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Ideological Analysis and Television

by Mimi White

"I'd flip through catalogues and wonder

What kind of dining set defined me as a person."

--- Tyler Durden ("Fight Club")

Prologue: The State of Working America

"I am not going to let that liberal Governor divide this nation... I think that's for European democracies or something else. It isn't for the United States of America. We're not going to be divided by class... We are the land of big dreams, of big opportunities, of fair play, and this attempt to divide America by class is going to fail because the American people realize that we are a very special country, for anybody given the opportunity can make it and fulfill the American dream."

--- George Bush, 1988 Presidential Campaign

The Context of Ideological Criticism



Marxist theory of culture

base/superstructure model

false consciousness


uneven development




W- "Ideological criticism is concerned with the ways in which cultural practices and artifacts--- in the present case, television--- produce particular knowledges and positions for their users--- in the present case television audiences.


The classic connection to Marxist Theory:

  1. In all societies the economic foundation or base of the society determines the shape and form of the rest of society---- its superstructure (including the arrangement of political and legal system, culture (including philosophy, religion, morals, education, etc.). In a capitalist society the economic base (the logic of capitalism and the industrial organization of production) will determine the shape and content of culture.|

  2. The culture that gets produced will reprogram citizens to accept the existing economic, social and political arrangements.

  3. In this view, citizens develop a sense of false consciousness, false because the capitalist mode of production, with its commitment to profits rather than people, with its acceptance of economic inequality, with its surface celebration of free exchange and free markets, but with its hidden agenda favoring employers over employees, encourages people to accept an economic and political system which is not in their own best interests. "This then is ideology: beliefs that are taken as 'natural' when in fact hey perpetuate the status quo and continue the class system of oppression."

  4. For those interested in human freedom, these generate a political agenda which includes revealing how the values expressed by capitalistic media reflect the needs and interests of capitalists rather than the average citizen. This form of cultural critique is called ideological analysis.

Examples: See Tom Tomorrow cartoon./ Characterization of superrich as "spoiled" rather than invoking moral/political frame/ W- consideration of watching television as harmless entertainment, "offering a pleasant way to relax at the end of a hard work day"... rather than viewing it as a medium that 'lulls the mass audience into passive inaction and instills middle-class values and aspirations, promising that personal fulfillment can come through the practices and products of consumer society."


There are, of course, some problems with the false consciousness view:

1. Why would people buy into beliefs at odds with their own self-interest?

2. Wouldn't this mean that there would be a very narrow range of beliefs, ideas and values on a corporate medium like television? How would one account for "Action"; "The Simpsons"; SNL, etc.

3. But people seem to choose to watch TV and it gives them pleasure.

"Too many people spend too much time at jobs they hate so that they can buy things they don't need."

--- Tyler Durden ("Fight Club")

Alternative views of ideology:


Post-structuralist view of ideology (which W. Discusses under subjectivity): W.-- "Subjectivity refers to the understanding of individuals as a composite of forces and structures that constitute them as individuals, centrally including language, social class, and family organization."


Uneven-development: W. --- This involves the recognition that social transformation is a constant but inconsistent process. All parts of the social system--- the mode of production and the superstructure--- may be dominated by ruling class interests. But traces of earlier social forms and practices exist alongside the dominant along with more progressive elements and forces. Moreover these contradictory and conflicting forces are not evenly distributed."


Hegemony: W.- "Hegemony describes the general predominance of particular class, political and ideological interests within a given society. Although society is composed of varied and conflicting class interests, the ruling class exercises hegemony insofar as its interests are recognized and accepted as the prevailing ones. Social and cultural conflict is expressed as a struggle for hegemony, a struggle over which ideas are recognized as the prevailing, commonsense view for the majority of social participants. Hegemony appears to be spontaneous, even natural, but it is a historical result of the prestige enjoyed by the ruling class by virtue of their position and function in the world of production. " This view allows the critique to see culture as a "war of position".

For instance, what words do we use to describe the super-rich and the poor: ruling class? Wealthy? Well to do? Comfortable? Poor? Proletariat? Underclass? Etc.

For instance, the notion that the winner get to write history is becoming more common-place, but the idea that the rich get to tell the stories of culture (even the stories of the poor) is still not as discussed.


