Media And Ideology Understanding Politics Through Films Media Essay

Mass media already became an inevitable dimension in present modern society. It is almost occupying our large time in everyday life. However, just as we are so familiar with the media products, it is particularly easy to overlook the questions which mass media has brought to us. In ordinary life, we are hardly to consider what impact has mass media generated to our life, social relations, politics, culture and other respects, and what the relations of media and other social institutions. Mass media is such a complexity that difficult to clarify it as a whole. Thereby, in this paper, the purpose is to concentrate on one specific media text- film, and to examine how it activates on politics. This paper begins with a brief introduction of media importance within people’s everyday life, who owns media, and the relation between media and government. Then, two relative items will be drawn out: ideology and representation. Ideology as a kind of fundamental theory could explain why media as well as film could serve for political dominance. And as for representation, which as an important function of mass media, it provides the possibility for ideology activating on media. In part two, there will be an introduction of the function and effects of film, and then three typical films are cited to interpret why and how those films in Reagan era could affect that time politics. In the last part, there will be a discussion about the effects of the historical films on present society.

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Media and Ideology

Media Importance

With the drastic development of high technology and consumption demands, media almost saturates every corner in our ordinary life. The role media playing in modern society is diverse, such as radio, television, magazines, movies, and books are all serving for it. Meanwhile, how many hours in our everyday life are occupied by these items? Probably after you waking up, the first thing is to open television or radio to hear news, and next on the way to work, you might buy a piece of newspaper to browser, during working time you possibly watch magazines or chat with your colleague about this day’s news, and then, when you lay on the sofa after finishing one day’s work, the best thing is to enjoy a television show or movies as you like. Why we are so depending on media? The best way to answer it is to invert this question as if without media, what situation our life will be. We will not know what happened around and outside ourselves, do not know say what with friends, and have nothing to do after returning home. Maybe we will rest much many time to enjoy the beautifully natural views surrounding us, but, who really concern this in such a colorfully consumer society. As a result, the sources of entertainment and perception towards this world from various media means are extremely significant to us in contemporary society. However, apart from enjoying the happiness and amusement that media bring to us, have you thought about who decide or influence media contents in contemporary life? And what impact mass media are bringing about to our life and social relations?

In order to clarify these two questions, we should research from the production and contents of media. Firstly, under the promotion of economic profits, the ownership of media has become concentrated (Bagdikian 2000). The key effect of concentration on the media products is homogenization, and to some extent, the government and certain executive access are likely to affect media products (Croteau and Hoynes, 2003). Government influence on media production is a general phenomenon, no matter in totalitarian societies or democratic societies. The distinction is, in democratic societies, the freedom of press and expression is protected by the law, however, this kind of freedom is under the structure which government organized (Croteau and Hoynes, 2003). Just as Bagdikian (2000) said that in the contemporary United State, a country that is intensely advocating democracy, its information system is largely controlled by private interests, rather than government. But normally, private and government interests are consistent, because they are all standing for dominantly capitalistic interests. So this is why many media barons and politicians are both apt to use media to realize their political aims. On the other hand, the mass media similarly helps to witness and improve the regime of American politics, which refers to the media influence on politics. If in order to elaborate this idea, the term of ideology should be depicted here.

Ideology and Representation

The reason why so many scholars are interested to examine media products to uncover their ideology is “ideology is a decidedly complicated term with different implications depending on the context in which it is used” (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 159). It has extensive meanings including worldview, belief system, and values, and meanwhile, it also could help somebody define and even form these concepts implied in their own consciousness. In this context, the ideological analysis of certain specific media text is a useful way to understand “the fit between the images and words in a specific media text and ways of thinking about, even defining, social and crucial issues” (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 160). In addition, the ideology implied in media texts does not naturally exist, but must be given by someone for a certain interests. In the early ideological analysis about media products, there are two important theoretical roots that are still invaluable for contemporary ideological study. One is the early Marxist origin, and the other one is the concept of hegemony.

