After last week’s column on the need for more slapstick comedy from our entertainment media, I am emboldened to write on a related subject, something else we need from our media right now if America is to get through the coming tough years:
More positive role models — what we used to call “heroes”.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that most recent movies are really down on authority figures, especially American ones. Today, any sort of authority is something to be not only questioned (as it should be) but laughed at, mocked and demonized.
Whenever government officials, corporate executives and other American leaders and authority figures are depicted in the movies, they are invariably portrayed as clueless as best, evil at worst. In “The Social Network,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is not portrayed for what he really is — an American entrepreneurial hero — but as an almost pathological individual who stomped all over his friends in order to build one of the fastest-growing media companies in the world today. And don’t get me started on Gordon Gekko …
The only exceptions are outsiders who challenge the established (American) order on behalf of certain types of people. The movie “Amelia” portrays Amelia Earhart not as an American heroine but as an early feminist making her mark in a male-dominated activity (aviation).
And that’s OK, to a point. It’s great to live in a country where the media can criticize political or business/economic leaders and show they (sometimes, not always) make bad decisions and do not-nice things. It’s great to live in a country where the media can satirize social and religious values and show how hypocritical they (sometimes, not always) can be. I’m sure many filmmakers in China, Russia and the Islamic world would kill to have the freedom to do that in their countries.
The problem is that today there is no counterbalance — no media showing America in a positive light or portraying us as Americans rather than members of a particular ethnic minority, sexual orientation or other identity group. Instead of “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one), we are getting “ex uno, multis” (out of one, many) or even “e pluribus, etiam plus” (out of many, even more).
The stories our media has told us over the last few decades have overemphasized our differences, our impotence in the face of adversity (unless we have superhuman powers like Iron Man or Dr. Strange). If a character says something positive about America, or demonstrates patriotism, he or she almost certainly has a screw loose.
I cannot think of a recent movie, television program or rock opera that celebrates American culture, history or values without irony. Tell the truth: Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a movie or television program reinforcing the idea that Americans are smart and strong, and those who hate or oppose America are weak, clueless and exploitative?
OK, you may have a point with “Top Gun: Maverick.” I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, but I can’t help wondering how many Hollywood A-listers turned down the opportunity to star in a movie that takes a positive spin on the U.S. military. Dare I hope “TGM” is the start of something big?
There has always been plenty of media that criticized or satirized American values, culture and public policy — remember “Dr. Strangelove”? Yet until recently, we also had plenty of media showing authority figures as positive role models, despite their flaws: think John Wayne in “Stagecoach” or “The Green Berets,” Mickey Rooney as “Young Tom Edison” or Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy as clergymen who never, ever abused kids. (Well, except for punching in the nose those who needed a little “tough love.”)
Looking at today’s media, it is hard to escape the message that America is an evil country (or “empire”, which it has never truly been), with corrupt leaders and dysfunctional people, whose every move is weak, clueless and/or exploitative. That message — repeated over several decades — has turned America’s young people cynical and is convincing the rest of the world that our nation and its values have passed the sell-by date. Ask the Ukrainians what happens when the wrong people get that message.
Memo to Hollywood: We need more genuine American heroes and heroines. Not just for some of us but for all Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, sex or sexual orientation. No superheroes, please — real human beings (preferably ones who have actually walked the Earth and overcame their limitations to achieve greatness).
Yes, you may have to airbrush them a little bit to play down their shortcomings and “off message” qualities (after all, no one is completely “good” or “evil”, and real people’s motivations are always more complex than they are in the movies), but that’s what you do best.
Yes, you will be open to the charge of “propaganda”, especially from people who think honest patriotism isn’t “cool.” But let me tell you something: All stories are propaganda, precisely because they simplify the truth to illustrate a message or moral. The message can be negative or positive, constructive or divisive. By all means, show us our faults, character flaws and mistakes, but don’t forget to show us also our strengths, our capacity for virtue and courage, our ability to put aside differences in a common cause, our common humanity.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. COPYRIGHT 2022 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO
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