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Cultural Hegemony...Naturalising Authority

Updated on June 7, 2017

Media and Hegemony

Malcolm X succinctly explaining hegemony in action
Malcolm X succinctly explaining hegemony in action

Cultural Hegemony

Cultural hegemony (hereafter referred to merely as hegemony) is a key concept used by communication theorists to help explain how authority is maintained, particularly when it is clearly and demonstrably not in the interests of the majority.

The term originates from the work of the Marxist political thinker Antonio Gramsci. His idea of hegemony rests on his assertion that society is made up of different classes with the ruling class achieving and maintaining power by ensuring the masses all believe the social order to be the norm. Through various means (and these can be accidental, they do not rely on a conspiracy to subvert the thought processes of those they oppress) the ideas of the ruling class begin to seem natural and therefore not questioned by society as a whole. In this way social structures and political systems which are damaging to the majority become to be accepted as inevitable and natural.

Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci was writing to explore why revolutions had not occurred when the socio-economic conditions that Karl Marx predicted made revolution inevitable had largely been met. Gramsci believed that structural mechanisms across the political and civil sectors of society served to organically bolster the position of the ruling class, even when on the surface they may not do so. For example, the union movement works to protect the interests of the working class and ensure fairer working conditions. Gramsci argued that the ruling classes could then use the unions to give certain concessions to the working class which offered certain benefits to the working class but actually served to hide how they were being exploited. By overplaying the role of unions and suggesting they had more authority than they did it served to help persuade the majority that the system worked, and was fair to all.

Hegemonic ideas thus have the effect of entrenching the current social order. The hegemonic relationship changes but as the ruling class are using the political sphere, in which they are dominant, to control how ideas are portrayed they are always able to ensure that the political strengthens, or reinforces, their position.

Over time the structural mechanisms which the ruling group use to maintain control begin to appear natural and the people who are disadvantaged by them accept them as natural and often even endorse them. For example in America at the moment the legal system privileges the interests of the wealthy over the poor - if you have enough money then almost any crime is permissible.


Due to the dominance of hegemonic ideas Gramsci believed that a ‘war of position’ against the dominant hegemonic ideology had to be won before the ‘war of position’, or revolution, could take place. Any actual revolution would be certain to fail if the majority still accepted that the social structure was the natural order.

The Grave of Gramsci

The grave of Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci who died in prison after opposing Mussolini.
The grave of Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci who died in prison after opposing Mussolini. | Source

Counter-hegemony

Counter-hegemony can take two forms. It can be a form of alternate knowledge or meaning making that moves away from hegemonic control, or it can be the merging of non-conformist resistant groups. Whichever form it takes, though, it is reliant on the working class becoming better educated to give them the critical skills and the knowledge to recognise the dominant hegemony and take steps to oppose it.

Given the media’s wide appeal to the masses it is a major weapon in this war of ideology. Mass distribution has, theoretically, allowed alternate knowledge, such as that offered by Gramsci and Marx, to reach ever increasing numbers of people. Marxist theory allows social scientists to connect subjects such as media with economic/political systems including theories of power and inequality. Media coverage of other countries also allows people to see alternatives to the dominant social order and should make it easier to erode the belief that the accepted order is the only natural order (remember, hegemony makes the dominant ideas seem natural – recognising that they are not universally natural, even if other systems seem worse, is an important step in challenging hegemony).

Hegemony as a Lived Process

Yet despite the growth of mass media the hegemonic ideas in capitalist countries have proven remarkably resilient to counter-hegemonic resistance.

Jesus Martin-Barbaro gives one explanation for this when he says Hegemony is a ‘lived process’. He says “… [The] process is not based on force but on shared meaning and the appropriation of the meaning of life through power, seduction and complicity.” Here he is suggesting that hegemony is constantly evolving based on the actions of people from all parts of the social structure. Because it evolves it is very difficult to take a fixed counter-hegemonic stance. It is also worth remembering that the media is owned by the ruling classes. Because the majority of media is owned by the dominant group it is to be expected that the media conveys and reinforces beliefs which privilege the media owners.

To give an example of how the media can reinforce ideas and attitudes take a look at how adverts use stereotypes, which are overly simplified images by which we understand culturally significant concepts. Educational specialist Professor Barry Kanpol argues that stereotypes reinforce hegemonic belief and unless we critically challenge them they support, reinforce and naturalise the simplistic ideas that they represent. This is made especially clear in television adverts with the gender stereotypes that are used almost universally in that medium. In order to make the example explicit let’s look at an advert which seeks to subvert the stereotypes to see how even this act reinforces the commonly held beliefs.