For early Marxists, ideology was used by the dominant class for imposing their ruling worldview and values on the subordinate class, and consequently, ensuring their governing stable and permanent. So, in this discussion, ideology was considered linking with the concept of “false consciousness”, which was produced by and on the behalf of ruling class, rather than matching one’s objective interests (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 164). From this perspective, ideological analysis is associated with political domination, power, and continually to focus on the issue of “the ways certain groups fight to have their specific interests accepted as the general interests of a society” (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 165). Even in contemporary society, the basic outlines of this early Marxist model are still constructive to analyze social relations, while the concentration has moved away from economic- class relations to the terrain of culture. With this perspective, famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsi (1971) has brought about a remarkable study of hegemony, which connecting hegemony to the notions of culture, power, and ideology.

Firstly, Gramsi (1971) argued the functions of force and culture or ideology on maintaining power. It is doubtless that force is an effective way to remain state domination, due to it can affect by means of coercion, which require the application of institutions such as the military, police and other state administrative organs. However, in liberal democratic societies, force is not suited to be the primary means of state ruling. Because in modern society, liberalism, civil rights, and human peace are the mainstream. Besides, unreasonable and excessive force control is also the main origin of citizen resistant revolution. And then, in this context, Gramsi (1971) suggests that it is likely to convert the strategy to another terrain- culture, by which also can wield power and even more easily, because it can take place in people’s everyday life, the most important point is through this way people are actively and voluntarily obedient to the ruling. Gramsi’s theory of hegemony is working through the operation of consent, or we can call it common sense. The operating principle of common sense is the dominant class actively attends to make their worldview and values accepted by all social members (Gramsi 1971). Therefore, if dominant class could turn the idea that is on the behalf of their interests to universal consent, then they are able to achieve the ideological dominant on subordinate class. In this process, an essential notion of “natural” should be picked up to depict. Generally, when we say something is natural, normally because it is without human process, which is opposite to artificial. Consequently, we will not suspect the reality and legitimacy if something is defined as natural. For example, if it was propagated that homosexuality is a natural principle initially, and then maybe there is little debate of gay and lesbian relationship, due to they are not social problems rather natural order of things. Thus, hegemony operation of culture is going to generate commonsense assumption, and then converting this commonsense assumption to the uncontested level of natural. Schools, religion, and media all can be the efficient sites to help realize this process, because they are where could be controlled by dominant class to produce and reproduce ways of thinking about society.

Stuart Hall (1982) has pointed out a crucial analysis of how mass media institutions are coherent with hegemony. First of all, he included media as his concept called “the politics of significant”, in which media identified has an unique function- representation, which is different from simply reflecting the reality of world, but “implies the active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping; nor merely the transmitting of an already existing meaning, but the more active labor of making things mean” (p. 64). Secondly, Hall (1982) explained why media representation is intertwined with ideology and hegemony. Like I mentioned, ideology could underlie certain worldview and values in different contexts, and as for media representation, which has capacity of making things mean, so, media can become the irrecusable approach of generating and propagating ideology. And if further connect this perspective to power and media ownership in the early part, it is clear that dominant class could instill its assumption into media, and plus media are places where certain idea could be circularly transmitted to public, in this way, the meanings which are on the interests of dominant power could become consent of every audience of the media. This is why almost every country is willing to regard media institutions as an efficient channel to animate its policy and governing.

Film and Politics

Film Introduction

Many scholars are interested in focusing the ideological analysis of media products on specific medium or specific media texts that are within a specific historical period. The reason is, firstly, the term mass media is such a multiple and plural complexity that it is difficult to perfectly generalize the meanings of abundant media products as a whole; secondly, “media texts are usually produced in specific historical context, responding to and helping frame the cultural currents of the day” (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 173), so, concentrating on a specific historical media text is more helpful to understand the real meanings and reality represented within a media text under certain historical environment.

