Media people are different, if not from you or me, then from most Americans.
They tend to be upper middle class and, if they are in positions of influence, to be Baby Boomers, i.e., between the ages of 35 and 55. Their politics and their values are influenced more by their generational experience than by anything else. You can see these Boomer values in various ways in movies and on television, but they are most clearly revealed in today’s often bizarre ethnic and sexual casting conventions. The identity of the villain in particular says a lot about the human qualities the entertainment culture considers especially bad: things like uptightness and fatness. Of course, these days the industry is very much aware that there is good stereotyping and bad stereotyping.
Given that “entertainment product” is one of post-Cold War America’s biggest and most influential exports, the assumptions behind the distinction are well worth unpacking.
Hollywood’s ethnic casting conventions are a strange and constantly shifting tableau. Despite the claims of Spike Lee and others that Afro-American actors are cast only as criminals and servants, the truth is that for nearly two decades now — or at least since Starsky & Hutch first appeared on our screens — both movies and TV have had an unwritten rule that all mayors, police chiefs, and police captains must be black. Judges should be black or female or both.
Another rule states that only black writers and directors may make films that feature black criminal gangs. White directors, like Richard Donner in Lethal Weapon, should have their heroes face mixed-race gangs (a phenomenon that exists only on celluloid) or white guys in suits.
There is nothing wrong with this. It may not accurately reflect reality, but it reflects it better than the industry did in the Sixties when blacks really were shown only as criminals, slaves, and victims of oppression.
But recently the industry has begun to go a little further in the direction of wishful thinking. There is now a convention that brilliant physicists should be played by gorgeous babes in short skirts — see The Peacemaker (Nicole Kidman) and The Saint (Elizabeth Shue). By the same token, Hollywood increasingly likes to have computer and math geniuses played by black men (especially Samuel L. Jackson). See Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Sphere. Both are a kind of affirmative action, but, hey, if they encourage black boys and pretty blonde girls to study — and to study science rather than Oppression Studies — what could be wrong with that?
In the first place, this unlikely casting may not have any such effect — and indeed should not, according to the industry’s own pronouncements. The studios are constantly telling us that the depiction of something on film has absolutely no effect on audience behavior. That is why limiting female lead roles to leggy young chicks with artificially enhanced breasts doesn’t really affect the self-esteem of millions of women or push teenaged girls into anorexia. It’s why showing violence as the only solution to most of life’s problems plays no role in influencing people to take up arms against their troubles.
But if the studios are right, then we should ask if it might actually be counterproductive to have Stephen Hawking types played by Wesley Snipes or Michelle Pfeiffer. After all, it would be very sad if improbable casting made kids see black or pretty female scientists as just another feature of never-never land, as unlikely as an amusement park full of living dinosaurs. (Of course, what the industry really would have you believe is that audiences take the bad stuff with a pile of salt but are profoundly affected by the good stuff.)
But both casting conventions and the choice of villains for your story pose far more problems than they once did, thanks to two real-life political changes. First, the Cold War is over, and so we’ve lost the Soviets and their henchmen. Secondly, Hispanics, blacks, and other ethnic groups are no longer willing to accept what they see as negative stereotyping without noisy (and effective) protest. Which means that the industry must pick its foreign and domestic villains very carefully. You mustn’t go too far with Latino actors playing Colombian drug dealers. Arabs have been overdone. The Japanese now own one of the biggest studios and the biggest film company, and anyway seem a lot less threatening than they once did. The Chinese are out too (especially at Fox) because we want to sell them stuff.
So who? Well, there are still ruthless big corporations and rogue secret agents and crazed Eastern European nationalists. And as historical films come back into fashion we have lots of historical bad guys, and this is where things get interesting. Old-style historical enemies like the Nazis, the Japanese, and American Indians either are too old-fashioned or turn out to have been in the right. So the industry has discovered the perfect enemy: the English.
English accents are now as obvious a sign of badness as smoking a cigarette or having facial scars. You can see this in the recent crop of revisionist historical movies that you might call the Celtic Vengeance School, Braveheart and Rob Roy being the two most obvious examples of the genre. The English in both movies are depicted as not only repressive but also cowardly, ruthless, and effeminate all at the same time. Then there is the remake of Kipling’s Jungle Book in which the Brits are both racist fools and despoilers of the environment. But perhaps the best example is Titanic — the Anglophobe’s Birth of a Nation. In Titanic, everyone with an English accent — including the stuffy upper-class Americans — is either a coward, a snob, a fool, or in some cases a combination of all three. One particularly despicable crew member actually shoots a handsome, bearded young Irishman who refuses to accept the rule of “women and children first” and calls him a “Limey bastard.” This is acceptable, trouble-free stereotyping: after all, Brits are really just WASPs.
