It is no question that a variety of theories exist in the realm of media criticism. In efforts to expose how it is that we come to understand a text through its presentation, many of these theories examine the structure, format, set-up and layout of media texts. Ideological criticism, however, focuses on the power of media texts and how these texts facilitate our understanding (or lack thereof) of the world around us.
In order to fully comprehend what ideological criticism is, it is important to understand what an ideology is. According to class notes from Dr. Sandy Nichols’ media criticism course, ideology “is a means of exerting power, is an instrument that dominant elites use to extend control over others,” and “works to maintain existing power relations.” In other words, an ideology is a group of ideas that, through the exertion of power, shows us ways in which we should view the world. On the surface, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, but in all honesty it is really sort of scary.
Wanna know why it’s so scary? Ideologies are presented to us in ways that make them seem like normal, natural, truthful, obvious bits of common sense. O.K. so at first glance maybe that doesn’t actually seem so scary -but- when you delve a little bit deeper, it is really sort of unsettling to think that media texts play such a huge role in our perspective of the world. After all, you learn from a pretty young age not to believe everything you see on T.V., don’t you? The real truth of the matter is that these ideologies come together to create hegemony, or the type of power the elites maintain over the average Joe. According to Douglas Kellner, in his article CULTURAL STUDIES, MULTICULTURALISM, AND MEDIA CULTURE, hegemony refers to the ruling, social and cultural forces of domination. Where do these forces come from? Ideologies. And where do ideologies come from? Media texts. What a drag.
The good news is, ideological criticism is here to help. Additional notes from Dr. Sandy Nichols’ class explain that ideological criticism examines “how these ideas are embedded in and circulated through texts, how they reflect/serve the interest of the dominant elites, how the systematic representation of these ideas become accepted as normal and natural” and “how they largely go unnoticed and unchallenged.” It is the intention of ideological criticism to expose the ways in which media texts reinforce hegemonic power structures by exposing and challenging dominant ideas and values.
A perfect example of what happens when ideological criticism is applied to media texts is portrayed in a documentary entitled Consuming Kids. This one hour segment aims to expose how relentless marketers have become in their efforts to advertise to youngsters and how the childhood years are becoming overwhelmingly commercialized. To get a better understanding of what I mean, view the preview to this documentary here.
Consuming Kids is rooted in the Marxist based theory of political economy. Political economy falls under the umbrella of ideological criticism because it is interested in how control is exerted over the masses via media texts to advance the interests of the dominant elites. It is through this control that elites maintain their power by creating a set of ideas and values that seem natural, normal, inevitable and unchangeable. This is called a hegemonic consensus. Political economists seek to reveal the power and control by examining media ownership by exposing the ways media texts are shaped by production and distribution practices.
Dr. Sandy Nichols’ notes state that political economists “are concerned about the trend of deregulation, the global power/reach of media conglomerates, and the increasing dominance of advertising and marketing.” Consuming Kids expresses these same concerns. With a focus particularly on children and the ways marketers and advertisers target them, this documentary really brings attention to how surrounded today’s children are by media, by brands and by messages about consuming.
What I found to be one of the most intriguing portions of Consuming Kids was the section that highlighted the intensity of synergistic practices geared towards children. Synergistic practices are the ways in which conglomerates cross-promote, cross-advertise and cross-produce a product or character in efforts to make as much money possible and create the biggest hype possible. Simply put, it is the way we see lunch boxes, stickers, toys, posters, pajamas, backpacks, books, water bottles, band-aids, sheets, snacks, ETC. that feature the face(s) of characters from T.V. shows and movies. To get a better understanding of what I mean, view this clip from Consuming Kids.
It is through synergistic practices that children are subjected to the hegemonic power of conglomerates. It is in the conglomerates best interest to make money, of course. So what do they do? Mass produce, advertise and promote a multitude of products to children in hopes that they these kids nag their parents until one (or more) of these products is purchased. The end result? We buy into it, literally.
Looking at media texts from the perspective of a political economist is an important thing to be able to do. I’m not saying that you have to do this from here on out, all day, everyday for the rest of your life. What I’m saying is that it’s important to look at things from a different perspective from time-to-time. Analyzing media texts through the lens of a political economist will allow you to be aware of more than just what the media tells you to be aware of. Consuming Kids makes it very clear that if we don’t critique media texts in efforts to uncover the underlying ideologies, we will be completely unaware about the power and control that media texts exert.
Because we are so constantly surrounded by media through ads, television, internet, cell phones, etc., it is vital that we be media literate enough to see through the clutter and prevent ourselves from being completely subordinate to the hegemonic power of conglomerates. It is even more vital that we pass this literacy onto our children, as their lives will be even more media saturated than our own. We certainly don’t want to take our children away from the media, but we don’t want the media to take our children away from us either.
To view the full version of Consuming Kids, click here