As America strives to win the hearts and minds of people abroad who question US integrity, policies, and character, an institution at home is proving a liability.
The institution is Hollywood.
The stream of sex-laden, violence-driven movies and television shows that some Hollywood moguls churn out for domestic audiences is also exported for audiences overseas. It is, according to a new and extensive study, creating an image of the US that is negative and not representative.
The findings are significant because they represent the viewpoint of the next generation - teenagers with an average age of 17, in 12 countries in six different regions of the world.
The problem is that in countries with little homegrown TV programming and cinema, American movies and television are pervasive, and easily copied when discouraged by the ruling regimes. Thus these overseas audiences are exposed to what the researchers describe as the "creeping cycle of desensitization" in the American mass media, "emphasizing increasingly such themes as crime, violence, gore, sensationalism, explicit sexual behavior and vulgar language."
Small wonder that in 11 of the countries surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Italy - teenagers polled had a perception of American women as sexually immoral, and Americans in general as violent and materialistic. Only in the 12th country - Argentina - did teenagers generally give Americans positive marks.
The research project, "The Next Generation's Image of Americans," was undertaken by two Boston University communications professors, Margaret and Melvin DeFleur.
What they pinpointed as offensive to non-American audiences is, of course, what is wrong with Hollywood's production for the home market. While Hollywood can make great movies, there is also a heavy-handed concentration on sex and violence that has a corrosive effect on our society, and especially on young viewers.
Another recent survey, this one by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, finds that despite the plethora of new media available, television continues to dominate the media diet of young people, with teens watching about three hours a day. What are they watching? In the top 20 shows among teen viewers, 83 percent include some sexual content, 49 percent have sexual behavior, and 20 percent have sexual intercourse. The top teen shows average more than six scenes an hour with sexual content.
The survey concludes that the television industry is including more scenes that address the risks and responsibilities of sexual activity, but such scenes still make up only a small minority - 15 percent. This in an age, as the survey points out, when two-thirds of America's teenagers are having sex by the time they graduate from high school; and when 1 in 5 sexually active teen girls gets pregnant.
Hollywood's retort to its critics is that the public demands this offensive material. Another line of Hollywood defense is that the producers and directors of such movies and television material are merely portraying life as it really is, and any attempt to tone their work down is an intrusion into their artistic expression, and an attack on the First Amendment.
Actually the real motivation for what they do is profit, profit to be made from imposing ever more crudity upon an impressionable teenage audience. The ratings don't always help. The PG-13 film "Austin Powers in Goldmember," replete with vulgar "jokes" for its child audience, was branded by movie critic Richard Corliss pure "toilet humor."
My wife and I, hoping for a great performance by Al Pacino, sat through the sex scene and four-letter words in "The Recruit," rated PG-13, and quickly determined it would be inappropriate for a 13-year-old, and definitely not our 12-year-old.
Those who deplore this "creeping cycle of desensitization," which at times seems more like a torrent, are not without recourse. Ordinary citizens can make their voices heard to advertisers who support trashy programs. Parents can regulate what their children watch. Such organizations as the nonprofit, nonpartisan Parents Television Council perform noble watchdog functions.
The sordid world that Hollywood portrays is not the world in which most Americans live and work. As actress Meryl Streep forcefully declared in an interview in The Wall Street Journal Friday, "We export the crap. And then we wonder why everybody hates us and has a distorted picture of what Americans are. We should export the best movies we make."
Too bad that when America needs friends abroad, Hollywood is turning off a new generation with an imperfect and distorted view of what America is all about.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.