Government employees on film rated as good-looking, smart

Actor Matt Damon as CIA agent Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. Actor Matt Damon as CIA agent Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. Universal Pictures

Although government gets a bad rap in movies, Hollywood generally portrays civil servants in a positive light, according to new research.

The study, conducted by political science professors Michelle Pautz of the University of Dayton (Ohio) and Laura Roselle from Elon University in North Carolina, analyzed the annual top 10 grossing movies from 1992 to 2005 for portrayals of government employees. Sixty percent of the films depicted government systems negatively, yet individual employees generally were portrayed positively. Civil servants often were portrayed as attractive, knowledgeable, well-trained and efficient, research found.

Pautz said she was surprised the movies showed such a flattering overall picture of government workers, since the stereotype tends to be "the person with very thick glasses and pocket protector, the nerdy civil servant who is easy to berate because he or she is not capable and is counting down the hours until they can punch out."

According to the study, in two-thirds of the movies with a negative depiction of government, the institution itself rather than the individual was the target. Pautz said the disconnect wasn't surprising, noting while they rarely had good things to say about government, people reported positive daily interactions with postal workers, garbage collectors and other civil servants. Characters in films were most often teachers, CIA employees and foreign intelligence officials.

"There's some hope for how civil servants are portrayed because it's not all bad," Pautz said. "Somehow we need to keep reminding ourselves government as a whole is one thing and civil servants are not politicians, not the people we get angry at in government. We need to remind ourselves there is a distinction."

The study also found the films didn't accurately reflect the makeup of the current government workforce. Eighty-four percent of movie characters were male and 80 percent were white compared with 56 percent and 69 percent of the actual civil service, respectively. The study also found no difference in depictions of government institutions and employees before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The findings did not distinguish between federal, state and local officials, though Pautz said more specific research is forthcoming. The research also included analysis of non-U.S. government workers. Films analyzed included Harry Potter, Finding Nemo, Star Wars and Batman Begins.

Pautz said films, and how they portray characters, have a strong influence on public perception.

"Film continues to reach more Americans at all socioeconomic levels, all age brackets, just about in every demographic more than any art form or entertainment," she said. "We didn't even touch the topic of DVR or rental films. Film has and continues to have the greatest mass effect on people, so more Americans are exposed to it than anything else."

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