Althusserian view of ideology:

1. Economics drives the production of culture, in the last instance, but there is a certain degree of autonomy between the various sectors of society. The economic/culture connection is not a knee-jerk/one-to-one connection, especially in a culture where certain countervailing ideologies are prevalent (democracy, religion).

2. There is more conflict and contradiction between the ruling elite, and throughout society, than classic Marxism suggests. Issues of class may clash with nation, gender, race, age, and profession. Plus conflicting interests of different corporate groups (See Robert Maxwell's Fox network engaging in cultural critique in order to win youth audience) and between long and short-term interests.

3. Addresses the specific psychological process by which ideology contributes to the creation of individual identities. W. --- "Systems of representation---- including language, myths, religion, and so on--- function to construct individuals as social subjects, contributing to the production and recognition of one's very sense of identity. Althusser drew on psychoanalytic ideas about individual self-recognition to develop his ideas of subjectivity as a social process. In this instance, ideology is seen to function as a system that interpellates individuals, or hails them. That is to say, ideology asks us to recognize and position ourselves within its terms of reference."

4. Nothing is outside of ideology: As cultural theorist Stuart Hall once said, "The notion that our heads are full of false ideas which can, however, be totally dispersed when we throw ourselves open to 'the real' as a moment of absolute authentication, is probably the most ideological conception of all."

The Viewer as Consumer and as Commodity


W. "The positioning and functioning of advertising is a crucial aspect of ideological analysis, because it is the place within television's textual system where the economics of the system are made manifest."

W. "American commercial television is 'free'. Viewers do not pay for broadcasting through a license fee because advertisers pay for airtime to promote their products. Because commercial television is first and foremost a mass-advertising medium, viewers are positioned as potential customers. ... Because they are sold to advertisers, viewers themselves become commodities in the act of watching television. ... The viewer-as-consumer is thus abstracted into an object of exchange value that the network or station offers to a commercial sponsor--- literally sold in lots of one thousand."

W.-- "This understanding of the viewer as at once a consumer and commodity provides a basis for analysis that draws together the culture industry on the one hand and consumer society on the other." People may not watch TV in order to look at products to buy, but this is the only reason why the programs are there. "I.A. emphasizes the commercial message as the lynchpin between television as information-entertainment and television as industry."


W.-- Yet since no one forces people to watch television (although this is debatable) one must account for how pleasure for the viewer is built into the job of transforming the viewer into a consumer and the willingness of the viewer to take on the work of becoming a commodity for sale.



Sugar water





Pain killer



Sugar water


Lens cleaner

Motion Picture

Short pants



Radio station




Dog food



Radio Station




Sugar water/ Coca Cola

Pants/ khaki jeans--- GAP

Soap/ Thermasilk Shampoo

Automobile/ Saturn

Restaurant/ Taco Bell

Pain killer/ Excedrin Migrain

Automobile/ Hyundai

Debt/ Visa

Sugar water/ Dr. Pepper

Shoes/ Keds

Lens cleaner/ Renu Contact Lens Solution

Motion Picture/ "Never Been Kissed" Promotional Trailer

Short pants/ Old Navy Drawstring Shorts

Automobile/ VW-Passat

Telephone/ Air Touch Cellular

Radio station/ New Country 93 KKNK

Telephone/ ATT Cellular

Automobile/ Lexus

Clothes/ Sears' Women's Clothers

Dog food/ Prime Dog Food

Restaurant/ Taco Bell

Automobile/ Dodge Caravan

Radio Station/ Magic 94.5

Restaurant/ Dairy Queen


Ideology in Narrative


W. --- "The analysis of individual programs, groups of programs, and viewer-text relations is central to understanding the ideology of television. Here ideological analysis draws on the insights and methods of different approaches to textual analysis--- semiotics, genre study, narrative analysis, psychoanalysis, and others--- to discern wheat meanings are made available through the medium and its programs and the nature of viewer engagement. In drawing on these various methods and analyzing texts, the ideological analysis perspective assumes that television offers a particular construction of the world rather than a universal, abstract truth. In other words, ideological criticism examines texts and viewer-text relations to clarify how the meanings and pleasures generated by television express specific, material, and class interests."

W. --- "Narrative and generic conventions are crucial ways in which television handles social tensions and contradictions."



