It seems strange to me that during this election cycle we are spending more media time with fact-checkers than we are with folks analyzing policy statements made by the candidates. It seems strange to me that people’s body weight, hand size, hair, face and sweat glands are essential topics. Is this the conversation we should be having for the selection of the president of the United States of America. It seems really strange to me that the people who debate the merits of either candidate often get hijacked by their personal emotions and bark words at each other to hammer home a point. I’m not really sure what is going on with the media or between citizens embroiled in the American political system, but one thing I am sure of – that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
These events leading up to the 2016 presidential election, in case you haven’t noticed, demonstrate some striking similarities between the Hollywood film industry and Washington D.C. political machine – both are thriving on fictional narratives. One way to make sense of what we are witnessing, is to relate it to the conventions of film genre or television formulas. What we are watching can be easily likened to the methods used to achieve either box-office success or in this case, votes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is offering voters expensive propaganda to get us to support one candidate or another. What are these candidates peddling? Well, one thing is sure, it is not free, we will pay for it with our lives and the lives of our children. What is their story? Who knows but it was concocted to encourage us into believing their “sincerity” and skills making them the best candidate to become the next president of our country. I want us to think about the vast difference between the price of a movie ticket and what you will be exchanging when you pull the lever on Tuesday November 8, 2016. In one case you pay less than $20 for a two-hour journey versus casting a vote, which is a four-year commitment that will affect everything from the world economy to healthcare in the U.S.A. Sounds scary? It should…
What are some of the similarities between these two narrative dependent institutions? The most important connection is the idea of a good story. Stories are the basis for human communication, essential to the movies and yes especially politics. Stories. Stories that we use to put children to bed, stories that can win or loose cases in courts or get people elected to public office. Stories that can start wars, stories with central characters that are constructed as either heroines or villains. Everything we see in the media is a story.
Film narration (the unfolding of the story) is defined as the process through which the plot conveys or withholds story information. Certainly each of us can relate to a moment during this electoral process where we felt that that a candidate was more in “withhold” more than “convey” mode, whether the subject is taxes or emails. Thus, the rules of narrative and narration, are also clearly true for election 2016. The goal of storytelling is to engage us, get us to believe something, care about someone, or in this case to get us in the mood to elect the next president of the United State of America, which at this point seems to be anything but united.
Exploring the notion of Hollywood genre lends a bit more complexity to this conversation. Film Art describes genres as “a simple way to characterize or group films, genres help assure that most members of a society share at least some general notions about the many films that compete for our attention.” Genre gives us just enough general information to help us relate to films and select one desirable to our taste because we know what to expect before we actually pay to see it. Such is the case with politicians who present as if belonging to one “genre” or another, one group or another, one political party or the other and so on… Politicians are giving us just enough information to “encourage” us to buy into their narrative. With a film, we are expected to pay for the experience before we have it, and with regard to our vote, we select them before we actually see what they can and will do for the nation.
If the idea of genre works here then the next question becomes what specific genres are in play in the current election cycle. My contemplation brought me to three possibilities – the comedy genre, the western or the war genre, eliminating ones such as the romantic comedy or the science fiction for obvious reasons. In terms of the comedy, there is plenty of late night television capturing that facet of the run for the White House and a simple google search can give you a wide range of perspectives. Enjoy. This kind of political hilarity is not a new thing – years ago Laura Flanders in her book Bushwomen gave an account of The Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign highlighting some methods and slogans. There are many interesting ideas in the book and one of which was “W Stands for Women.” I remember thinking at the time that W only reminded me of the comedy film Clueless where W stood for whatever!
When considering the western or the war genre, we heave to make note of the important similarities, not the least of which is their investment in the “other” – the “bad” guy, “them” – the dangerous people. Core to these two genres as well as this political conversation is an investment in demonizing groups of people as “terrorist” or violent, positioning ethnic groups rapists or predators that threaten the good American people. It reminds me of the scene from the film Stagecoach where the Native Americans are portrayed and rendered as murderous savages. Please note that many of “those” people currently being demonized, much like the original Americans, are actually citizens of this country. Some Americans are so demonized that they are essentially rendered un-American and given identities that fall outside of our national boundaries. This has been playing out in the media these past eight years with our first Black President Barack Obama and the never-ending drama about his place of birth.
People, if we “buy” these stories, we are being invited to give up more than 2 hours in a movie theater so look and listen carefully. Some of us are being invited to risk our physical and financial security. We are being invited to invest in narratives that put some group of “other” center stage as the cause of all of our problems. Yes, this is really part of the election process for the U.S. president, and yes it is part of the greatest and most dangerous real life epic of our time? Yes, self-interested individuals have each co-opted familiar Hollywood themes, genres styles and formulas to get elected. Can we resist buying into the boiler-plate American hero fighting to save our town, our jobs, country, or the world? Of course they will fix the water problem in Flint Michigan, improve race relations in America, and healthcare. Of course they will protect us, bring back ALL the jobs from overseas and they will make college affordable…
The most important shared element between Hollywood and Washington politics is the construction of character. Characters in a story, characters playing a role, characters willing to reduce themselves to caricature to get the job. Richard Dyer in his book Stars: The Construction of Character- notes that “a character’s personality in a film is seldom something given in a single shot. Rather it has to be built up, by film-makers and audience alike, across the whole film.” Note the importance given to the audience here, note our responsibility in the “construction of and investment in character” – in other words if we don’t buy into it – the story is not successful. More importantly, if we do, we should not expect to know our characters fully until the film has ended or in the case of this election – until this long and overpriced epic is over, four years from now. I hope some of this is beginning to make non-sense. I hope you see that life in America has shifted realities to something very close in nature to a popular Hollywood genre. I hope you see the great irony in the fact that although some candidates pretend a great dislike for media they would be nowhere without them.
Good tactics at work right, using well-established narratives that we are all familiar with, as a basis to construct an identity. Nice try, to use the other as bait in fabricating the us-versus-them war nationally and internationally, to encourage Americans to fight with each other. Will we take the opportunity to think about how the news media, films and television, and late night talk shows participate in this very serious process. The course has been set, one that has put our nation and the world on a very long and perilous journey. If you think this is far fetched please read “How the Movies Made a President” If you think there is no connection between television and what goes on in politics read Michael Barbaro’s article about “how television and film characters past and present inform our views of both candidates.”
Frankly, I might be at the point where I’d rather go back to the reality of the movies- at least at in a film or television show there’s always a predictable end is sight, but permit me to leave you with a final thought – a quote from Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” Think about it…