27HegemonyJustin Lewis

Hegemony is a way to describe people or ideas that

become— and seek to remain— dominant in society. The

development of the term “hegemony” in media studies

follows the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971) and Stuart

Hall (1973/1980, 1982, 1996), and generally refers to

“soft” rather than “hard” power. Gramsci and Hall were

concerned with the way in which certain groups and

ideologies maintain their power in democratic societies.

They were interested in dominance achieved by consent

rather than by force, maintained by ideology rather

than repression. In this context, hegemony’s tools

are words, images, rituals, and practices rather than

weapons, courts, and prisons. Indeed, Hall’s interest

in the media stems from his view that, in modern

democracies, media and cultural forms are central to the

maintenance— or disruption— of hegemony.

Hegemony is not merely a description but a process,

one that makes the dominance of certain groups or

ideas in society seem normal, natural, or inexorable—

even to those in subordinate positions. Hegemony of-

ten involves masking or solidifying various forms of in-

equality so that they seem part of everyday life, making

customs and contrivances that favor some people over

others appear to be common sense. Indeed, hegemony is

often at its most effective when it is least visible, when

ideological work goes on without our noticing it.

We see this in many forms of media representation.

Take, for example, a fairly routine advertisement. An at-

tractive women in her late thirties— perhaps she has a

stressful job— is worrying about finding the time to pre-

pare a meal for her family. Salvation comes in the form

of a highly processed ready meal, which, in the rapid

denouement of the thirty- second TV commercial, we

see served to an appreciative husband and children in a

contented domestic setting.

There is nothing especially remarkable or unusual

about this story. Most people would watch it without

dwelling upon the assumptions it promotes. Change

the script slightly and it could be for an appliance or a

cleaning product. But imagine, for a moment, that we

change the gender of the central character: we see, in-

stead, a man worrying about what to cook his family for

dinner. There is nothing strange or unnatural about a

father cooking for his wife and children, and yet in the

highly gendered world of TV commercials it looks odd.

We might expect to see a comic reference to the man’s

ineptitude in the kitchen, or some other acknowledg-

ment that gender stereotypes have been upset. But to

simply replay the script portraying male rather than

female domesticity disrupts our expectations. This

reveals hegemony in action: advertising tends to rein-

force expectations that domestic duties are performed

by women rather than men.

In much the same way, we may accept most TV drama

or factual programming, in which a majority of those

on- screen are male, as “normal” representations of the

world. So while we may know that there are roughly

equal proportions of men and women in society, we

do not necessarily notice it when men dominate time

on screen (which, surveys show, they do across most

genres). If programs occasionally reverse the gender bias

we are more likely to notice the gender imbalance. The

overrepresentation of men on television thereby rein-

forces assumptions that male dominance is the norm.

These assumptions are enshrined within a set of pa-

triarchal attitudes that tend to favor men. The fact that

Keywords for Media Studies, edited by Laurie Ouellette, and Jonathan Gray, New York University Press, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/odu/detail.action?docID=4717750.Created from odu on 2022-09-01 00:13:29.



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h e g e m o n y J u s t i n L e W i s 89

gender bias in media portrayals may wash over us al-

most without our noticing is, in part, because of a long

history of gender stereotyping. The processed dinner

advertisement attaches itself to this history, thereby

reinforcing an ideological notion that favors one group

over another.

Like most forms of hegemony, the assumptions be-

hind these stereotypes have long been contested. Femi-

nists have, for some time, campaigned for media rep-

resentations that present equal choices for men and

women. And yet the persistence of gender stereotypes in

advertising (and in many other media domains) repre-

sents a victory for patriarchy over a counterhegemonic,

feminist critique of gender inequality.

If we look a little closer, we can see that the adver-

tisement also takes a hegemonic position in relation to

the politics of food. It reflects— and normalizes— the

dominance of a particular system of food production

and consumption. This system tends to favor the manu-

facture of processed food, which has more potential for

“adding value” to cheap ingredients and is often more

profitable than, say, selling fruit or vegetables. It may

be healthier to avoid eating too many processed ready

meals, but in the world of advertising we are far more

likely to see a pitch for precooked lasagne than for let-

tuce, leeks, or lentils. With no sense of irony, advertising

has thereby naturalized the buying and selling of pro-

cessed, less natural food.

This form of hegemony is more difficult to identify,

because it favors a system rather than a particular class,

race, or gender. It favors profits over palates and fast-

food outlets over healthier alternatives. The “slow food”

movement, which developed in response to the increas-

ing dominance of processed food chains, is in this sense

counterhegemonic. An advertisement for slow food—

showing us someone buying a set of ingredients and

cooking them— is unlikely to appear unless it involves

shopping at a supermarket chain large enough to fund

a TV ad campaign.

In a more general sense, the advertisement is also

part of the hegemony of consumer culture (Lewis 2013).

It is part of an ad world where good things— whether

happiness, respect, popularity, friendship, love, security,

or fulfillment— always come with a price tag. In adver-

tisements, a scene of family harmony is always linked to

a specific product. Hence, in our ad, the consumption

of a brand of processed food is linked to happy family

life. The fact that this link could be (and is) made to

market almost any product— from a car to a breakfast

cereal— tells us that these associations are fairly arbi-

trary. Indeed, the way in which advertisers can link their

products with positive social values (connecting, for ex-

ample, Coca- Cola with happiness) without it seeming

bizarre or preposterous is part of a hegemonic process in

which we accept such connections as routine.

Ads will never propose the more plausible idea that

happy family life comes from a set of social relation-

ships (rather than which car you drive or what kind of

prepared food you eat). Consumerism thereby presents

a narrow view of the world, one that always connects

the good things in life to the purchase of goods. This

idea is hegemonic is most capitalist societies. It sustains

a whole set of economic and cultural priorities, where

governments focus on trying to deliver more consumer

choice through economic growth rather than organiz-

ing societies in ways that more directly create human

fulfillment and well- being.

The advertisement— like most commercials— is

also hegemonic in focusing not only on the pleasure

of consumption but on the moment of consumption.

Production is usually invisible— on the few occasions

when we do see working conditions, they are invari-

ably romanticized. This is, in part, because many of the

things we buy may be made in ways that involve poorly

Keywords for Media Studies, edited by Laurie Ouellette, and Jonathan Gray, New York University Press, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/odu/detail.action?docID=4717750.Created from odu on 2022-09-01 00:13:29.



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