Plot Summary: The program is a family sitcom centered on a young black boy, Webster Long and his white foster parents, George and Kathleen Papadopoulous. George is a sportscaster, a former professional football player whose best friend and teammate was Webster's father. Katherine is an upper-middleclass woman who works in city government. In the premiere episode, George and Katherine return home from their honeymoon to discover that Webster's parents have been killed in a car accident and that Webster is now legally in their custody. In a subsequent episode originally broadcast in 1986, Webster becomes excited by the state lottery, convinced that he can become a millionaire if allowed to play. George tried to persuade him that gambling is a waste of money but finally lets him spend his allowance on a lottery ticket. Webster chooses his six numbers with his family: the digits are to consist of each person's lucky number and age. Katherine goes last, and instead of announcing her age, she volunteers to buy the ticket and fill in the last number herself.

The night before the drawing, Webster dreams that he wins the lottery. His dramatized fantasy is a paraodic version of excessive wealth. Servants lead him around his mansion on a horse for amusement and do his homework for him. Webster sits amid ornate antiques, dressed in a red silk robe trimmed with gold sequins. He offers lavish gifts to his parents and their friends, including an immense pearl left over from a necklace he designed for the Statue of Liberty. It is too large to wear, but the perfect size for bowling in the mansion's bowling alley. A W revels in his wealth, noting that the U.S. government has put his face on a new trillion-dollar bill, Katherine reminds him that 'When you give out of love, you're rich even without money.'

The next day, the whole family watches the lottery on television. As numbers are called one by one, they directly follow Webster's ticket, ending with Katherine's age, thirty-nine. George begins to celebrate until K reads the ticket she purchased, where the sixth number is thirty-six. She confesses that she lied about her age when she finished filling in the ticket. AS a result, W does not win millions of dollars. In the final scene, the family is commiserating with one another over their loss. W seeks to console George and K who in turn notes that it doesn't matter if they have money. 'If you've got what we've got, you can be rich without money.' W repeats her statement, revealing that K had said the same thing in his dream. 'We could have all the money in the world and not be as rich as we are,' he affirms.



W--- "In this episode we are presented with an obvious moral tale about the value of gambling, even in legal forms. George insists that no one ever really gets rich through games of chance and that the lottery is a waste of time. This is fact proves to be the case and is the meaning of the episode as summarized by the TV Guide [now also owed by R. Maxwell] listing for the show: 'To teach Webster how hard it is to get rich playing the lottery, G buys him a ticket.'

W--- "Yet this linear logic and predictable development is cut across and displaced by another logic that promotes W as a privileged, almost magical agent. His scheme.... proves effective. ... His childlike faith in his ability to win is thus confirmed by the narrative outcome of the lottery drawing, producing an effect strong enough to supercede the 'adult' message about the evils of gambling.



W- "George and Webster [gambling is a waste of time and Webster could win] are both proved right by the narrative because Katherine toys with Webster's formula for picking numbers, which she does even though, within the fiction, only three characters would even know that the '39' on the ticket referred to her age.... This particular narrative move relies on a cultural stereotype--- women lie about their ages--- to naturalize an outcome that sustains the double logic indicated above...


W -- " On a weekly basis, the general lifestyle of the family.... represents a recognizable upper-middle-class lifestyle.... As the numbers are drawn they all become increasingly excited [about becoming instant millionaires]... In this way the episode implies that the style of living it regularly represents is simply normal, that the lure of millions of dollars offered by the lottery is a fantasy shared by everyone.... The ideological taken-for-grantedness of the family's social and economic position may well be lost on many U.S. viewers, not because they share this position but because the lifestyle represented pervades the media representation s as an average standard of living..... Structurally then, the aspiration to wealth embodied in this particular episode diverts attention from the fact that this family is in fact already very well off with the context of American society."

W- "To complicate matters, within this context of upwardly mobile class aspirations Webster's dream is obviously parodic, a conglomeration of media representations of the very rich--- servants, a live horse... The absurdity of Webster's dream image of wealth helps soften the blow of not winning the lottery, as does the repeated dictum that love, especially familial love, itself constitutes wealth."

W--- BUT A MORE DETAILED ANALYSIS of the episode's narrative indicates that this message and confirmation of faith in the family is only one stage or moment in a more intricate scheme of values and meanings that includes linking the value familial love to honesty in order to promote the realization of fantasies. This is expressly at issue in the program's subplot."



