Hal Himmelsten: Television Myth and the American Mind

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Hal Himmelsten: Television Myth and the American Mind

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Slide 1:Hal Himmelsten: Television Myth and the American Mind Himmelstein’s thesis: Commercial TV acts as an opiate of the masses by avoiding information which challenges the dominant ideology of industrial capitalism. As an opiate, it distracts attention away from the harsh by-products of our economic system Over-rationalization and mundane work routines Stratification and issues of inequality Rising control of our lives by a corporate elite, who set standards and ideals that are unrealistic Massification and erosion of community ties Erosion of spiritual values

Slide 2:The Primary goal of the mass media The primary goal of the commercial mass media is to deliver a receptive audience to the sponsor. In commercial television, the ideal viewer is an emotional, unthinking, consumer “machine” whose buttons can be easily pushed.

Slide 3:Basic Technique used by Mass Media Link the the ideals of industrial capitalism with certain cultural myths. Socialize people into these ideals, which is easier if the ideal is associated with certain powerful myths. Result: our personal identities and goals are fused with cultural ideals that reflect the dominant ideology of capitalism. Consequently these capitalist ideals go largely unchallenged.

Slide 4:What do capitalists say we need to live a fulfilling life? Wealth (as opposed to a life of moderation) Private property (as opposed to public property) Youth (as opposed to any other age) Power, ambition, or greed (as opposed to equality, acceptance, or sharing) Physical beauty (as opposed to character and spiritual beauty) A competitive spirit (as opposed to cooperation) Conformity to styles/rules (versus independence) Capitalists tend to presume the primacy of these “possessions” as a means to a happy personal life, a happy love life, a happy family life, and a happy community life.

Slide 5:Corporate Capitalist Ideology The corporate capitalist ideology is similar to the capitalist ideology, except it suggests that concentrated power (monopoly, oligopoly), over-rationalization, and economic imperialism are legitimate behaviors. It is remarkable that the corporate capitalist value system is not seen as more controversial by Americans, given the American ideals of freedom, individualism, equality, and justice. Dominant ideologies are rarely questioned, even when they are contradictory. This is why racism and sexism thrived for so long in our so-called “free country.” Americans had to be “woken up” to these contradictions by social movements.

Slide 6:Ideology Ideology refers to the set of assumptions we use to understand social relationships. Specifically, ideology is a belief system that explains economic, political, and social reality and establishes the collective goals of a group. Ideology legitimizes some form of social relationship, whether it be stratified (as in sexism) or egalitarian (as in feminism).

Slide 7:Dominant ideology The main belief system that explains social reality and establishes the collective goals of a society. Dominant ideology is normative. It provides prescriptions for how to think and act in support of the status quo. Example: what is “ladylike?” To be polite and passive, which is consistent with the dominant ideology/social system of patriarchy. Dominant ideology is a product of the dominant social class. In the U.S., wealthy capitalists.

Slide 8:Dominant Ideology The dominant ideology makes social relationships appear commonsensical. It provides a justification for why things are the way they are, so that we rarely question existing arrangements. Example: Until recently, the dominant ideology said that a woman’s place is in the home. How did it justify this?

Slide 9:Cultural Myths Advocates of the dominant ideology typically employ the use of cultural myths to elevate their ideology into the sacred realm of “eternal truth.” Myths are recurrent themes and stories that speak to a culture’s heritage and identity.

Slide 10:Myths have several features 1. Myths are part fiction, part fact. 2. Myths elevate historical events into the realm of the sacred. They transcend the ordinary mundane world. 3. Myths are powerful. We internalize them in childhood and they affect our identities. 4. Myths are normative. They tell us how to behave by providing examples of ideal behaviors, typically by cultural heroes.

Slide 11:Example of how a cultural myth can be put in the service of capitalism The Christ myth. This myth has shifted historically toward providing support for capitalism. Today, our capitalist nation emphasizes Christ as a guardian against personal sin more than a guardian against social sin. Recall in the Bible the greed of the bankers - early capitalists – and how Christ supported the beggars over the bankers. This story is toned down today in favor of speaking against personal sin. Many conservative Christians speak only of personal sin, which is remarkable. This serves the interests of capitalists.

Slide 12:The Christ myth, continued Christmas, as a holiday, has shifted toward consumerism as a way to express love. Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) bears material gifts for those who obey the rules. Since the early 19th century, Christmas rituals shifted to shopping. Today the malls are packed - perhaps more than the churches. Gifts are placed under the sacred tree – making them “sacred gifts.” The Macy’s parade is a spectacle of celebration, little of it having much to do with Christ. Isn’t Macy’s a capitalist department store? What are we really celebrating?

