Why Hollywood is a Very Poor Guide to Reality

What you see is most definitely not what you get

Just another wholesome show for small children

When my children were very young and beginning to watch television over at their mother’s house, I sat them down and explained that everything they would see on the screen would likely be untrue. I explained that TV shows are entertainment, and entertainment is about amusing and distracting people, not about informing them. I explained that in the USA the gap between what they’d see on the screen and real life was enormous.

This may strike some as heavy handed but I continue to feel it was essential.

Here’s why:

Many studies have shown that people are overly influenced by what they see on the screen. Juries believe that forensics is the whizzy-magic never-fail they see on crime shows and they will unhesitatingly convict if the prosecutor can wave a DNA sample or a residue or some other supposedly damning piece of evidence. Many innocent people have gone to jail because jurors don’t understand the difference between Hollywood and reality.

Forensic labs in the USA are often under-funded and discipline is poor, leading to sample contamination and false positive results. Even when work is conducted diligently and the equipment works, the statistical nature of DNA analysis means that there is still a significant margin of error. When the prosecutor claims that DNA evidence “100% proves” the accused was at the scene of the crime, it actually means that the suspect could have been at the scene of the crime. Because in a city of 1,000,000 people, the DNA of approximately one hundred people will match what was found at the crime scene. It therefore follows that when the police have a large enough database of people’s DNA, a match is essentially guaranteed — even if the person arrested has absolutely nothing to do with the crime.

Likewise, every Hollywood movie shows the intelligence community using whizzy computers that have magical powers of surveillance. Sure, the NSA does break the law every minute of every day by collecting meta-data on everyone with a cellular phone and it does illegally record conversations. But the reality is that even the NSA with its enormous budget is basically incompetent. Until a few years ago, no federal agency within Homeland Security could even send emails back-and-forth across departmental boundaries. It was common for employees to set up Yahoo! and gmail accounts through which sensitive documents could be routed because inter-departmental connectivity was non-existent. Many of the networks and databases within the intelligence community are still essentially wide open to exploitation, though of course this is denied by those at the top, largely because they’re clueless.

There was the $500 million the NSA spent on trying to physically locate a computer via its IP address. After years of spending taxpayers’ money with little to show for the effort, the NSA finally realized they could just ask Google how to do it, as that company had built the necessary capabilities a few years earlier. As for US offensive cyber capabilities, most of this work is still outsourced to Israel because that’s where the technical competence is. Those big monitors and clever computers of Hollywood are nowhere to be seen in real government agencies. Many are still using Windows Vista, which is at least a step up from Windows XP.

Now let’s move to that perennial favorite unique to the USA: gun violence. Every piece of Hollywood trash involving guns will reliably show the protagonist hitting their target without ricochets or wild rounds, while the antagonist rounds miss the protagonist with equal reliability. This leads the average US citizen to believe that it requires little training or practice to be “naturally good” with small arms. Not surprisingly, this mistaken belief leads to many negligent discharges every year and a great many unfortunate consequences resulting therefrom.

Even the illustration accompanying this article makes the point: see how the person behind has such atrocious muzzle control that they’re about to shoot their partner in front? But in the distorting mirror of the US entertainment industry that’s fine because nothing ever, ever goes permanently wrong for the heroes.

Furthermore, because of this magic talisman message, the USA is the only OECD country to fail to grasp the very simple fact that deadly weapons and civilians don’t go together unless you want the persistent carnage and wholesale traumatization of the general population, a psychologically destructive problem from which the USA uniquely suffers.

Guns are so prevalent in US popular culture that a few years ago, when video stores still existed, I determined that 37% of video dust-jackets in the Family Comedy section depicted characters holding guns. Because, let’s face it: what’s funnier than the potential of seeing a small child blowing the head off another small child, or daddy blasting mommy into blood-soaked pieces? Hilarious, right? All good wholesome family entertainment.

Remaining on the unhappy topic of violence, let’s consider fight scenes in movies and television shows. Although stunts are more quasi-realistic than they used to be thirty years ago, one thing hasn’t changed at all: the amount of punishment meted out. According to Hollywood you can smash people over the head, throw them through glass, drop them out of buildings, and punch them relentlessly and basically nothing much happens, especially if the person receiving the punishment is the protagonist. A few pleasantly photogenic dabs of blood here and there, and hey, it’s all in a day’s work for our hero/ine.

But you know what? Real violence isn’t amusing or clever or artistically valid. Real violence leaves people damaged for life and traumatizes families. Real violence is ugly, often chaotic, and full of random events, which is why professionals avoid getting into fights if at all possible. There’s no magic script in real life, no stunt coordinator to ensure the protagonist always comes out on top in the end.

And don’t get me started about scenes where the car crashes and the airbags pop out and stay inflated…

This is merely skimming the surface of the falsehoods that Hollywood embeds in the mind of the viewer. The fact is, the average adult has absolutely no idea about the enormous gap between what they see on the screen and real life. And this has deleterious consequences in so many areas of life.

Amazingly, European entertainments generally don’t feel the need for such a reality gap (Luc Besson being the most obvious and most shameful exception; he always wanted to be a Hollywood A-list director). Europeans aren’t notably less entertained and diverted than their US counterparts. They’re just less ill-informed.

Given the fact our world is increasingly complex, Hollywood is not doing anyone any favors. There’s no clash between realism and audience absorption so perhaps it’s long past time that Hollywood began to be less of a distorting mirror.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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