W--- "Rather the above analysis [of the Webster episode] suggests the importance of recognizing a combination of narrative functions as the work of ideology. Some of these are specific to this particular show--- for example, sustaining the privileged status of the character for which the program is named. Others have more to do with typical practices of representation within the medium, such as implying that an upper-middle-class lifestyle is 'average'. At other moments, the show relies on broader cultural and social myths, in this case, the belief that women do not like to admit their ages, especially as they approach forty. [Also need for women to be competent in the domestic sphere]. All of these strands are drawn together and activated in this specific episode to naturalize and give sense to a story with a more overt moral message about gambling, wealth and the family."

W -- "In analyzing this episode, ideological criticism discerns the overall interaction of meanings and the logic of how they are structure. This includes a certain degree of contradiction and instability, for example in the fact that Webster could have won the money had his formula been followed.... Understanding the ways in which all of these countervailing forces balance and naturalize one another in the episode is precisely the point of ideological analysis of specific programs on television."

W -- "The approach is not limited to dramatic narrative programs but is equally applicable to game shows, news, documentaries, sports, and other kinds of television programming. In each case, one chooses a specific set of episodes or programs and analyzes them with the goal of understanding the cultural logic that sustains them."



"One quarter of Americans believe that their best chance to build wealth for retirement is by playing the lottery, not by patiently saving and investing... among households with annual incomes of $35,000 or less, those holding that belief jumped to 40 percent." --- Survey by the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica (RG, Oct. 29, 1999)

Journal of Advertising, Dec 1993 v22 n4 p21(13)

Consumption imagery in music television: a bi-cultural perspective. Basil G. Englis; Michael R. Solomon; Anna Olofsson.

Abstract: Although much has been written concerning music television in the popular press and in academic publications, there has been little empirical research addressing the consumption imagery that accompanies the aesthetic elements of music videos. Given the potentially important role played by this medium in adolescent consumer socialization, this may be a significant oversight. This study examines the prevalence and nature of consumption imagery in music television, with emphasis on the covariation of this imagery with different musical genres. We present data from the United States and Sweden - two cultures with very different histories with music television. Implications are drawn for the socializing effects of music television in different cultures. (Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

The New York Times, April 17, 1995

"Federal Reserve figures from 1989, the most recent available, show that the richest 1 percent of American households -- with net worth of at least $2.3 million each -- have nearly 40 percent of the nation's wealth. By contrast, the richest 1 percent of the British population has about 18 percent of the wealth, down from 59 percent in the 1920's."

"Further down the scale, the top 20 percent of Americans -- households worth $180,000 or more -- have more than 80 percent of the country's wealth, a figure higher than in other industrial nations."

"We are the most unequal industrialized country in terms of income and

wealth," said Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University, "and we're growing more unequal faster than the other industrialized countries."

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy

Priorities, a Washington research group, observed, "When you have a child

poverty rate that is four times the average of Western European countries that are our principal industrial competitors, and when those children are a

significant part of our future work force, you have to worry about the

competitive effects as well as the social-fabric effects."

"U.S. wage distribution is more unequal than other countries and we do less in terms of tax and transfer policy" to cushion the disparities, said Timothy M. Smeeding, an American who is director of the Luxembourg Income Study Project.


Ideology and Contradiction in the Texts of Television


W--- "The discussions of Webster and of game shows indicate that ideological analysis is not necessarily a simple or self-evident practice.... Taken together, these ideas suggest that the expression even of dominant ideology necessarily include tensions and contradictions. Indeed, in some sense dominant ideology can be seen as the effort to contain or smooth over points of contention and contradiction in the process of promoting a more unified idea of social subjectivity. But it is only more or less successful, never finally achieving a homogenous set of representational practices or a unified social subject. Ideological criticism aims to expose the fault lines within the system."

W--- "Ideological criticism aims precisely at understanding these contradictions as constitutive of the text's ideological problematic. The ideological problematic refers to the field of representational possibilities offered by a text and the structuration of issues in particular ways. In this vein, ideological criticism is less concerned with finding a specific message in a text than with delineating the range of issues and questions raised within a program or across a set of texts."


