POPULAR movies reflect the politics of their times. With their evocation of nostalgia and military strength, "Back to the Future" and "Rambo" were mirrors of the Reagan era. In its story of a simple figure who rises from obscurity to command the world stage, the first "Rocky" coincided with the early Carter years.
Movies, however, can mirror their times in different ways. Recently, popular films have begun to reflect two very different perspectives on American life, roughly corresponding to the political outlooks of the two political parties.
This summer's two big hits -- "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" -- offer, respectively, a mythic reflection of Republican and Democratic perspectives.
In demographic terms, a movie is usually aimed at either men or women. That implies a focus on action and violence (men) or relationships (women). To be sure, successful movies appeal to everyone and thus combine elements of both action and romance. Moreover, some men like films about relationships and vice versa. But in the end, it's usually pretty easy to tell into which category a "Die Hard" or a "Ghost" falls.
In sex typing, there is an implicit political message. Christopher Matthews recently outlined in the New Republic how the two political parties mirror gender stereotypes. The Democrats are the "mommy" party -- concerned about education, health care, and human service issues. In contrast, the Republicans are the "daddy" party -- perceived as strong on crime, defense issues, and holding the line on overspending.
A similar gender gap and appeal can be found in this summer's two hottest films. Aimed more at women through star Kevin Costner, "Robin Hood" is a Democratic film, a populist story of how redistribution of income from the rich to the poor will solve a community's problems. Possible candidates such as Jay Rockefeller may find in the renewed popularity of Robin Hood a metaphor for their own journeys from privilege to the Democratic nomination in 1992.
In contrast, "Terminator" is a GOP film aimed primarily at men, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a self-identified Republican. At bottom, its view of what ails America is cast not in economic terms, the usual Democratic perspective, but in cultural ones more characteristic of Republicans. Other than the emphasis on action and strength, "Terminator 2" is a movie about a different type of nuclear family.
Whereas Robin Hood organizes on the shire or precinct level (the Old World, Democratic politics of community ties), the Terminator sees the nation as a collection of dispersed families (the new, mostly Western, media-age GOP politics of individual values).
Contrasting each film with its predecessors also provides a way to look at how the two political parties have changed. Previous Robin Hoods, like FDR-version Errol Flynn, were often more charismatic populists than low-key, blow-dried Costner, Hollywood's current image of a Democratic leader. What's more, today's Robin Hood doesn't so much lead "the people" as head the usual Democratic coalition of special interests -- blacks, women and labor -- all clearly identified in the current film.
Meanwhile, as pointed out elsewhere, the differences between the Schwarzenegger of Terminator 1 and 2 are the differences between Reagan and Bush. The Reagan-era Terminator was a frightening figure of power who just blew people away. In contrast, Terminator 2 is a "kinder and gentler" protector of families, and thus a Republican, like Bush, who has moved to the left to coopt the Democrats.
The GOP's image of women has been modernized as well, as they become stronger and more independent, befitting their role in combat in the gulf.
Too much, of course, can be made of summer movies which are produced to provide entertainment, not edification. But because Hollywood tries to read the public mind in much the same way as politicians, its conflicting visions of the culture -- and their appeal -- tell us a lot about America and its direction. If box office returns are votes, both Robin Hood and the new Terminator have their constituencies. But if 1992 is anything like 1991, the Democratic Robin Hood will be no match for George Bush, Terminator with a heart.
Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.