[Editor's note: this lecture was delivered to the Leavey Institute of Santa Clara University in 2003. You can find it reproduced in whole here]
The Virtuous Global Effects of American Motion Pictures Hegemony
If one concedes the possibility that screen products generate or encourage violence, one must also accepts the possibility that they may affect behavior in socially desirable ways. (One can’t have it both ways: Television and, by extension, the cinema are either impotent or they may exercise a virtuous influence, as well as a pernicious one.) Thus, Curtin (1999) argues that satellite television circulates globally beneficently subversive (i.e. non-traditional), images of femininity, and therefore, alternative ways of being a woman. A moving testimony comes from the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadaré (1999): During the long night of Albanian communism (Albania was the most isolated country on Earth for forty years. Its paranoiac regime ended up cutting off relations with all countries except North Korea), Kadaré comments at length on how frequent exposure to garden–variety Western television courtroom drama ultimately induced among Albanians a distaste for personal blood feuds as old- fashioned or un-modern.
So, I pose the question: What virtuous influence may the ubiquitous American movies have on the rest of the world and, in particular, on the poor and on the downtrodden everywhere?
Even if one subscribes to the idea that movies don’t do much directly to alter either the values or the behavior of viewers, they inadvertently carry factual information, in their settings, as well as in the mundane aspects of their plots. I don’t see how some of that information cannot cumulatively have a liberating effect on those who live under less fortunate circumstances. American movies are shot mostly in the US (sometimes in Canada).They are directed mostly by American directors (or by Americanized Brits). Although Hollywood is one of the world centers of political correctness and of left-wing piousness, Hollywood films cannot help but convey to global audiences important realities of American life (and generic features of life in Western, secular, democratic, capitalist societies, in general). Among these:
Technological wizardry: From the parting of the Red Sea to Jurassic Park’s terrifying dinosaurs, the American cinema showcases evident mastery of the natural world (to whatever immature purposes, enraging French intellectuals). Unlike the situation in postindustrial countries, most people in the Third World and in the former socialist countries are farmers, miners or they work in manufacturing. Living as they do in direct contact with production, it’s no mystery to them that improvements in living conditions are often earned through technical progress.
The possibility of material abundance for ordinary people: In America, regular people (the 94+% o the work force who are employed at any one time and their families) generally own cars (or better, trucks). There is more than enough food for all; even the poor (especially the poor) are obese. Even if they look sloppy, Americans wear clothes of good quality (Levi’s). The blue-collar class lives mostly in individual housing of impressive size and comfort, by world standards (9) (10);
The realization of individual freedom: See above about houses and automobiles, some of the best supports to personal autonomy ever devised. At the movies, American women commit adultery in vast throngs. Their husbands or lovers may murder them, or they may be punished by Fate, but mostly, they get off scot-free. At any rate, they are never beheaded or stoned to death courtesy of the national judicial system. Homosexuals are often mocked in American movies but the mildness of the mockery suggests that there is no national debate on whether the best way to dispose of homosexuals is to throw them from tall buildings or to topple heavy walls upon them (as was the case in Afghanistan under the Taliban, according to Rashid, 2000:115). In crime dramas, poor members of racial minorities who are railroaded by corrupt authorities have a lawyer to defend them in court. (Third World revolutionaries have trouble dealing with this fact.)
In conclusion, it seems to me that the belief that there is a new, evil globalization is a myth (or, at best, a hypothesis), because there is no new globalization or because it’s not evil. The one sure thing about globalization is that the worldwide domination of the American cinema, including its most vulgar emanations, carries on a global scale its unintended message of the possibility that human wants may be satisfied and basic human dignity respected.
(9) A story in the 08/22/02 WSJ describes the plight of a Massachusetts couple of working class immigrants in their fifties with no dependent children. Their annual income approximates the national median. The couple’s house is paid for. These people have difficulties saving for the retirement they would like to take when the husband (the older of the two) is 62. One of the measures they have adopted to further their retirement objectives is to heat their swimming pool only a couple of months each year instead of all year around! The story also mentions that they like to eat out and that their dining bill “sometimes exceeds $400 a month”!
(10) I note that the unintentional transmission by movies of glimpses of the prosperity of ordinary Americans precedes by much the invention of the word globalization. I saw James Dean’s “Rebel without a Cause” as a French teenager, in the late fifties. I remember experiencing difficulty connecting mentally with the movie because I could not figure out where it was taking place. I understood Los Angeles well enough but I had trouble grasping the fact that the proximate setting was a high school because so many of the boys had cars, a privilege few European adults enjoyed at the time. Once I had grasped the inescapable truth, it nudged my perception of the possible.