W -- "The ideological problematic refers to the nature and range of issues raised and how they are raised and to the systems of representation that are thereby promoted or excluded, in explicit or implicit terms. David Morely explains, 'The problematic is importantly defined in the negative -- as those questions or issues which cannot easily be put within a particular problematic--- and in the positive as that set of questions or issues which constitute the dominant or preferred themes of a programme.' What are the constitutive issues at stake in the first place, especially when it comes to asserting important categories of social subjectivity? What range of possibilities for meaning is promoted by the text? What areas of meaning are staked out as significant for discussion? What is implicitly or explicitly left out?"

W--- "At the same time, in the elaboration of the ideological problematic, the field of choice is circumscribed; although different perspectives may be introduced, the range is not infinite."

W--- "The latitude of competing voices and positions constructed within the particular problematic presents itself as a totality precisely because different points of view are incorporated. In other words, the very incorporation of different positions and points of view conveys an impression of completeness, as if anything that might be said on the issue has been covered. But often only a delimited or circumscribed range of choices is in fact presented to begin with. Moreover, the presentation of multiple positions and points of view is often regulated or controlled by an implicit hierarchy that privileges certain positions over others. "

W--- "But in many instances television can be seen as working to contain minority positions or deviations from the mainstream by first providing a context for their expression."

W/examp: strong roles for women but still shoot from point of view of male spectator; three views of motherhood, three from within show, a fourth from commercial that airs during show. 1) Wealthy woman who can't bear children and turns to legal private baby market; 2) a welfare mother who feels pressured to sell her third child for economic reasons; and 3) a professional women considering adoption and 4) Hallmark card mother.

W--- "The contradictions and multiplicity of views help explain a program's appeal to a broad potential audience.... An awareness of this field of multiple meanings as the work of ideology is crucial to understanding the effectiveness and appeal of television as a mass medium."

The Pleasures of Consumption


W--- "Promotional and advertising appeals are recognized as the sites where television's consumerist mission is obvious--- not only to political economists but to all viewers--- and where the dominant ideology of the medium is baldly exposed [I disagree here--- promotions/ads actually offer viewers fantasy of escape, control, dignity, etc.]. Programming is then seen as the area in which more complex and subtle meanings, effects, and pleasures are generated. Shop-at-home television programs and stations that have emerged in the course of the past decade can be analyzed as a limit or test case in this regard. In shop-at-home television the programming is sales... Television's force as an apparatus and agency of consumer culture is fully and explicitly expressed by this kind of programming. At the same time... how much, or how little programming does it take to entice viewers to watch the television for more than a few minutes?"

W-- "On HSN certain forms of meaning and pleasure seem to persist even in the absence of conventional entertainment and information. This includes appeals to viewers as members of a community, even as a family of consumers."

W-- "Most of the merchandise offered by HSC could be categorized as the conspicuously consumed trinkets of working-class and lower-middle-class lifestyles... At the same time, all HSC viewers are addressed and presented as knowledgeable and informed shoppers in general... the program projects its viewers as experts who fully understand the larger world of consumerism and the merchandise that circulates there.."


W-- "The program constantly reconfirms the value of staying home and watching television--HSC-- as the best way to secure family and community relation s. It also validates the position of women as the center of these relations."


Television as a Heterogeneous Unity


W--"The ideological meanings and positions produced on television--- in episodes, series, or whole networks--- are not unified or monolithic, but that does not imply that television can mean anything you want it to or has something for everyone. Rather, a range of intersecting and at times even contradictory meanings runs through the course of programming, offering some things for most people, a regulated latitude of ideological positions meeting the interests and needs of a range of potential viewers."

W--"Above this point was illustrated in relation to ideas about maternity and motherhood presented on Cagney and Lacy."

W-- "Viewers consent to watch, and to submit to its array of appeals, in exchange for the text and the possibility of identifying particular meanings, mobilizing the voices that seem to speak "to them"."

W--- "The whole issue of reading practices, especially in the context of identity politics (the idea of building a coalition based on emphasizing a particular aspect of one's social identity, defined in terms of race, sexual preference, etcetera), is more central to British Cultural Studies. But it is a useful issue to bring up in the context of ideological criticism because it points to the ways in which individuals can recognize and use the meanings made available through the heterogeneity of television's systems of representation, however much the system may strive to 'contain' extreme or disruptive meanings. Feminist approaches to daytime soap opera, for example, have suggested that the traditional villainess transforms feminine weakness into a source of power and strength and offers viewers a figure of female vengeance against patriarchal restraint."

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