Slide 13:Christ in the service of capitalism? Has the religious holiday called Christmas been co-opted by secular capitalists, who have “capitalized” on specific Christ myths and modified them to serve their own agenda? Didn’t Christians do something similar to the ancient pagans, when they appropriated the pagan myths and rituals in the service of Christianity in order to legitimize and elevate their emerging ideology into a dominant ideology?

Slide 14:Myths are used to defuse Myths are employed in the service of the dominant ideology to defuse challenges to this ideology. Those who challenge a dominant ideology are labeled “heretics” – because they are perceived to be challenging something sacred. Those who challenge capitalism in the U.S. are branded “heretics,” just as those who challenge communism in Red China are branded “heretics.” The heretic is to be persecuted and punished. Christ was a “heretic.”

Slide 15:What ideologies are we generally not permitted to challenge in the U.S.? Capitalism (and its corresponding values: competition, private property, free market) Christianity Freedom Individualism Democracy Few Americans even want to challenge any of these ideologies because we have been socialized into their virtues.

Slide 16:Capitalist Media Of all dominant ideologies, the most significant to the mass media is capitalism. The American media is mostly a product of capitalism and it is used in the service of capitalism. Television, the most powerful media in history, promotes certain cultural myths in the service of capitalism.

Slide 17:Cultural Myths used in the Service of Capitalism

Slide 18:The Myth of Eternal Progress This myth portrays the American economic system as a system of limitless expansion and opportunity. This is the American Dream. The myth is supported by clichés like “rags to riches”, “dare to be great”, “anything is possible with hard work.” This myth makes American capitalism seem like it has delivered on its promise for all. If one is poor, it can’t be due to the system. (The myth overlooks racism and other hurdles to success). Examples: this myth is emphasized in ads, TV shows like “The Jefferson’s,” tabloid interviews with sports stars who “worked hard” to get ahead, etc.

Slide 19:The Creation Myth This myth emphasizes the idea that material consumption brings “salvation.” Recreation and play are emphasized over reflection as a source of fulfillment. Emphasis is on hedonism and the pursuit of happiness through consumer behaviors. This myth could be renamed the “recreation myth.” Recreation is “sacred” now, not introspection. Examples: lots of TV ads, such as a beer ad that shows ecstasy on the face of a beach beer drinker as he guzzles in slow motion with a beautiful woman in the background; Entertainment TV (E TV) features this myth as they follow the party crowd.

Slide 20:Myth of Manifest Destiny This myth portrays our sacred destiny as a special people (as Americans, Christians, or capitalists) to achieve empire. The myth supported militant imperialism in earlier times. Today it mainly supports economic and cultural imperialism. The myth promotes a fear of weakness (“keep America strong!”). Examples of how it is used to support capitalism: A Pepsi ad that says “we are the world,” or the Clear Channel annual report emphasizing their goal of “synergy.” Another example would be an old Hollywood western that celebrates the colonization of the “Wild West” (by capitalist land-grabbers).

Slide 21:Myth of Polarity Himmelstein calls this the myth of racism, and it refers to the reduction of social reality into bi-polar opposite types: black vs. white, good vs. bad, etc. To portray the real world as though it were a “black and white” world eliminates all gray areas. Conservative American moralists tend to use this myth more frequently than others. The myth supports classism, racism, sexism, etc – all of which have been historically profitable ideologies to unscrupulous capitalists seeking to maximize their private profits. Examples: Action movies use this myth for dramatic effect and to create bloodlust; MTV hints at this myth in its emphasis on youth (vs. old).

Slide 22:Geographic Landscape Myths provide the settings for many stories and influence audience expectations. They are understood in context of each other. The remote region is the rural frontier.

Slide 23:Myth of the Rural Frontier The myth of the rural frontier features the outer geographic region not yet civilized (colonized). It is lawless, dangerous, and savage. The Wild West, outer space, the deep ocean, the jungle, etc. Occupants of these regions are primitive and dangerous. They need to be tamed by the forces of civilization (and their capitalist products). The colonizer brings culture and civilization to these “savages.” Examples: the Marlboro Man cigarette ad uses this myth (capitalism conquers the frontier), Hollywood westerns, movies like Jaws and Alien, TV shows like Lost. This myth is central to European/American settlement stories across the globe.

Slide 24:Myth of the Urban Frontier The myth of the urban frontier portrays the city, especially the inner city, as a place of savagery and lawlessness in need of taming (by a rugged individualist). It is the urban “jungle,” with lots of crime. Those who occupy the inner city (disproportionately young, male, poor) are especially dangerous. Examples: The Dirty Harry movies by Clint Eastwood, most urban action movies, many Hollywood movie and TV crime stories like “Dragnet” and “Cops.”

