Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

For Hollywood, the medium is a message

By Bi Yantao (China Daily) Updated: 2012-02-28 08:15

For Hollywood, the medium is a message

The hullabaloo of the Oscars reached a climax on Sunday in Los Angeles, with the international media reveling in the Hollywood's glitz and glamor. However, people should be wary of this "aircraft carrier" that sees service with the United States and is so useful in its pursuit of hegemony.

As Stephen M. Walt, author of Taming American Power, has pointed out: "America's leaders have sought to persuade as many countries as possible to embrace their particular vision of a liberal-capitalist world order."

The US' overarching objective, according to Richard N. Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, is to integrate other countries and organizations into arrangements "that can sustain a world consistent with US interests and values".

That is, the US maintains its hegemony primarily by shaping global perceptions of America's legitimacy. Economic sanctions, political suppression and military deterrence are just supplementary means.

This has resulted in states that welcome US leadership being rewarded and states that resist it being ignored or punished.

The US National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, published in 2007, stresses that, "the strength, success and security of the United States of America rest on our commitment to certain fundamental values and principles" and requires that all diplomatic efforts promote these US values.

Culture, in particular the movies produced by Hollywood, are one of the cornerstones of this endeavor. A byword for the American dream, Hollywood serves to extol the virtues of the American way of life, promotes major industrial products and builds and reinforces a positive national image.

The US policy advisor, Simon Anholt, said that in building the US' national image, "cinema, music, art and literature are important because they add color, detail and richness to people's perceptions of the country, and help them to get to know the place almost as well as if they'd been there".

They have in effect "built Brand America into a rich and satisfying thing for hundreds of millions of people around the world to encounter, to explore, to get to know and trust over many years".

Hollywood movies, in particular, besides harvesting huge commercial rewards, mold and reinforce audiences' perceptions of the US. The psychological warfare specialist, Richard Crossman, has pointed out that "the way to carry out good propaganda is never to appear to be carrying it out at all". The best Hollywood movies are a perfect example of this, leading audiences to embrace the US worldview for reasons that they believe to be their own.

Hollywood movies seek to build a national image characterized by freedom, equality, prosperity and other positive aspects. Concepts such as "freedom" and "equality" are reinforced through the story lines.

World Trade Center, for instance, despite the denial of its director Oliver Stone, is a political film. At the start, the protagonist, a port authority police officer in New York, rolls out of bed at 3:29 am and gets himself ready for work, and quietly visits each of his children's rooms before leaving home. These all serve to demonstrate his diligence and that he is a family man. The next two minutes present a succession of images of New York's landmarks including the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center.

Each line, move and scene throughout the film portray the virtues of an America that is under threat. So just like any other blockbuster, this is aimed at promoting the US' national image and enhancing the country's soft power.

Three of the top five highest grossing films worldwide are Avatar, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2, and the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. All three of which are well-crafted examples of one of Hollywood's favorite tropes: the leader who embodies American values and his allies confronting and overcoming the "forces of evil" in pursuit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" with "certain unalienable rights" among them "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

It is no exaggeration to say that Hollywood is the country's advertising department. The movies from the "dream factory" seek to brainwash audiences into believing that the peoples of other countries, especially the non-developed, non-Western ones would be much better off if they allowed the much wiser Americans tell them what to do.

Hollywood movies have also boosted the US military.

During World War II, the US had to recruit millions of soldiers, at a time when movies were still emerging medium, Hollywood director Frank Capra directed a series of propaganda movies commissioned by the US government to show the soldiers the reasons for the nation's involvement in the war. War movies such as Midway and Saving Private Ryan have continued to gloss the image of the US army.

When Hollywood movies pour into the Chinese market, making a hit at box office and molding people's perceptions of the US, China should reflect profoundly on how to confront the challenges arisen from the most complicated, enduring and universal form of war in the age of information-the war of ideas.

The author is director of the Center for Communication Studies, Hainan University.

(China Daily 02/28/2012 page9)

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