At this point, we’ve established what media criticism is and why it’s important. Now, let’s dig deeper! Ideological criticism examines how ideologies are embedded in media. One step at a time…
What is an ideology? At its core, ideology is a set of ideas. In a broader sense, it’s a set of ideas that explains part of the world we live in, or works to explain how the world should be. Would an example help? (yes!)
Politicians subscribe to certain ideologies. For instance, current Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul* tries to sell several ideologies: free market economics, small government, civil liberties, to name a few. All of these are sets of ideas about how he believes our society should function.
For us, it doesn’t matter if ideologies are “right” or “wrong”; what matters is how these ideologies are represented in different media.
Political economy theory
The approach we’ll use in our ideological criticism today is called political economy. Political economy focuses on who or what owns the media, how they are using that media to advance their own or the dominant ideologies, and how elites maintain their dominance through hegemonic consensus. Elites? Dominance? Sounds like Karl Marx!
In fact, political economy is based on Marxist ideas of class and socioeconomic order. There are oppressors and there are those who are oppressed. In a sense, political economy examines how media, to varying degrees, oppress.
Don’t pretend you didn’t mention something called hegemony!
If ideologies are sets of ideas, then hegemony is the manner in which those ideas maintain power. Hegemonic power is not overt or violent, but rather a subtle means of maintaining cultural dominance. Political economists are particularly concerned with the idea of media conglomerates (a few companies owning all of the media) having hegemonic power. That is to say, these super-companies have the ability to choose which ideologies should be dominant. Does that make sense? If not, check out the internet, here.
Let’s get down to business
We had a chance, in class, to watch two documentaries. The first, “Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power,” took a look at Disney animated movies and the different ideologies these movies communicated to children. The second movie (which I might discuss later on the blog, just for fun), “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood,” looks at how companies are marketing specifically to children.
Mickey Mouse and what-not
Disney. Is. Big. Part of political economy is looking at the ownership of media. Disney. Is. Huge. Am I making this clear? Let me take a big breath a rattle off some of what Disney owns: Miramax Films, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Disney Music Group, ABC television, A&E television, Disney channel, History channel, Lifetime (do people still watch Lifetime?), ESPN (and every other ESPN channel), a host of radio stations (including ESPN Radio, of course), Hyperion books, ESPN magazine, Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Baby Einstein, the Disney Store, ESPN Zone, so forth and so on. For a complete list, check out Columbia Journalism Review’s great website on “Who Owns What.”
Disney has a huge presence in just about every medium you can think of. Does that mean they wield a great deal of hegemonic power? You bet.
The film “Mickey Mouse Monopoly” focused on Disney’s animated movies and how they represented racial and gender
stereotypes ideologies. For instance, jive-talking crows representing African American culture, trouble-making Chihuahuas representing Hispanic culture, and mischievous narrow-eyed Siamese cats representing Asian culture.
It’s hard to disagree that certain ideologies were being presented, and that it’s especially dangerous to push these values on children. However, these films are older. I’d like to look at a more recent Disney movie.
Lightning McQueen and company
“Cars” is seen by some as the second-weakest (the weakest being “Cars 2“) product from Pixar (remember, part of Disney!). For those of us with sons, it’s the “bestest movie ever.” My opinion, if it matters, is that the movie is good, but not great.
In a nutshell, everyone in the movie is a car. The story follows Lightning McQueen, a hotshot young race car who gets stuck in a small economically-distressed town, where he’s forced to learn about who he is and how to be a better
person car. What I want to do now is to examine as if I were a political economist.
First, “Cars” was produced by Disney, and we’ve already established that Disney owns the world. Next, is the movie advancing certain ideologies? I suppose we could say that they’re emphasizing the role of automobiles in our society. There are no bicycles in the movie. There’s no real forms of mass transit. I would say that, in this case, Disney is reinforcing western ideas of wealth and private ownership.
Another ideology in “Cars” is the nostalgia for the “better times.” The town of Radiator Springs was financially ruined when the government came in and built the interstate highway, rerouting everyone away from “small-town America.” This nostalgis, whether real or false, is a common them in American conservative ideologies. It’s the thought that things used to be better.
A more interesting point of analysis is how “Cars” treats gender roles. Disney has a history of portraying female characters as needing to be “saved,” as submissive, and physically as thin and alluring. They have reinforced ideologies supporting the dominance of men, and the passiveness of women. It seems subtle, but once you start to look at it critically, it’s glaringly obvious. People, this is why media criticism is so important!
Back to “Cars.” The primary female character in the movie is Sally. Sally, a Porsche-looking sports car, is a former urban lawyer who’s come to Radiator Springs (the small town) to seek out a more peaceful and meaningful existence as a small-town lawyer and a small business owner (she owns and operates the town’s motel). She is smart, wise and independent. Snow White she is not!
And yes- Sally is Lightning McQueen’s love interest. The romantic element of the storyline is secondary, though, to McQueen’s transformation and maturation as an, umm, car.
If you’re a parent, examining media texts in an ideologically critical manner is absolutely essential. You have to analyze what your child is reading, watching, and listening to and ask yourself what your child is learning. What ideologies are being reinforced? Is this movie teaching my son to marginalize women? Is this television show reinforcing a political value set that is appropriate? What is this song demonstrating, implicitly or explicitly, about different cultures, races or ethnicities? We don’t raise children in a vacuum, so it’s essential that we look at everything that affects our children with a critical eye.
*Compare and contrast ideologies of different candidates! It’s exciting and depressing, at the same time!