Cultural Imperialism and the mass-production of racism, sexism and violence

When I sat down to write the post that would accompany archiving my 2005 review of Ben Dickenson’s Hollywood’s New Radicalism, I got caught up in a couple of issues. Primarily steel tariffs, Weinstein, the new Avengers movie and cultural imperialism. After rereading the review a couple of times a lot of the feelings that had accompanied writing it clearly came flooding back. When you have been standing in the middle of the woods for years, it is really difficult to remember how to even begin looking for the trees.

There was a moment not long ago, when globalisation and the expansion of corporations into trans-national entities was on the lips of radicals around the world. Part of that discussion, was about cultural imperialism and specifically the overwhelming reach of the US film industry. What strikes me as strange is how more recently this seems to have dropped down the agenda. I find this interesting because, at exactly the same time as the US film industry seems to have annexed nearly every screen on the planet, it’s skeletons are spilling out of the cupboards on every news report, with apparently little or no impact.

While one of its major players is being publicly prosecuted for allegedly using his commercial power to rape and sexually assault women, and in light of the further allegation that this behaviour was apparently both widespread and widely known about within the industry, the question has to be asked what about the accomplices whose collusion would have been needed to keep it from the public and the police for so many years. Surely, by helping to cover up even one of the assaults, those people immediately become complicit in any and all subsequent assaults, before the fact.

But, trying to apply logic or public interest arguments to Hollywood is difficult even at the best of times. I have only recently become aware of the extent to which the US military and intelligence services have been censoring and pressuring the major studios into making sure that they portray their organisations and actions in a positive light. And apparently this isn’t a new thing, it has been going on for years.

The reach of Hollywood, as a global message manufacturer is unprecedented in human history. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) helpfully produces an annual report on the health of the US film industry. The MPAA’s members are Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. According to the 2017 report the global box office take for the MPAA was $40.6 billion, across over 170,000 screens globally. While that same year the industry generated $47.8 billion in home entertainment sales, in large part through the over 0.5 billion cable and online video service subscriptions. It is hard to think of a time in history when quite so few people had quite so much control over the culture of quite so many. And it is in reference to that reach that the description ‘cultural imperialism’ is most appropriately used.

Last month, it took just over a week for the Disney blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War to take over $1 billion at box offices around the world. Breaking through the $1 billion barrier has been done by 34 films in total to date, with 17 of them made by Disney. But that wasn’t the only record Disney broke this past month. In the opening days of May, Disney became the fastest Film company to break the $3 billion mark in global ticket sales in any given year. That is the same Disney that owned Miramax for nearly twenty years. That is of course the same Miramax that was famously set-up and run by the Weinstein brothers.

But it is not just about the questionable behaviours and objectives of the interest groups lobbying the movie makers, or even the movie makers themselves. After all, very few people ask one of the Weinstein’s or the Joint Chiefs or the Director of Central Intelligence to watch their children while they pop out of the room. But what is perhaps most important, is what messages are being beamed into our homes and communities. Because a great many of us are leaving our children alone with those messages. The output of Hollywood is fast becoming the global culture. And therefore, it isn’t a stretch to argue that there is a form of cultural imperialism at work here.

Disney’s attitude, regardless of whether it is conscious or unconscious, to gender equality and race equality are terrifying. And of course, although there is an overwhelming amount of debate around the role of simulated violence in film and it’s relationship to actual violence in reality, I find it difficult to let go of Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll studies in the 1960s. I think there is a wider debate to be had, and not just about the role of cultural imperialism, but also about the nature of the messages that are part of this global mono-culture.

Back in December 2005 I reviewed Ben Dickenson’s book Hollywood’s New Radicalism for the Morning Star. The review has since been consigned to the archives. But even now, I would argue that the book is a welcome reminder of the politicisation of Hollywood, and it’s role as propaganda tool for the few in promoting their agenda to the many. And while this may feel comfortable while their agenda coincides with ours, one can never forget how that sort of power in the hands of a minority is inherently dangerous. Cultural imperialism has one overarching objective, and that is to create and  maintain a culture in which imperialism can exist.

To read it here or to download a .txt version please click through to the page.