Hollywoodís Three Big Lies about Media and Society
Ricks College Forum October 20, 1994
Let me give you a statistic, the most chilling statistic I have ever heard: the average American child, by the time he or she reaches the age of six, will have spent more time watching TV than that child will spend speaking to his father in a life time. The media that we consume so eagerly, so avidly, so many hours of the day are a profound influence on every adult and on every child in this country.
The consistent message from the entertainment industry is, ďDonít worry about it, itís just entertainment, donít take it seriously. Look at how good the acting performance is, look at those special effects, donít ever question the underlying messages, the underlying values. The way that Hollywood justifies that approach is with three prominent lies about the impact of American entertainment.
The three lies are: (1) we just entertain, we don't influence people; (2) we just reflect society as it is, we donít shape society; and (3) if you donít like it, just turn it off. ††††††
Lie #1† ďWe just are in the business of entertainment, we really donít influence anybody.Ē Do you know what? The entertainment industry doesnít even believe that, itís purest hypocrisy, and I had a demonstration of this about a year ago now when I appeared in a panel with a number of presidents of major studios. It was me and a bunch of top executives. Naturally they wanted me to speak first, and then the executives would answer me, so I spoke, and I talked a little bit about Hollywoodís responsibility, and some of the messages that the people of America were taking away from mass media. Speaking after me was the president of one of the major film companies in the country. He said, ďYou know, the trouble with Michael Medved is he only talks about the terrible things that we do; he never gives a credit for the great things that we do. For instance you donít hear him giving us credit for the fact that our movie Lethal Weapon III saved thousands of American lives.Ē
ďHow is it that you think that Lethal Weapon III saved all of these lives?Ē I asked. He said, ďOh itís very simple, I sure everybody else here understood it. You remember in our movie there is a scene where Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are about to go off on a high-speed chase, and before they do we show an intense close-up showing them fastening their seat belts.Ē
Now just think for a moment about the double standard here. Here is somebody who gets millions of dollars a year to run a film studio and he wants you to believe that three seconds showing somebody fastening seat belts on screen is going to cause millions of people to imitate that, but the rest of the movie, which is all eviscerations and lacerations and gun shot wounds and knife wounds and explosions and broken glass and death and gore, that the rest of the movie nobody will imitate. How absurd can you be, how stupid can you be? But you know the same contradiction is built into the very warp and woof of the TV industry.
In 1982 the surgeon general of the United States released five volumes of data showing that prolonged exposure to violence on TV promoted more hostile, aggressive, and violent behavior and attitudes on the part of people who saw it. It was conclusive‑they had over sixty studies that had been done over twenty years that showed that there was a conclusive relationship between prolonged exposure to violence and aggression and hostility on the part of the viewer.
So do you know how ABC TV responded to that? They trotted out one of their vice presidents who said, ďUnfortunately, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that media imagery impacts real world behavior in any way. Do you know what the proper response is to that? If thatís true, if media images donít impact real world behavior, then you, Mr. ABC, should start refunding several billion dollars in advertising money that youíve charged over the years for people to sell everything from canned goods to candidates. The whole idea of a commercial is that thirty second of flickering images on a cathode ray tube can change the way people vote, can change the way people buy, can change the way people think, act, and feel. And you know what, commercials work; they clearly do! Major American corporations are not known to be elementary institutions. Theyíre not paying millions of dollars a year to ABC and Fox and CBS and NBC because they want to support the high arts. Thatís not the motivation. The motivation is they know they can sell products! So what are we supposed to believe, that thirty seconds of a commercial can change people, but thirty minutes of a program canít?
What about ads? For an advertisement to work, it doesnít need to reach everybody who sees it. TV doesnít impact everybody, but it doesnít mean that it doesnít impact anybody. The whole situation with crime in this country, with violence, with sexual violence directed against women and children, all of that is changed if only one of 100,000 people who see the worst of this material is impacted.
But thereís something else, because thatís not the only influence. . . . By glamorizing violence and promiscuity and anti-social behavior of every kind TV and the movie industry create the idea that this sort of behavior is glamorous, is desirable. Itís maybe not something youíll do right now, but itís something that you have a much more positive attitude toward because youíve seen it so often on TV. Thatís the real power of the medium of TV in particularóit redefines normal.
Most people assume that anything they see often enough on TV is normal behavior. And in that sense, the entertainment industry not only changes our notion of what is accepted in society, but it changes our notion of what is expected.
