Hollywood has always been criticized for trying to engineer American society. For example, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough accused Brokeback Mountain of advancing a “radical [liberal] agenda” in 2005 and Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly said the movie was “about mainstreaming certain conduct.” The criticism extends to animated movies, as well. In a 1999 op-ed piece for his radio show, Vice President-elect Mike Pence wrote, “Despite her delicate features and voice, Disney expects us to believe that Mulan’s ingenuity and courage were enough to carry her to military success on an equal basis with her cloddish cohorts. Obviously, this is Walt Disney’s attempt to add childhood expectation to the cultural debate over the role of women in the military.”
Assuming that such critics are correct in thinking that a number of Hollywood movies tell their stories from a particular, biased perspective—and overlooking the claim that watching a movie can turn people gay—we are left to wonder, first, whether such movies are capable of affecting social change and, second, whether it is somehow improper or inappropriate or even immoral for them to do so. I argue yes to the former and no to the latter.
Current Hollywood pictures provide plenty of material for conspiracy theorists wary of the liberal agenda. Disney’s Zootopia tells the story of a rabbit fighting other animals’ biases in trying to join the police force in a city where predators and prey of many species try to live together in peace.
Similarly, J.K. Rowling took aim at American society with her first Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Wizards in New York City live under strict rules prohibiting them from befriending or marrying Muggles—people without magic powers—as they tremble in fear of international magical terrorism.
A chief line of criticism against films of this strain is that they advance a liberal agenda, meaning they were created with the conscious purpose of swaying public opinion in a certain direction on a contemporary social issue. These critics find it particularly abhorrent that such movies would be marketed to children, and they stir up anti-Hollywood sentiment with charges of “brainwashing” the younger generation.
Accusations of movies having a particular “agenda” are usually overstated—the most that can be said of the movies is usually that they told their story with a certain moral or perspective in mind. Not only is writing a story from a biased perspective different from writing with an express agenda, but such biases are impossible to avoid.
In general, good artists attempt to reach beyond their own biases in order to reach a deeper truth about their subject, but of course, they can never truly succeed. All artists bring their life experiences and pre-conceived notions to the creative process—just as all audiences do to the viewing process—and it is this subjective position that allows them to create art in the first place.
Do these biases have an effect on society? More often than not, professional writers will laugh at the notion that they are somehow controlling public opinion. Still, a good body of sociological research asserts that popular media have a powerful role in shaping perceptions and forming attitudes. Ironically, the central message of many films accused of liberal bias is that such stereotypes are harmful and must be overcome.
As to whether such biases are ethical, at base they constitute a form of free speech. Stories are a particularly influential form of speech—especially to children—but that is not a reason to boycott or to disparage them. They have a central place in public discourse, and while their limitations should be acknowledged, they should ultimately be embraced for their ability to provide a method for thinking through abstract ideas in a very concrete way.
Bias in art is not something to be disdained or to be avoided. Often, it is the point of art and—more often than not—viewers can learn as much from their own reactions to art as they can from the art itself.