political leaders could not”.
Since the Supreme Court held censorship of films unconstitutional in 1952, then, special-interest groups emerged as the primary protagonist in an ongoing drama about how movie content should be controlled. Films such as 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean, depicted popular teenage sentiment of anger towards middle-class parenting and the “family-values” environment. For groups on the right, these movies were too ‘free’ in their depiction of such subjects as sex and religion; for the left groups, the abuse of freedom in the depiction of women, ethnic groups, and gays and lesbians made movies objectionable. After 1956 almost the only grounds for movie censorship that remained appeared to be ‘obscenity’, and more and more, the state and municipal censors used this as a reason for ordering deletion.
The use of stock characters throughout the history of film is also socially and culturally revealing. They are “revealing artefacts of American culture”. One example from Paul and Linda Fuller notes that “the numbers of Blacks and Hispanics on movie streets reflect more than Hollywood’s acknowledgement of racial minorities; they mirror suburban flight and the changing demographics of our urban centres. As mute as billboards, extras can provide visible evidence of the changing patters of America life”. Through tracing the shifting presentation of archetypal characters in film history, then, one is able to conclude the political and cultural atmosphere, to understand the inherent biases and taboo issues of the period. The revised Production Code of 1969, for example, allowed films to deal with issues previously forbidden, and thus the late 1960s and early 1970s noted the particular rising of one minority group.
From the beginning of the film industry, African Americans had generally been portrayed in patronizing and derogatory ways. Yet, from time to time, minority groups get so fed up with the ways in which they are depicted on screen that they create a whole new set of cinematic images about themselves. Between 1969 and 1974, independent Black filmmakers and studios create a new genre of films, well-titled “Blaxploitation”. These films were aimed specifically at Black audiences, specifically inner-city youths, whom had previously been dismissed as a potential market in the entertainment industry.
Throughout this period, one notable event heavily influenced the quality of American cinema. The war in Vietnam created a crisis of American power, and films echoed public confusion in defending and criticizing the war on-screen. As the documented “heroic” battle scenes depicted in World War II could not be found, it seemed as though Hollywood was “conspicuously silent about the war”. Films of this era both reflected and shaped attitudes about the war, the American military and the effectiveness of military solutions to political problems. (Later, however, films such as 1985’s Rambo and An Officer and A Gentleman (1982) helped restore military confidence and end the post-Vietnam syndrome.)
The presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980 tightened the artistic freedoms of film even more. As the desires of conservative and politically correct groups clashed, Reagan’s term re-asserted traditional values of the nuclear family and a morally acceptable domestic lifestyle.
Ideas about the family and “proper” roles for men and women are not absolute truism, but social constructions that change with the time. If the 1960s can be described as an era of sexual and gender liberation, then the 1980s might be called the era of backlash – against earlier political, social, sexual and cultural movements that challenged traditional roles and ideas. Films of the 1970s often showed men and women struggling to understand one another’s desires and too see each other as “people” rather than as narrowly defined “men” or “women”. The 1980s, however, proved a tough decade for strong-minded, independent women. Ross describes how the conservative political climate of the Reagan era manifested itself on screen in a hoard of anti-feminist films. “After making pro-feminist films of the 1970s, producers grew more cautious and turned out movies that called for a return to more traditional gender roles, for both men and women”. The message was clear: American women are unhappy because they were too free; their liberation denied them marriage and motherhood. Films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) reinforced the idea that “babies and business don’t mix”.
The eighties also saw a gruesome struggle for freedom of expression as it clashed with American family values. Interestingly enough, however, it was often the unlikely left-winged groups that were rallying in support of the cause. Feminists, for example, supported a backlash against 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and gays and lesbians rejected their stereotypical portrayal in Basic Instinct (1982). Thus censorship was utilized not only as an authoritarian, state-controlled practice meant to limit individual freedoms, but also as a type of empowerment for marginalized groups to gain control over their depiction in the media. Despite evidence that Hollywood helped to revise fashion and slang, reshape dating habits, and even reinforce racial stereotypes, however, there is little evidence that it colonized the ‘mass mind’.
In 1993, American films generated $13 billion in revenue, $8 billion of which came from outside the United States. Thus the 1990s saw a shift in American-style filmmaking, as an international market demanded the release of action films and blockbuster hits with little dialogue, as to be easily understood by non-English speaking audiences. Such pressure to release films en masse, choosing quantity over stylistic and content quality, has generated much of the violent, plotless and often comical “slasher” films and big-budget Hollywood productions with which filmmaking is associated today. Most noteworthy is the visual shift in the portrayal of American values; nineties film depicts America as a dreamscape for universal desires, but not necessarily a historic reality.