Kleenex - Let it Out - Advert (2009)

Tom Hardy

Actor Tom Hardy
Actor Tom Hardy | Source

Tom Hardy - Subverting the Stereotype

In 2009 Kleenex made a television advert subverting the stereotypes of celebrities. This advert should be resistant to hegemonic ideas, as it is taking us away from the commonly held view.

The advert begins with the actor Hollywood actor Tom Hardy, famous for playing uber-manly roles such as Charles Bronson in Bronson or Bane in the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. He has his ‘manly’ appearance reinforced by having stubble and tattoos, but in order to try to subvert the stereotype of man Tom is crying while lounging on his sofa holding his dog. This scene is showing a more feminine side of Hardy, breaking away from the hegemonic viewpoint of the man not crying at films. Yet to achieve this it portrays him in a manly pose, slouching on a leather sofa with a dog. The dog itself, often described as mans best friend, is an out-of-house pet. If it had been a woman she would much more likely be pictured with a cat.

So here we can see one of the problems of counter-hegemony by subverting the norm is that you are required to use accepted hegemonic referents to make the scene identifiable. By challenging one idea you are actually reinforcing many more accepted referents.

A report by Dr Barbara Mitra and Jenny Lewin-Jones claims “it is difficult to challenge the pervasive gender bias in advertising.” This is because so much of advertising, which requires quick interpretation, is based upon hegemonic referents. Further, television has been accused by Professor John Corner of promoting “misrecognition of social relationships” and circulating “distortive social imagery…[in regards to] class, gender and race…” It is easy to see how the medium can be used to spread hegemonic beliefs.

Another Example

The second scene from the advert further demonstrates this. Emma Bunton, the former Baby Spice from girl power group The Spice Girls, is place in a supposedly empowering scene acting like a stereotypical rock star, throwing things around the room, pretending to play guitar etc…However, the room, while a studio, is decorated like a domestic living room. She throws pink roses before throwing the tissues and plays air-guitar with a lamp. The sofa is a pastel grey and Emma is wearing a seductive red dress. Again, like the Tom Hardy appearance, this scene is reinforcing stereotypes. In this instance they are stereotypes of femininity which allows the advert to create the minor subversion of making Emma, who is usually regarded as quiet and reserved, to appear to be a wild, outgoing rock goddess.

The other scenes in the advert share the same goals of trying to subvert stereotypes and with the same result of reinforcing them. If you take a look at other adverts you will see stereotypes used and reinforced time and again. Not just on television. Look in newspapers or listen to the radio and the same problem occurs. Then take it a step further. Look how men and women are represented in all of the media around you and you will see cultural, social and political stereotypes being used and reinforced. It quickly becomes apparent when viewing the medium of television adverts how hegemonic views have been incorporated throughout our culture. This is just one of the ways that hegemonic authority is maintained.

What is less clear is what effective resistance to hegemony can be put in place, given that the culture of the masses leaves each of us complicit in maintaining the current order. As Martin-Barbero says “…it is culture which, instead of being the place where differences are marked, becomes the place where these differences are covered over…”.

Examples in other media

Kelly Brook being objectified in the name of marketing
Kelly Brook being objectified in the name of marketing | Source

Give your examples of hegemony

Please use he comments box below to highlight any examples of hegemony you see in the media, in politics or in your every day life. Remember, hegemonic practice is everywhere and we are all guilty.

Please share to help everybody become aware.

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    • Mark Lees profile image
      Author

      Mark Lees 2 years ago

      It is a constant frustration that otherwise intelligent people believe that society (and markets is particular) occurs naturally. Critical approaches which help dissuade this lazy thinking are rarely employed (and even more rarely taught, I'm afraid).

      That's for the comment.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very good examination of hegemony. Possibly one of the most frustrating things in society, to me, is this fact that many people take elements of the social structure as being necessary and natural; and people's tendency to oversimplify things makes this tendency even worse.

      Ultimately, this hegemony keeps things as they are, even when people think they are doing something different and progressive.

    • Mark Lees profile image
      Author

      Mark Lees 2 years ago

      Thanks for the comment. It is only a quick introduction but hope it sparks a few people to think about why things are presented in certain ways in the media.

    • profile image

      rupert 2 years ago

      I lurve the use of a simple advery to help explain this. Really gave me something to think about.