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Hegemony and the Media

Hegemony and Media Studies

Antonio Gramsci‘s Theory of the Hegemonic Media

Apr 29, 2008 Naomi Rockler-Gladen

Does the media promote dominant power structures? Yes, argued Antonio Gramsci in his widely-used theory of hegemony.

 

In media studies, hegemony refers to the ways in which the media encourage people to consent to status quo power structures. Hegemony seems like a tough concept to grasp at first, but it’s actually pretty straightword. Here’s what you need to know about hegemony.

Antonio Gramsci & Marxism

Hegemony, a term that came from the writings of Karl Marx, was conceptualized by Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist social philosopher who lived in Mussolini‘s Italy. Because Gramsci was a Marxist, he subscribed to the basic Marxist premise of the historical dialectic. This means that, according to classic Marxist theories, societies must transform over time from oppressive economic systems to more and more liberating ones, until society finally reaches the Utopian state of communism.

Marx believed that capitalism was an oppressive economic system because of the unequal distribution of the wealth among a few powerful people, and he believed that eventually, the masses would overthrow capitalism and move to a less oppressive system. According to the historical dialectic, the masses will overthrow oppressive economic systems.

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But what happened in Italy during the Mussolini years? The capitalist system was replaced – not by a less oppressive system, but by the extremely oppressive system of fascism. This puzzled Gramsci, as it ran contrary to the theory of the historical dialectic.

As a Marxist in Mussolini’s Italy, Gramsci spent much of his life in prison. There, he theorized as to why Italians didn’t overthrow the oppressive regime. Drawing upon Marxism, Gramsci conceptualized the theory of hegemony, which posits that oppressive regimes are able to stay in power through a combination of coercion and consent– with an emphasis on consent. That is, people must be taught to consent to everyday life behaviors and practices that keep the powerful people in power.

Hegemony in Everyday Life

We all live in societies where there are power structures. According to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, these systems of power cannot be maintained by force alone. People have to do things, willingly and happily, in their everyday lives that keep the powerful people on top. Coercion alone does not work. If the President of the United States threatened to put to death Americans who did not hang flags from their homes, that president would be overthrown. However, plenty of Americans hang flags from their homes willingly and happily, and this is an everyday behavior that helps the government remain in power.

Everyday behaviors that keep governments in power:

  • People hanging flags from their homes
  • People rising and removing their hats when the national anthem is sung
  • People celebrating a country’s independence day with parades and picnics

Everyday behaviors that keep corporations in power:

  • People wearing designer clothing
  • People shopping at chains instead of local stores
  • Schools serving fast food in cafeterias
  • Women displaying huge diamond engagement rings.
  • People celebrating days that have been manufactured by Hallmark, like Grandparent’s Day

Everyday behaviors that keep patriarchy in power:

  • Women taking their husbands’ last names.
  • Fathers “giving away” their daughters during wedding ceremonies.
  • The use of words such as “man” as gender neutral.

Gramsci believed the media have always had a key role in teaching people to do things in their everyday lives that support the power structures. In media studies today, people look at how the media support power structures such as government, capitalism/corporations, and patriarchy. For example:

  • A news report that shows strong support for a controversial foreign policy decision can be said to hegemonically support the government.
  • A home improvement network that makes it seem “normal” to own high-end granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances can be said to be hegemonically supporting the capitalist economic system.
  • A game show that shows scantily-clad women passively standing still until the host tells her to “open the case” can be seen as hegemonically promoting patriarchy.

Media can also be seen as being counterhegemonic. An episode of a sitcom that questions traditional women’s roles, for example, might be seen as counterhegemonic. So might a documentary that questions the government’s involvement in a war.

Antonio Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony has become an important part of the media studies discipline and media studies classes around the world. This concept has contributed a valuable vocabulary for discussing the relationship between media and power.

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