This concept of film as nationalistic propaganda is reflected throughout social critiques of the medium. Graeme Turner in “Film as Social Practice”, for instance, notes that “opponents of nationalism see it as a dangerously effective tool of persuasion”. Thus it can be seen how the American domination of the mass media has, to some extent, normalized American images of modern society. In contradiction, Frederick Wasser claims that the relationship between mass media and national culture is shifting, and that although in the beginning film was organized on a national basis, as a leisure activity for the working and middle classes (it was immigrant-based and shaped with an “assimilationist message”), it has now become a “transnational” commodity operating across cultural boundaries. To support this claim, Wasser notes how in the mid-1960s, American films accounted for 35% of European box-office receipts; by the mid-1990s, that figure rose to at least 80%.
Although worries of propaganda have been rampant in film history, another issue has been overshadowing. Violence in American cinema has been at the forefront of controversy in recent decades. As William Rotham describes, “statistically, America is a less violent place than it used to be… but Americans believe that violence is escalating out of control, that it is threatening the moral fabric of our society, and that the proliferation of violence in the mass media, especially the graphic violence in today’s movies, is a cause, and not only a symptom, of this threat”. In fiction films, violence happens on cue, as if the camera was a gun, and the director, off-screen, was pulling the trigger. Violence the camera causes in this way is not real violence… The camera is not a real instrument of violence. Movies call upon us to imaging that film violence is real violence, that no barrier separates us from the world of film, and that is one key pleasure we receive from them. But they also call upon us to acknowledge that the world on film is separated from us… that this, too, is a key to the pleasures movies provide us.
Overall, a few of the benefits of this medium are obvious. It is generally agreed that film creates a psychological escape and state of relaxation for the viewer. Currently, the most widespread argument in support of film, however, is its power as a tool of education and awareness. As it delivers varying global perspectives to the screen, it promotes diversity on a local and community level. In bringing exposure to issues race, religion, sexuality and gender, film also helps to promote tolerance and acceptance of differing cultural values and morals. As the public receives such unbiased information, it can theoretically make more informed decisions, and has a better chance of affecting change. (At this time, film may be the most potent catalyst for social change.) Thus it can be argued that film productions help to create positive social changes, promote multiculturalism and diversity, and create a common cultural identity among viewers.
Unfortunately, this utopian argument doesn’t account for the countless studies correlating film viewing to perpetuated hate and stereotyping, and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Declining SAT scores and library check-outs over the decades have lead critics to believe that film, similar to television, is aiding in the international “dumbification” effort, in which individuals are losing the ability to think without direction. This phenomenon is closely related to the more recent “couch potato syndrome”, in which laziness, lack of physical fitness and a passive attitude combine, producing the ultimate unhealthy lifestyle that is currently sweeping the majority of modern America.
More important, however, are the two great faults of film. First, film establishes false images of reality. Viewers are now quicker to categorize others based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Personalities used in the media now serve as stock characters that perpetuate stereotyping and discrimination. Second, film further distorts reality through selective omission of information. While sex, hate and violence are plentiful in the media, it is uncommon to find evidence of alternative, non-mainstream views. Thus it cannot be wholly true that film produces unbiased access to information; it is a manipulative machine that partially withers to conform ideas and create desired images in favour of its sponsors.
Film as a medium is neither good nor bad; its effects and value depend on the concepts projected and how they are interpreted. Clearly the impact of film is not as translucent as originally suspected. While the medium remains a necessary, perhaps pertinent, outlet of information in society, we can see how it equally produces challenges for the larger viewing community.
- Loukides, Paul and Linda Fuller, ed. Beyond the Stars: Stock Characters in American Popular Film. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.
- Couvares, Francis, ed. Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
- Parker, Alison M. “Mothering the Movie”, in Movie Censorship and American Culture. Couvares, Francis, ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
- Jowett, Garth. “A Significant Medium”, in Movie Censorship and American Culture. Couvares, Francis, ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
- Lyons, Charles, “The Paradox of Protest”, in Movie Censorship and American Culture. Couvares, Francis, ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996
- Ross, Steven T., ed. Movies and American Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
- Wasser, Frederick. “Is Hollywood America?”, in Movies and American Society. Ross, Steven T., ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
- Slocum, J. David, ed. Violence and American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2001.
- Rotham, William. “Violence and Film”, in Violence and American Cinema. Slocum, J. David, ed. Routledge, 2001.
- Turner, Graeme. Film As Social Practice. New York: Routledge, 1999.