The underlying assumption of those subscribing to a hegemonic view of society is that there are fundamental inequalities in power between social groups. Those groups with most power are, in the main, able to exercise their influence culturally rather than by force. The concept has its origins in Marxist theory where writers have attempted to explain how the ruling capitalist class has been able to protect their economic interests. According to this theory, hegemony refers to the winning of popular consent through everyday cultural life, including media representations of the world, as well as other social institutions, such as education and the family. To understand how hegemony may be achieved, it is necessary to consider the concept of ideology
Ideology is a complex concept but, broadly speaking, refers to a set of ideas which produces a partial and selective view of reality. This in turn serves the interests of those with power in society. It has its roots in the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Marx, who argued that the property-owning classes were able to rule by ideas which represented as natural the class relationships of production, therefore justifying their own wealth and privilege. These ideas could be found in all areas of social knowledge, such as religion: for example, the notion that it is 'God's will' that some are born rich and that the poor will be rewarded in the next life. Thus the notion of ideology entails widely held ideas or beliefs, which may often be seen as 'common sense', legitimising or making widely acceptable certain forms of social inequality In so doing, ideologies are able to disguise or suppress the real structure of domination and exploitation which exists in society
Modern writers (Marxist and others) have adapted and developed this idea so that all belief systems or world views are thought to be ideological. Although some ideas and beliefs seem more 'natural' or 'truthful', there is no absolute truth with which to measure the accuracy of representations. 'What interests those who analyse media representations is whose ideological perspective is privileged. This raises the issue of power inequalities. 'While Marxists have emphasised social class differences, others have increasingly pointed to gender and racial inequalities. 'What is agreed is that popular culture, especially media output, is the site of a constant struggle over the production of meaning. The media's role may be seen as:
circulating and reinforcing dominant ideologies; or
(less frequently), undermining and challenging such ideologies.
What is important to note is that the media and the audience are both part of the process of producing ideological meaning.
Ideologies 'work' through symbolic codes, which represent and explain cultural phenomena. Barthes (1973) labels this symbolic representation as mythic, not in the traditional sense of being false (as in fairy tales), but in the sense of having the appearance of being 'natural' or 'commonsense', so that it is not questioned. Advertising draws heavily on myth, using cultural signifiers to represent qualities which can be realised through consumption of the advertised product. Williamson (1978) has identified some of the value systems which are represented in the language of advertising. Particularly prominent in her analysis are adverts which she claims invite us to reunite ourselves with nature (even more relevant in the 'green' 1990s), and those which attribute the power of science and technology to products. In nearly all adverts, she sees two processes at work: first, an appeal to our belief in the 'magical' powers of products to solve our problems; and second, the divorce of production from consumption. Hidden from our view are the capitalist conditions from which advertised products originate (conditions which Marxist writers see as alienating and exploitative of workers).
The American Dream: an ideological construction
What does it mean to be American? The extent to which the people of America can be considered a nation is problematic. A shared sense of belonging and identity is certainly a real sentiment for many people living in America. However, closer scrutiny raises questions concerning divisions between various groups comprising the American population, not least racism between ethnic groups. And where America is taken as a national 'core', further divisions can be identified along ethnic, religious, regional and class lines. If there are so many alternative sources of identity, how has the national sense of identity achieved such a strong hold? While there is not the space here to address this question adequately, we can examine how the media may contribute towards the symbolic representation of what it means to be American. It is in the context of 'us' and 'them' that a sense of national identity may be articulated. International competition or conflict provides a good opportunity for 'American values' to be asserted in contrast to an enemy, real or imagined. The fight against terrorism is a good example.
The pluralist model
Instead of seeing media content as narrowly ideological, pluralists argue that there is diversity and choice. Just as society comprises a range of interest groups and points of view, so do the media. If and when certain values and beliefs predominate in media output, then it is due to their being shared by most of society. This is because media production is essentially based on the need to please the audience. If audience needs are ignored then the likely outcome is commercial failure.
In the case of the monarchy, pluralists would argue that the media's endorsement of the Queen simply reflects genuine popular support. Furthermore, not all media coverage is necessarily sympathetic. The tabloid newspapers have been sharply critical of members of the royal family, exposing adultery and deceit within the royal marriages, as well as questioning the Queen's right to tax exemption and her response to the death of Princess Diana. Even television has ridiculed the royal family in programmes like Spitting Image and Pallas (a spoof soap opera employing voice-overs dubbed on to news footage of the royals).
It is when the media represent political issues that the hegemonic and pluralist perspectives can be clearly contrasted. The question of political bias has been the focus of much academic debate.
There is general consensus that some political content in the media qualifies as propaganda. In broad terms, propaganda is the conscious manipulation of information in order to gain political advantage. Historically, it has been most evident during times of war or national crisis, when the need for national unity has led governments to seek control over the media. In such situations, dissenting or alternative views are usually suppressed or marginalised.
