Warning: Ranting Ahead.
Those who have studied communication, sociology, or been involved in any of the utterly unscientific, ”no fucks given” fields of study that plague our college campuses should be painfully familiar with the term “cultural hegemony.” In fact, if you’ve managed to endure three or more years in one of these contrived, ideological majors, chances are you have heard it about 700 million times. The good news is, most students in these particular fields really do forget its meaning every semester.
Two points of clarification here:
1) I, myself, am a communication major. As such, I’m fairly certain I know more about the absurdity of these classes and am more entitled to rip on them than most libertarians, who tend to study real things like business or economics. This post is a message of sympathy for my fellow skeptics and liberty-lovers who genuinely wished to pursue a career in journalism or broadcast media, needed a college degree, and had to go with this vague major called “communication.”
2) What is cultural hegemony? For those lucky enough to have never heard of it, cultural hegemony is a sociological “theory” proposed by an Italian Marxist philosopher named Antonio Gramsci. It states that a society can be ruled (yes, RULED) by “implied means” rather than the direct use of force. If you don’t see a problem with this already, I’m concerned. To accept this as accurate, one has to believe not only that people are too weak and feeble-minded to make their own choices, but that we don’t even have choices to make.
Why is this a big deal? Because it teaches passionate young people with naturally liberal (in terms of challenging authority) attitudes that they are actually being ruled by an already easy-to-hate entity: the super rich.
So what arguments do proponents of this belief use to support it? Well, essentially none. The convenience of being pseudo-scientific is that nothing has to be based on research or empirical data. Here’s how one of my arrogant, “I’m fat because of capitalism” professors tried to explain cultural hegemony as it pertains to the mass media. She played a documentary (her preferred method of teaching) for the class in which the process advertisers use to develop new marketing strategies was examined. It showed some bigwigs in suits from MTV, VH1, and the like going around interviewing their target audience, teens, on what was cool or uncool, what products were fashionable, what were the best snack foods, who were their favorite pop artists, etc., and from that established what products needed more advertisement and whose music needed more airtime.
That documentary was immediately followed by two others. One focused on the increase of “hypermasculinity” in the media. It showed pictures of James Bond’s pistols growing larger and deadlier since the 1960s, which obviously has nothing to do with 50-years of technological advancement in firearms, and (much to the delight of the cute girl sitting next to me) how Jason Statham’s body is far more sculpted and muscular than Charleton Heston’s ever was.
The next one really surprised me, because was about the “hypersexualization” also inherent in media. I honestly used to think that only Bible-belt conservatives and old church ladies had this phobia of sex on television. This ridiculous film even accused one of my personal heroes, FCC enemy #1 Howard Stern, of conforming to our oppressive, male-dominant culture. Keep in mind, no solutions whatsoever were being put forth in these films, only the reinforcement that these images/expressions in the media were bad, very bad.
As I sat there feeling like the character Alex in the dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange, with my eyes forced open and begging the images on screen to cease before I became violently ill, I dreaded hearing what solution my unapologetically Marxist professor was going to offer for these perceived wrongs that the media was advancing. Once again to my surprise, she offered none. All we were left with was a few brief comments, “This is what’s meant by cultural hegemony. This is how our norms are set for us by the people with power and influence. Think about that next time someone talks about a free marketplace of ideas. Do you really live in a free society when you don’t get to choose what you’re seeing? Think about it!”
Her effort to sound prophetic wasn’t in vain. I couldn’t say what I found more shocking, her so-called argument or how many students seemed to take it seriously. At this point, it should be abundantly clear to anyone with a skeptic’s mind why this was so wrong.
First of all, by her insightful documentaries’ own admission, capitalist advertisers operate on the basis of what their viewers (or at least most of them) actually want, not the other way around. It seemed so clear to me that the imagery attached to the (obscenely fake) terms “hypermasculinity” and “hypersexualization” was a product of what viewers wanted and found culturally acceptable. Would it be better to have some government officials deciding what set of ethics was fit for broadcast? Oh wait, they already do that.
This idea that rich media-moguls are determined to convey racist and sexist themes in order to keep minorities down is not only in conflict with what most of the media actually conveys, but outright refuted by the simple fact that TV, radio, and movies are all consumer-based goods. This is the same absurd logic by which many conservatives claim that if we didn’t regulate for “decency,” we would have hardcore porn on every channel, 24/7. Unfortunately for those with an appetite for greater control, media outlets have to self-regulate based on what their audience wants to see/hear. If enough people subscribing to a certain cable provider actually wanted hardcore porn 24/7, the said provider could, theoretically, create some type of optional channel specifically for that type of thing. I wonder if anything like that already exists…
Secondly, in none of these cases are the viewers actually without a choice. True, a choice between watching Lady Gaga shake her ass or Nicki Minaj shake hers isn’t really a choice if what you were looking for was music and not… well, ass. If you were looking for ass, it’s a win-win. One does, however, have the option of watching neither MTV nor VH1. It may be a moderate inconvenience to watch more enlightened programming on your computer, or play an old CD instead of turning on the radio, but that in no way robs voluntary participants of a choice, which can only happen through coercion. Given the options of voting for Leonid Brezhnev or getting shot in the forehead is a non-choice, but no one has ever put a gun to my forehead and commanded me to listen to Lady Gaga, which is probably why I can only name a few of her songs (the titles she stole from David Bowie).
The last thing I want to reflect on is a comment I heard from a student in a different class on this exact same topic. I remember she looked around the room, indicated to her fellow students, and proceeded to tell us how mindless we all were. “We like to think we’re all better than that, and that the trashiness of pop culture and its reinforcement of stereotypes doesn’t really influence us. But who are we kidding? We’ve all listened to that music, watched those shows, we’re not better than that! We’re all under THEIR influence!” Their? Whenever you talk to young, angst-filled conspiracy theorists, there’s always that menacing, unidentifiable “they” that looms over everything. We never see “their” faces, but we know they are all knowing and all powerful (like God, but even scarier), and they are all in on it together. Libertarians do this too. “They” can be a part of government or business, as long as “they” cannot be specified.
Why do people have this desire to feel as if there is always some force of evil working against them? Are we all just hardwired to seek oppression this way? Sadly, I think the answer is that taking the smallest amount of personal responsibility is much harder for some people than constantly blaming that specter.
Oh well, I suppose my fellow Comm majors and I will have to keep enduring it for now. You’re welcome to try and open a debate with your professor when this subject inevitably comes up. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.
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