News & Politics

Why 'Liberal Hollywood' Is a Myth

Hollywood has a reputation for being a bastion for liberalism in America. It hasn't totally earned it.

This week the film director Brett Ratner, known for his high-speed movies and extravagant lifestyle, angered people all over the country with his unflappable mouth. First: during a screening of his latest film, Tower Heist, Ratner responded to the question, “How do you rehearse your actors?” with the answer that “rehearsals are for fags.” His use of the pejorative term was the spark of a week-long outrage, which eventually led him to make a public apology and resign as producer of this year’s Oscars. (Eddie Murphy, the star of Tower Heist who agreed to host at Ratner’s prodding, also resigned.)

His exit from the awards show wasn’t solely about his gay slurs: this week, Ratner appeared on the Howard Stern show and spoke quite disgustingly about very specific parts of his sex life (and his sexual anatomy), making comments that “appalled” the president of the Academy. And if that wasn’t enough, he smeared his ex-girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, telling “Attack of the Show” that “I banged her a few times, but I forgot her.” So, homophobia, misogyny and displays of alpha masculinity that are both cavemanish and juvenile? Check, check and check. Our creep radar is going bananas.

As the conservative mainstream media frames it, Hollywood is a place festering with pinkos and radicals, or at least where the bulk of America’s artsy liberals go to live and work. This narrative has been so pervasive that even progressives think of Tinseltown as a place where our allies reside, and indeed many do: actors like Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie, Danny Glover, and Matt Damon all participate in hands-on activism and deliver speeches that inspire us to greatness.

But while Hollywood’s reputation for liberal politics continues, the concept that only progressives and the socially conscious populate it might as well have come direct from Industrial Light and Magic. Brett Ratner’s actions this week are a reminder that, though some of its marquee names are politically liberal, the movie industry is completely contrary to that: trade organizations gouge wages, studios have legacies of union busting, roles written for people of color are limited and stereotypical, and actors remain closeted because they’re afraid of losing straight roles. (“An out male star can never be a leading man,” wrote Emily Nussbaum, in a New York magazine profile of out gay actor Neil Patrick Harris. “Straight women won’t be able to fantasize about him; straight men won’t be able to relate.”)

It’s time to re-evaluate the long-held belief that Hollywood is a particularly progressive place—because as long as that’s the prevailing conventional wisdom, the slower it will be to change.

And yet, even as the week of Ratner has illuminated some of the myriad ways individuals in Hollywood can be less than progressive, conservatives have taken the opportunity to paint his removal from the Oscars as a hypocritical move from a left-wing epicenter. Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site accused the Academy of having a double standard when it comes to language, comparing Ratner’s f-word comment to Susan Sarandon calling the pope a Nazi and getting away with it (uh, even though, like, the pope WAS a Nazi—he joined Hitler Youth in 1941).

And in the New York Post, which seems on a single-minded mission to top itself in absurdly right-wing comments, the film critic Kyle Smith opined:

Hollywood continues to freely denounce as ''fascists" those who (for example) think government spending should return to approximately the level of three years ago. Example: Woody Allen has the Woody Allen character in "Midnight in Paris" castigate "Republican Tea Party crypto-fascist airhead zombies."... And [Alec] Baldwin called columnist Michelle Malkin "a world-class, crypto fascist hater" during a discussion of the execution of Troy Davis. Are all Americans who support the death penalty fascists?"

Both the Post and Big Hollywood were working under the assumption that Ratner got the boot after the gay slur, but it was after his ugly Howard Stern interview came out. The LA Times has a salient rebuttal to the conservatives pulling the hypocrisy card, and it’s one that illuminates just how right-wing Hollywood actually is:

If the gay PC police really have so much sway, then why did Universal Pictures, who took all sorts of heat earlier this year from gay activists complaining about a gay electric car joke in "The Dilemma," end up keeping the joke in the movie? (A movie, by the way, produced by Brian Grazer, who's taking Ratner's place as Oscar producer).

A great point. But what about other right-wing leanings in the oh-so-utopian liberal mecca? Union-busting, for one, and all the tactics that lead up to it. The most prominent and well-known fight in recent memory is the writer’s strike of 2007 and 2008, during which the Writer’s Guild of America sought a better deal for writers on film and television shows that were more proportionate to the dollars the corporate production studios were raking in. They reached an agreement in 2008—but in Hollywood, other union battles rage on to this day.

Last year, 50 workers from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—which represents camera operators, stage hands, costume designers and the like—staged a strike against NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” seeking basic pension and health benefits. (There’s a reason reality shows are viewed as the ultimate union-busters in show business.) And It’s important to remember that Hollywood is not this amorphous glob of fancy liberal actors and directors. Obviously we tend to focus on celebrities because that’s who’s thrust in our faces, but for every movie star, there are 100 laborers behind the scenes making the magic happen. And like practically every other large industry in America, Hollywood is made up of giant corporations. Corporations tend to be unfriendly towards worker’s unions (in case you haven’t heard.)

But unions (and union-busting) are part of Hollywood’s legacy -- for proof, here’s an amazing piece from a 1938 issue of the Nation titled “Hollywood is a Union Town.” Another part of its legacy, which further disproves it as a bastion of progress: The casting couch. Or, in today’s terms, the level of sexual harassment (or sexual favors) smarmy directors deemed necessary for starlets to deal with before landing that career-making role. Hollywood's past is rife with tales of young women being coerced into stripping nude, or worse, for agents before being given a chance—but that was in the past before women’s lib, right? One would hope so, yet rumors of the Cain ilk continually leak out of Hollywood.

Megan Fox—an actress who’s better known for her preternatural beauty than for her sharp wit and daring personality (seriously, read any interview with her)—did not star as the female lead in Transformers 3 despite having helped catapulted the first two in the franchise to the top of the box office. The reported reason? She got sick of Michael Bay’s well-documented verbal abuse towards female actors, and quit the film. A source told online industry rag The Wrap that the powerful director “wants his actresses to look a certain way, and if they can't meet his absurd standards of beauty, he gets rid of them.” For Fox’s initial, lurid audition for Bay, he made herhand-wash his Ferrari while taping her. A casting couch for a new era.

And if you’re an actor of color, if your chances of being cast in a major film seem like they have been decreasing over the past 80 years, you’re right: at this year’s Oscars, there was less diversity in the Best Picture Nominees than in those nominated in 1940. Two decades before the Civil Rights movement! No one still thinks we’re “post-racial,” right? That fact underscores something film veteran/civil rights activist Harry Belafonte said at an NAACP conference earlier this year: “Hollywood will never yield to the needs of people of color.” (He said it in the context of encouraging POCs to start separate production companies, Tyler Perry style.) At the very least, can Hollywood cast a Mexican person in a role that isn’t a cholo or a maid? Etc.

So maybe Brett Ratner’s triple threat of homophobia, misogyny and plain disrespect for humanity do represent more than just the juiced-up views of a single megalomaniac. But even though Hollywood may not be as forward-thinking as it seems, we’re forever thankful for those who do speak out on behalf of a better, more accepting nation—and hope that it will rub off on their peers.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.