Lie #2 Hollywood apologists say, ďItís just our job to reflect society. We donít shape things, we just show them as they are.Ē ďIf the face in the mirror is ugly, you donít blame the mirror.Ē Really? How many of you here have ever in your lives witnessed first hand someone being murdered? How many have ever seen a murder dramatized on TV? in the last week? When they say, ďWe just reflect reality,Ē when it comes to violence in particular, the most violent ghetto in American life is prime time TV.
On average there are seven murders during prime time on any given evening. That means seven out of letís say three hundred people die. Do you realize weíd have no population problem at all in America if that were the crime rate in real life? Thank God itís not! Thereís no place in America that approaches that kind of crime rate, seven people dying every night, that would mean forty-nine out of three hundred dying in the course of a week, thereíd be nobody left! . . . This is not reality!
. . . But it goes to something even more basic. The screen actors guild did a study of the opportunities for men and women in acting jobs, and do you know what they found? In feature films 72% of all speaking rolls went to men. In TV 64% of all speaking rolls went to men. Do you want to know why, because the emphasis is on violence, but the fact is, how can you look at a world that is 64% male on TV, 72% male in movies and say, ďThis just reflects reality.Ē
Last week there was a major survey commissioned by the University of Chicago, the biggest survey of American sexual behavior that anyone had ever done. And what did it show? Were Americans leading wild and crazy lives? Quite the contrary.
Do you know what percentage of American married people, men and women, cheated on their spouses in the previous year? Six percent, while 94% remained faithful.
Do you know what percentage of Americans, single and married, had multiple sex partners in the previous year? It was 20%. The number of people who had more than five sex partners was infinitesimally low.
Do you know the median number of sex partners for American women in a lifetime, women of all ages? two.
Hollywood portrays a world just like that, right? Does anybody watch soap operas? In soap operas the number of married people who cheat on their spouses is about 120%. Itís not reality! Most people lead sex lives that arenít at all what you see up there on screen. And yet by creating this image, that everybody else except you is having this incredibly exciting time, how difficult that makes it to lead a decent life, how much harder to lead a happy marriage, how much harder to be a teenager or young adult growing up when you feel that if youíre trying to be decent and to save sex for marriage, that thereís something wrong with you, that youíre a nerd, youíre a wimp, youíre a loser. What a distorted image of sexuality Hollywood portrays!.
. . . And one final thing, while men, and sex, and violence are definitely over-represented in Hollywood, there is another kind of incredibly common activity that is dramatically under-represented. Everybody talks about the Super Bowl. An estimated 130 million people watched the Super Bowl last time out. But that same Sunday, more people participated in another activity even than the number of people that watched the Super Bowl. Do you know what it was? Church! According to every single survey, between forty and fifty percent of Americans go to church or synagogue every week. Do you see that in Hollywood?
The majority of Americans begin their meals, according to the Gallop poll, by blessing their food, and yet the only reference you see to that in Hollywood was on the Simpson show one time. Bart Simpson said, ďDear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.Ē What sense does it make?
A Martian who was trying to do a sociological study on America based only on the images he got on a very powerful satellite dish up on Mars would conclude that religion was something in this country that was limited to a few nuts, a few crooks, and a few losers, because most religious people who are dramatized as characters in TV or inside movies are that kind of negative characterization. Itís not reality! . . . The world on screen shows families that are less intact, less stable, less nourishing, a world that is more violent, more ugly, more profane, more destructive than the world that most of us live in. A columnist whom I respect, Joe Erschel said, ďWhen something is not worth doing at all, it doesnít matter how well you end up doing it.Ē We focus today on lavishly loathsome losers, people who are less interesting, less decent, less heroic than our own friends and neighbors.
Lie #3 ďIf you donít like this stuff, than just turn it off.Ē But this, too is a lie, and again I think I can show you that itís a lie with another little public opinion survey here in Rexburg, Idaho. How many people here have ever bought tickets to a Madonna concert? [three hands raised] How many people here have ever purchased a Madonna video, CD, or cassette tape? [more hands raised] How many people here know who Madonna is? [every hand raised] The point is very simply this: for the overwhelming majority, well over 95% of the people in this room, you never chose to make Madonna a part of your life. . . . The fact is that you canít avoid this woman, even if you want to. . . . I donít want Madonna taking up space in my mind, and I donít want Bruce Willis up there either. Thereís limited space, thereís limited time in life, Iíd rather not waste my time on these people. . . . When it comes to avoiding people like that itís like the great philosopher Joe Lewis once said, ďYou can run, but you canít hideĒ because popular culture is everywhere, itís in the air we breathe, itís part of the polluted air in Los Angeles, itís part of the air right here in Rexburg, Idaho, itís everywhere!. And saying to people, that if you donít like popular culture, just turn it off, makes as much sense as saying, ďIf you donít like the smog, just stop breathing.Ē
I know a lot of parents who became very upset at one point a few years ago with something that happened to Americaís most respected man of medicine, Doogey Hauser, when Doogey on national TV lost his virginity. Since a lot of eight- and nine- and ten-year-olds watch this show, I knew a lot of parents preferred that their kids donít see it, but you can tell your kids, ďNo no, youíre not going to watch the show tonight,Ē but it doesnít matter, because the network ran promos even on Saturday morning cartoons saying, ďDoogey does it for the first time, tune inĒ and there he was bare-chested carrying his girlfriend to the bedroom.