Slide 25:Myth of the Rural Middle Landscape This could also be called the Myth of Mayberry. This is the location between the frontier and the suburb: the small town. A rural frontier, once tamed, becomes a small town where life is simple and people are “just plain folk.” Here, people are childlike and innocent, like a Norman Rockwell painting. They are not urban sophisticates. There may be some likeable “country bumpkins” who lack urban sophistication. Emphasis is on a sense of community and (extended) family ties over materialism. Examples: Andy of Mayberry, Beverly Hillbillies (their origins), Green Acres.

Slide 26:Myth of the Suburban Middle Landscape This could also be called the myth of suburbia. The suburb is the geographic zone between the rural and urban frontiers. It is a haven or safety zone where affluence, materialism, and the private nuclear family are celebrated. Emphasis is on private materialism over extended community ties. The suburban family is private (rigidly nuclear), affluent, and recreational, with brand new hi-tech appliances to usher in the good life. This is the “new and improved” way of life. Examples: The Cosby Show, most of the 1950s family-shows like Ozzie & Harriet. This myth is parodied in TV shows like Married with Children.

Slide 27:Myth of the Puritan Ethic “God helps those who help themselves.” You, not others, deserves a material reward, so get out there and get it. Your goal is material success. This myth says to “look out for Number #1 - that your interests matter more than other’s interests. Like the myth of Eternal Progress, this myth is central to the capitalist ethos. This myth upholds the self-interest theme of capitalism. Examples: TV game, sports, and reality shows that force people to compete against each other so that there can be only one winner (with “survival of the fittest” messages); TV ads promoting themes like “you deserve a break today;” High-end car ads that promote the owner as “better” than others.

Slide 28:Myth of Eternal Youth Youth is all that is sexy and beautiful, while old is ugly and obsolete. Your duty, especially as a woman, is to stay young at all costs because you are not worth as much when you are old. This theme is celebrated throughout consumer capitalism and contributes to modern ageism. It is a highly profitable message. Examples: beauty contests, the fashion industry, the sex industry, media tabloids that follow runway models and young celebrities, TV shows that emphasize “sexy” youthful characters (ie Baywatch, Sex in the City, etc), women’s magazine ads, etc.

Slide 29:Myth of the Individual The ideal of the independent spirit who is not held down by social structures (laws, bureaucracies, conformist ideologies and values, marriage, etc). This person walks alone. They do it themselves. Often the individual is a rugged masculine type – the rugged individualist who asserts their independence aggressively, perhaps with a fist. Hollywood offers working class males a means of power outside of the huge bureaucracies that undermine personal power – the mythical rugged individualist who conquers not just the urban frontier but “the system.” Examples: most TV and movie heroes (especially found in action movies and Westerns), Marlboro Man-type ads, James Bond movies, etc.

Slide 30:Myth of Technological Utopia and the Myth of Progress Problems are solved - not created - by new technologies. We must be thankful to the corporations that introduce new technologies. They are our saviors. Whatever problems exist, scientists will invent technological solutions to them. This myth is linked to the myth of progress, which views society as ever-changing for the better, thanks to industrialization and new technologies. The myth ignores the downside of technology (and progress) - like global warming, pollution, etc. Examples: appliances that make life “better”, James Bond gadgets, “new & improved” products, etc.

Slide 31:Myth of Feminine Mystique Women belong in the home as wives and mothers, not in the workforce or in most other institutions. This emphasizes that women are the opposite of men. They are the “weaker” sex responsible for nurturing families and for the sexual pleasure of men. They are emotional more than rational. A common myth of patriarchal societies, this myth underlies sexism. (This is directly related to the myth of polarity). Examples: ads that depict women in stereotypical roles, TV/movie depictions of women in stereotypical roles.

Slide 32:Myth of the Masculine Mystique Men belong in the workforce and other institutions outside of family as “good providers” and protectors, not in the home. This myth emphasizes that men are the opposite of women. They are the “stronger” sex responsible for leadership and discipline. They are rational more than emotional. A common myth of patriarchal societies, this myth underlies sexism. (This is directly related to the myth of polarity). Examples: ads that depict men in stereotypical roles, TV/movie depictions of men in stereotypical roles.

Slide 33:List of these 14 Myths Eternal progress Creation myth Manifest destiny Myth of polarity Rural frontier Urban frontier Rural middle landscape Suburban middle landscape Puritan ethic Eternal youth Myth of the individual Myth of technological utopia/progress Myth of feminine mystique Myth of masculine mystique

Slide 34:Six Net Effects of TV Myths 1. These myths promote the sanctity of the ideal American family as materialistic, suburban, private, with women and men in traditional gender roles. 2. The triumph of personal initiative over the bureaucratic control and inefficiency of the state. The rugged individualist has to take the law into their own hands. (Yet ultimately this person restores the status quo and thus affirms the system).