Now, Anglophobia often co-exists with Anglophilia. In fact, one is rarely to be found without the other skulking nearby, and that is as true in Hollywood as it is everywhere else. Americans have had a love – hate relationship with the English since before the Revolution. And of course there are certain ethnic groups in this country with a long-held hatred of the English. That of German -Americans — so strong between the World Wars — seems to have dissipated. That of Irish-Americans has not. To be sure, Hollywood’s long love affair with the IRA has nothing to do with Irish-Americans, a group whose presence in the industry is rather small. But in the last few years it has intensified. In recent films like The Devil’s Own and The Jackal IRA terrorists are depicted not just as charming freedom fighters but also as military supermen (not something that even Gerry Adams would claim).
There is also a tradition in Hollywood of having Brits play Germans or Romans in films where Germans or Romans are the bad guys. The accents are a subtle way of stressing the ethnic difference of the villains without actually using subtitles. The English accent also sounds like the kind of accent an organized, hierarchical people like the Romans would have. You know, correct, with good grammar and syntax. It is presumably for this reason that all the Imperial officers in the Star Wars trilogy were played by Brits.
There is another, much older American pop-culture tradition which depicts Europeans more generally as incarnations of evil. It is a tradition which sees Americans as simple, idealistic, and virtuous, and Europeans as cultivated but corrupt and cynical. My favorite modern manifestation of it is the excellent movie Die Hard. Here, a sweat-stained, foul-mouthed, heroic Bruce Willis battles high-tech Euroterrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper. In perhaps an ideal ethnic combination they seem to be a gang of long-haired Germans led by the British Alan Rickman (Kevin Costner’s foe in the PC remake of Robin Hood). In Die Hard 3, Jeremy Irons plays the Rickman role. And in Cliffhanger, the American John Lithgow with an unexplained but flawless English accent plays the murderous rogue CIA agent who wants to kill Sylvester Stallone. The subtext of all these films — and all the ones in which the villain is played by Anthony Price or Gary Oldman — is that we may not be all that cultured and smooth, but we will beat you by virtue of our good hearts, our courage, and our sheer ferocity in combat.
This all sounds harmless enough. And it means work for lots of talented, classically trained British actors who are happy to play psychopaths and/or colonial exploiters for a Hollywood salary. However, Anglophobia in movies and TV has much greater significance than one might at first think, because the emergence of the English as Hollywood’s ultra-villains symbolically expresses fundamental Baby Boomer/liberal values. Antipathy to all those stuffy, overdressed Brits really expresses Boomer attitudes toward the past, toward authority, toward discipline, toward responsibility, indeed toward everything about their parents’ world. In this sense, Hollywood Brit-bashing is a kind of Oedipal acting-out.
Boomers, who have so much invested in the cults of informality and authenticity — whether that means dressing like a teenager, or wanting their children to go to schools where they can call teachers by their first name–need constantly to have their prejudices confirmed. They want to feel better about not giving their seat to the pregnant woman on the bus, about their uncontrollable, grabby children, about feeling uncomfortable being adults.
Does it matter? Why shouldn’t we indulge the Hollywood Boomers’ delusions? If you think that films and television do have any influence on belief or behavior, then the Evil Brit trend may well be bad news. For one thing, we live in a society where some students are taught that the United States Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois, that the Greeks stole science from Africans, and that the Aztecs were sweeties who didn’t really eat people like popcorn.
Anglophobic movies may well serve to make these ludicrous notions seem less implausible. They might also lead to dangerous errors of judgment. After all, anyone who believes that the English are effeminate, semantically correct twits should take care not to get caught in the middle of a European soccer riot involving the fans of an English team. The Argentines made an analogous mistake back in 1981 and it was not a pleasant experience. There are other practical problems with dismissing the Limeys as an epicene race of tyrants: if we rid ourselves of our English inheritance, does that entail jettisoning the rule of law or just Shakespeare and the herbaceous border?
Finally there is the problem symbolized by Alan Rickman in the Kevin Costner Robin Hood. Here you have an agent of feudal authority who gets all the good lines and all the girls before getting it in the neck from the boring good guys. An English poet who wrote about Adam and Eve once found it hard not to make Satan rather attractive. Today we certainly shouldn’t underestimate the danger of giving the Devil an English accent.
National Review April 20, 1998