Political ideas have been at the center of civilization building for as long as we’ve been documenting it. As such, people have placed a lot of value in those ideas over time and started incorporating them in various facets of people’s lives. This starts to become a problem when people have clashing ideas of how one should be governed. Many ideologies are inherently political and end up spreading to other parts of society as an effect of maneuvering to achieve a goal or drive an agenda. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all. This is how people assert themselves in the conversation of how the populace should be governed and is also the root of revolutions. The problem begins when political ideologies transcend their original purpose and infest other parts of our lives; namely culture. Very recently we’ve had various mediums change their own content to placate various interest groups which are pushing political agendas through media. Television, film and even comic books are certainly suffering from a degradation of innovation as they have become products which berate the paying customer with curated meanings and messages right out of a political pamphlet full of checklists of what is deemed acceptable by the intelligentsia. Our cultural artifacts are slowly becoming laced with political propaganda from a minority of moral busy bodies.
The entertainment industry is no stranger to political intermingling to propagate an agenda. Propaganda simply means to “…spread ideas, information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person…” according to Johnnie Manzaria and Jonathon Buck. The spread of influence for change is to incite and order a person’s opinion on any topic. Manzaria and Buck explain that when the goal of spreading information becomes enough there will be a shift from the bad to the good, thus validating an individual’s reasons for doing what they are doing. The media in this case would only need to give a reason to validate for the propaganda to be accepted. This leads to a scenario where people become less and less aware of the influence of propaganda and leads to self-aggrandizing on the back of being consistently validated. Robert Cialdini explains that propaganda is so effective because everyone is susceptible to it. It plays on the egos, fears and hopes of the populace to get its message across. The truth is that we don’t have the time or even the capacity to recognize every little detail and scrutinize it. There must be a shorthand for things we consume, images that are simple to digest and have the information play into key parts of our understanding of our society and the stereotypes and prejudices we hold. This makes us highly susceptible to the power of persuasion and of propagandists, indeed propaganda is often created through simple means in order to bring the message to as many people as possible. A film, for example, is much easier to digest than any pamphlet because we can easily recognize symbols in them that incite various emotions and validate our beliefs. Films are also more straightforward and can be understood by anyone of any educational background and class. This can be slowly grinded into people over time in order to change public opinion.
The most famous (or infamous depending on your stance on the matter) is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert observes that Eisenstein’s film was ordered up by Lenin and conceived entirely as a “class-conscious revolutionary propaganda” film. Nothing about the film is about the individual man, in fact everyone in the film walk in unison, have the same mindset and even speak in the same tone when the movie calls for dialogue mostly built around outrage. Ebert describes the movie as being bereft of details like any other drama would have, instead it opts for political drama while leaving the interpersonal one out entirely. The film had a point to shock and stir the audience into a frenzy and fill their heart with revolution, indeed this had the movie banned in some countries and even its own native land due to its effectiveness. The Marxist ideology prevalent in the piece is bolstered by completely black and white morality. Simple and effective. According to Philosophy Films this is done entirely by design as the ones filled with the ideology in the film are seen as noble, altruistic and heroic, these pure traits are juxtaposed with the ones who caused the grievances to them as they are seen beyond any sort of redemption. This simplicity didn’t do much for personal drama in the story, but it was incredibly effective propaganda. These kinds of films cannot risk the heroes having faults, because it will stray from the message and make people question it, conversely the villains cannot be sympathetic in any way because such details would force the viewer to start questioning the content and that would make for bad propaganda. I’m afraid that this kind of film making is slowly making its way back to the cinema.