It is absolutely phenomenally dishonest for people to suggest that you can escape popular culture. You cannot! And even if you protected your own children, what about everybody elseís children? What about your neighborís kid who hits yours over the head, or rapes her? We are all impacted by this material, and thatís exactly why the popular culture is an environmental issue. And at a time when we are demanding rightly that big corporations show greater responsibility for their pollution of our air and our water, itís also appropriate to demand greater accountability from the entertainment conglomerates about their pollution of the cultural atmosphere we all breathe.
Final point: What do we do about it? Weíve talked about the three lies, the idea that itís just entertainment, it doesnít influence anybody, the idea that it just reflects reality, it doesnít shape reality, and the final notion that itís always easy just to turn it off, all of them lies. How do you respond to a lie? With the truth. Learn the truth to speak the truth, and if possible, to live the truth.
How do you respond to the first lie that we just entertain people, we donít influence? We need to affirm in our own lives a simple truth, a two-word truth: messages matter. It matters what you put inside your imagination, the TV shows you watch, the music you listen to, the movies you go to see.
If you go out and eat one hot-fudge Sunday itís not going to kill you, itís not going to change your life, but if you start eating a hot-fudge Sunday every day, or five hot fudge Sundays every day, itís not going to be too long before you start looking like Roger Ebert. The same thing is true of violence or sex-drenched popular culture. If you go and see one piece of garbage itís really not going to kill you; it may be a bad experience, but itís not going to ruin your life. But if you see this stuff every day and hours every day it has a cumulative impact because messages matter.
So the answer to the first lie is tell the truth to yourself, become more discerning consumers. When you go out to see a movie, or when youíre planning to turn on a TV show, donít look only at how glamorous the stars are, but look at what the impact is going to be on you, on society. Because the impact is there, and itís real, and the most important thing here is for people who know better, who are trying to lead lives of goodness and decency.
That brings me to the second lie, the idea that we just show the world in all of its hideous ugliness. We have to reject that idea, and respond to that lie by not looking at the world through a TV screen, but looking at the world by throwing open the windows and looking at the actual world around us. And you know what youíll see? Youíll see a country that is far better, that is far happier, that is far more decent and fulfilled than any of the world you see on TV or at the movies. . . . Yes, there are lots of things that appear to be going wrong, but open the windows, stop moaning and belly-aching and look at some of whatís right with America, and feel gratitude, because when you owe a debt of gratitude, and you donít pay that debt of gratitude, and you donít express gratitude to our parents, to our country, to the Almighty who has given us all of this, that ingratitude becomes an acid that corrodes our very souls and helps to lead to some of the bitterness and misery that you see so unnecessarily in this country.
And that leads me finally to the third point, the lie that says we can always turn it off, tune it out. No you canít, but you know something you can doóturn it down. Everybody in this room can improve the quality of your life by going on a pop-culture diet, by watching a little bit less TV, by spending a little bit less time with movies,. It is absolutely appalling the amount of time that the average American wastes on this material. The average American now watches 28 hours a week of TV; thatís the average, that means that half the country watches more than that. Do you know what that comes to? That comes, if you figure it out over the course of a seventy-five year six-month average life expectancy, it comes in the course of a life time to 13 uninterrupted years of TV!† . . . Do you want that on your gravestone! ďHere lies our beloved husband and father who selflessly gave 13 years of life to his TV set.Ē The TV set doesnít need that gift, your family does, your community does, your country does. Itís so easy, you can get up from this place and make a resolution, cut it down, for goodness sake. . . . It would be so easy to cut down an hour a day, and do you know what cutting down an hour a day means, it means seven extra hours [a week] to enjoy friendship, to enjoy loved ones, to volunteer for your church or for your community, to read a book, maybe, to listen to music or to play music, to do athletics or to exercise, to go out and about on a beautiful day like this one, and to enjoy this beautiful world and this beautiful country the Almighty has given to every one of us. Letís make the most of it.