Slide 35:Six Net Effects of TV Myths 3. One’s gain at another’s expense. The implicit message of many TV shows is that it is ok to be greedy and to want things for yourself, even if it is at the expense of others. After all, it is a jungle of survival out there.

Slide 36:Six Net Effects of TV Myths 4. The elevated status of quiet authority in the hierarchy of power: the celebration of the “official expert.” This expert is brought to us by corporate media and generally supports the power structure. Ordinary people, especially blue collar workers, are dumb, disruptive or confused. The implicit message is to listen to the “voice of reason” – the corporate sanctioned so-called expert.

Slide 37:Six Net Effects of TV Myths 5. The celebration of celebrity. By exploiting the Puritan Ethic, Eternal Youth, Eternal Progress, and other myths, we implicitly learn to follow the lifestyles of the rich and famous as though they are cultural heroes. The hero-worship of corporate media is a celebration of raw power regardless of its moral basis. The power of elites is rarely questioned. Endless award shows on TV give the surface illusion of excellence. The real message is celebrity worship.

Slide 38:Six Net Effects of TV Myths 6. The conversion of history and the deflection of questions of the social structure to the level of the personal or the individual. Serious social issues are reduced to the level of the individual. We see individuals rather than groups grappling with crime, powerlessness, and other social problems. We also see the source of the problem as “bad apple” individuals rather than the social structure itself. When the social structure is played down, the net effect is to discourage class consciousness – an awareness that the root of a problem may lie in the social system, and not in any particular individual.

Slide 39:The Overall Effect of American Television Content The overall effect of most TV ads and programs is to uphold the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism while playing down oppositional or alternative ideologies. Oppositional ideologies appear now and then, but they are grass roots, localized, and sporadic: Community based documentaries Public access TV (and college radio) Advocacy group press conferences Late night television and TV comedy shows like Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert.

Slide 40:The Overall Effect of American Television Content It is important to note that if an alternative ideology or message is potentially profitable, corporate TV will consider showing it. Therefore we can expect some degree of contradiction in capitalist media content. This helps explain why 1960s rock music that was so critical of authority was played by (some) commercial media. However, corporate capitalist media is not entirely amoral. Given a choice between two shows of equal profit-making potential, owners and sponsors will select the one most consistent with the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism.

Slide 41:What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional culture or ideology? 1. The dominant culture is corporate capitalist. It tries to regulate and control the TV viewer’s desires in terms of possession of material goods. The dominant culture legitimizes the unequal distribution of these material goods. An oppositional culture (or ideology) rejects materialism itself or favors the redistribution of material goods (including resources like health care, education, etc) in a more egalitarian way.

Slide 42:What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional culture? 2. The dominant culture tries to keep the TV viewer outside of the objects of her desire, such that living the “good life” is outside of her grasp. The ideal citizen is a spectator – a voyeur – rather than a real participant in culture. Furthermore, they are not allowed to be an expert. In commercial television, the ideal viewer is an efficient, unthinking, consumer machine. An oppositional culture (ideology) points to the absurdity of such passivity. It tries to incite people to take action, to take control, to challenge the status quo and to achieve access to realistic goals rather than unrealistic (commercial) goals.

Slide 43:What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional culture? 3. Dominant culture legitimizes the wealthy, or the existing status quo distribution of power and authority. An oppositional culture challenges existing social class arrangements and questions authority. What is the moral basis of acquisitive materialism (greed)? How did that rich person get rich? Is it fair that some people earn as much as they do while others earn so little?

Slide 44:What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional culture? 4. Dominant culture tries to defuse oppositional culture. By purchasing it and repackaging it (ie commercial rock or commercial rap). This is the issue of containment or cooptation. By outlawing it (certain forms of leisure involving drugs, sex, sports, music, etc). Oppositional culture (ideology) tries to stay alive by not selling out and by resisting attempts to defuse it. It is a matter of cultural and personal integrity to “keep real” and be authentic to the original goals of the alternative culture.

Slide 45:Himmelstein Conclusion In any free society, it is necessary for people to be exposed to both dominant and oppositional or alternative ideologies. This is what freedom and pluralism means. But corporate capitalist media are fundamentally hegemonic. They are prone to oligopoly and monopoly. Therefore, there is much censorship and cooptation of alternative ideologies.

Slide 46:Himmelstein Conclusion Himmelstein argues that individual gestures of protest, by themselves, will not threaten the hegemony of corporate capitalism. For larger changes to occur in support of pluralism, individuals must be organized into activist organizations. If people organized, media policies could become more pluralistic and television could be an important resource for promoting a free and pluralistic society. As it is now, it is mostly a brainwashing tool that functions to opiate the masses in the interests of corporate capitalism.

Slide 47:End

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