The modern political climate in the west has become incredibly volatile. Different sides are warring with each other and employing everything from questionable tactics like invading broadcasts to slipping political messages into mainstream entertainment. On the 21st episode of Sam Harris’ podcast, his guest Douglas Murray talked about the differences between culture and politics. He laments that politics is simply taking up too much of the discourse in people’s lives, like when the conservative party won in Britain people on the other side of the isle cried over the results. Murray goes on to say that “…it is a totally wrong-headed view of politics…” and that politics itself is not to do with your life and only plays a small role in that it’s about how society is governed. Douglas Murray says something very interesting; “It is not the means to making someone good, it is not the means to make someone happy.”- which indeed has become a major contributing factor in the propagandizing of media. How you dictate happiness is not through the means of your elected official, but by the culture and art which is consumed in order to get there. It is very possible that the further rejection of older, more conservative, religious teachings by modern society has formed a sort of reality where people look to find meaning in other things and have stopped at their political persuasion. Religion itself is a foundational arm of culture, so this is very possible but there are potentially more unexplored factors not yet uncovered for our crisis of meaning in these modern times. It has become a sign of the times where culture has been poisoned by politics and because we’ve become so divisive over these lines, it has become a battleground of ideas where particularly left side of the isle has been dictating the direction of culture through media. This process has been going on and it’s not until recently where media has become emboldened to sell political messages as entertainment.
There are a lot of examples of pushing politics in entertainment but for the sake of brevity I’ll only talk about two very recent examples. The 2017 Rian Johnson addition to the Star Wars canon The Last Jedi was a controversial film and divided audiences. This movie has become a symbol of the downfall of the franchise in the hands of Disney and has been shredded apart for inconsistencies in plot, character depiction and whether or not the movie achieved anything in its 152 minute run-time. The movie has a very feminist message on top of the other topics it tries to handle. The problem with the way the messaging is injected into the movie is that it’s very blatantly selling you this ideology. Feminism itself has always been a political idea and movement and as such it is very easy to spot when it shows up in mass media. Going back to Philosophy Films and their explanation of propaganda this film actually follows the prescription quite well: the feminist heroes in the story are all treated as noble, self-sacrificing and altruistic while the bad guys are never shown as anything more than complete monsters who are angry all the time and want complete annihilation of everything. Even when a character like Kylo Ren is on the brink of a character changing moment in the next five minutes he is seen barking orders to blow things up. Couple these character depictions with the message of the film, it becomes very clearly to see that the movie is definitely trying to sell something.
The 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters by Paul Feig also does something very similar with its cast of characters and villains but it also does something very meta with the fans of the original films. The movie is ultimately about stopping a fanboy from destroying the world and the movie goes out of its way to depict fan audiences as dimwitted, out of control crazy and simply evil. This seems to be in the film as a telegraphed response from Feig about the changes to canon and how fans often don’t like change. The original teaser trailer to the movie was eviscerated online and the studio and Feig himself were in damage control for the longest time, even after the movie was given a wide release. Of course, the seed of the backlash on the audience was rooted in feminist theory about the patriarchy and how men simply could not handle that women had key leading roles in a summer blockbuster. Many have pointed out how absurd this narrative was but it didn’t stop the film makers from laying this claim over and over again. This kind of attack on the audience for dismissing a film from the film makers has become a sort of trend among Hollywood, a backlash to not accepting the work blindly or even refusing to give the entry to the franchise a chance due to massive changes. Circling back to The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson himself was responsible for this kind of behavior on social media and many found it complete unacceptable from a professional. These are just some examples of modern propaganda films, there are many others out there.
Political messages in media will simply not stop any time soon. The business of various production houses in various media like comic books, film, video games and television simply rely on a product that will please investors. The more money is sunk into an investment the more that investor wants to secure that their money will see a return. Hollywood especially has become a giant engine which a lot of money gets thrown around and various groups need to be kept happy so that the money remains secure. Pressure groups online and various other lobbyists tend to come down on studios which simply do not adhere to the standards set by political ideologies being pushed at that time. The fear of the outrage, which will most certainly make news in one way or another, is also the fear of money being lost due to that outrage. The current state of grievance culture and minority groups speaking the loudest for damaging change in our popular culture is rather annoying because artists are being hamstrung by politics. To legitimately fight against this, it all comes down to the consumer seeing, listening and not avoiding the traps.
Propaganda is a technique used to get a message out there to sway public opinion on a certain topic. Through various media it becomes increasingly easy to bypass the usual methods and go straight for the heart through an outwardly entertaining story released for wide consumption. Since we live in quite polarizing times the political parties try to get the edge on trying to touch the hearts and minds of the voting consumer. Vigilance is really the only method one has to avoid the trappings of such messaging but it becomes increasingly difficult when political ideas are encroaching on our precious cultural artifacts.