It has been discussed how the media mediate reality via various recognised codes and conventions. Because of the intervening technology it is impossible to gain first-hand direct experience of the world via the media, no matter how 'transparent' their representation of reality. Even live television coverage of events, such as a football match, involves continuous selection through the choice of camera perspective as well as interpretation via the accompanying commentary and discussion which anchor the meaning of the pictures.
Part of the process of creating meaning is the degree to which we, the audience, can recognise and identify with what is being portrayed - the media text's credibility or realism. We expect what we see, listen to or read to have some connection with our own lives and experiences and the world we inhabit, or to appear to be based upon some sort of recognisable reality of the world 'out there'. This then helps us to identify and understand the text and its meaning. We often judge how successful this illusion or story is by measuring the text against our own experiences, our own 'situated culture' and biography. What is 'real' therefore can become a subjective and controversial concept, where a text that one person perhaps considers to be realistic may not be considered so by someone else with another perspective. A programme that describes all football fans as 'hooligans' may appear convincing to someone who knows nothing about football fans except what they read or see in the media, but to someone who has been supporting a football club for many years this may seem to be a very unfair and one-sided portrayal.
In assessing the realism of a media text there is no single measure which can be applied. Four distinctive criteria have been identified as contributing toward a sense of realism. Firstly, there is the surface realism. This means 'getting the details right'. For example, a period costume drama should have the characters wearing the clothes appropriate to that period, and the houses should not be adorned with modern accessories like television aerials or satellite dishes. Considerable expense is often incurred ensuring that such period drama precisely recreates the right environment, such as in the popular police series Heartbeat set in the 1960s complete with steam trains and British motorbikes (although the programme's signature tune is from the 1950s!).
The second criterion refers to the 'inner' or emotional realism of the characters and their motivation. This allows the audience to identify with the situation and characters portrayed and in particular 'feel' or 'share' the emotions that are an essential part of the story-telling process; for instance, the sadness in tearjerkers like Love Story or the fear and suspense in films like Jaws or Jurassic Park.
A third criterion of realism concerns the logic or plausibility of the plot or characters that appear appropriate to the text's particular terms of reference. Viewers often complain if well-established characters in soap operas suddenly shift their typical behaviour pattern and act 'out of character'. In their search for publicity and higher ratings, some British soaps like Brookside and Emmerdale have introduced a high quota of intensive dramatic incident such as a plane crash, murders, and drug-based crime, which have led to criticisms that these incidents undermine the sense of realism achieved by the soaps' claim to represent ordinary everyday lives and situations. Related to this is the notion that there is some degree of consensus as to the nature of 'reality' and 'truth'. Media texts which challenge certain 'commonsense' or taken-for-granted assumptions, such as the honesty and integrity of the legal and medical professions, may be rejected by audiences as implausible or 'far fetched'.
The fourth criterion of realism refers to the employment of technical and symbolic codes that correspond with those recognised and expected by the audience. We have learned to accept the use of music in the background as a 'mood enhancer', but only so long as it is discreet. Audience or 'canned' laughter is the norm for situation comedies. These codes and conventions change over time, especially as technical advances shift our perceptions of what seems 'real'. Originally, silent films were accompanied by a live piano player who musically 'signalled' the climax of a scene or speech, or the development of the narrative was indicated by captions. The actors wore heavy make-up and performed very theatrically. Contemporary cinema audiences now expect to experience a radically different form of realism made possible by sophisticated technological innovations such as the use of computer-generated special effects and 'surround sound' theatres. Indeed, the marketing hyperbole would lead us to believe we are on the verge of experiencing 'virtual reality'.
Therefore, it is important to recognise that audiences do not apply a unified set of standards to differing media texts in terms of their realism. Depending on the respective media form or genre, we apply varying modality judgements of the realism of a text. Although we know that science fiction and cartoons are not 'real', we suspend disbelief and adjust our perceptions in accordance with the accepted codes and conventions of such media categories. Consequently, an animated cartoon comedy like The Simpsons is able to achieve a level of realism equal, if not superior to, television situation comedies which employ 'real' human subjects. However, if the generic codes are not adhered to with some degree of consistency, then audiences may well reject the realism of the text. This is particularly apparent when genres are blended together and it is not clear which mode of realism is dominant. For example, Coprock, a 1980s American television police series, alienated audiences by incorporating song and dance numbers into the gritty police narrative. More successful in juxtaposing codes from several genres, such as soap opera, gothic horror and murder mystery was Twin Peaks which became a cult television serial. Its constantly shifting modes of realism mean it could be defined as a surreal text.
This kind of generic playfulness is a feature of the postmodern tendency found in many contemporary media texts. It can also be detected in the ironic, parodic reworking of conventional genres such as the television chat show (Mrs Merton, Dame Edna Everage, etc). Audiences are increasingly invited to witness the processes of media construction such as in the regular shots of the production crew in the Big Breakfast Show, the effect of which is to seemingly expose the illusion of realism (although such 'exposure' is still carefully controlled). Nevertheless, the dominant aesthetic is still one in which media construction is disguised and the audience (usually very willingly) is drawn into an ensuing seamless reality