Film as one of diverse media products, is an efficient media text because it is “alive” representation of different events, it has the ability to transport the audiences to a number of different times and places by its moving images. In addition, films could through the image representation of a certain time period generating impact on present audiences, to ask them if they were placed in the same situation what they would do (Sachleben, M and Yenerall, K 2004). Besides its unique performing format, film itself also has different types: silent films, black and white films, color films, documentary films and narrative films. The differences of these films are not only confined to the difference of techniques, but also can be seen from the messages transmitted by them. For example, after the color technique has been generally applied to film making, black and white film are still as an important art form existing in film products, a successful instance was Schindler’s list made by Spielberg in 1993. Generally speaking, the application of black and white photography could help highlight the darkness of film subject on one hand, on the other hand, directors wonder use it to create dramatic effects. For another film type-documentary, which is suited to represent or reconstruct historical events, and helping understand politics. However, there were still a large number of politicians and directors who preferred narrative films to convey and propagate their political aims, due to narrative films is a kind of films that through stories to absorb audiences to follow its plots, and engage audiences to the evolvement of film’s contents.

After understanding the fundamental functions and features of films, it is time to research the contents of films. Film as a media text, of course, it could make things mean, and serve for certain dominant class to transmit a specific way of thinking, worldview, or values. Due to the diversity of film contents, in this section, the research focuses on how films represent and impact politics during a specific historical period. Here, a concept should be clear that this paper is not to define what are political films, but to utilize a series of films during a particular time period to illustrate ideas and topics in politics under certain historical context.

The Films In The Reagan Era

Before the presidency of Ronald Reagan, American was in a tough condition: the darkness of Vietnam War failure, national threat from Soviet, and the economic decline. Just as Rupert Wilkinson (1984, p. 6) said, “the 1980 election came at a post-imperial moment, when Americans were not at all sure what role they wanted or could obtain either for their presidents or for their country in world affairs”, in that time Americans were lack of powerful spiritual root and national confidence. However, since Reagan’s main three political agenda, America’s spiritual strength has restored as well as its renewed responsible world role (Nixon 1992). Another important reason was Reagan’s own self-confidence did not been defeat by the introspection of the post-Vietnam era, and he even transferred his own self-confidence to the whole country, and accordingly restored the national self-confidence (Cannon 1991). In this respect, Hollywood film industry has played an important role. As we known, Reagan has ever been a popular film star before he stepped on his political career. Consequently, he extraordinarily understood how influential and pervasive film is on the aspect of transferring and shaping meanings, thereby marginalizing or dismissing other opposite claims. So naturally, within his policies, movie material was a crucial component. Through analysis of the films made in Reagan era, we could comprehend how film represented politics in a specific historical and political setting.


In the 1980s, the relationship of America and Soviet has entered the so-called “New Cold War” period. The international condition in that period, for Soviet Union, they were preparing the coming of new world war against America, and actively taking the preparation of nuclear and arms expansion, and implementing the highly centralization of state management. On the other hand, in the aspect of America, externally, Reagan advocated deploying the overall containment to Soviet Union from the aspects of politics, economic, military, diplomacy and ideology, towards domestic market, he insisted that human values can surpass any worthless technology and mechanization, highlighting the importance of human mind, which could become the best weapon within the competition against outside communism and mechanized devices.

Under this kind of political context, there were three extremely popular films during the mid-1980s. The first one was The Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker was shaped as a good individual, who depended on his own intellectual and mind power to defeat the dark technologized body- the evil Darth Vader. The second one was Rambo, in which portrayed a hardened American soldier character, who relying on his own mind and faith overbears foreign policy. The last one was Terminator, in this film the theme was anti-nuclear and hard-body mythology, it accentuated that humanity was the most powerful weapon that can defeat any enemy. Generalizing the main themes of these three films, we can find that they almost advocate a same idea by different narrative stories, which is consistent with Reaganism, that the mind is the best weapon, and depreciates the machine domination, which is similar with Soviet Union’s arms expansion policy. If further anatomize the contents of these three films, we can find that those bad guys in each, such as the technologized Darth Vader, the character of Sergeant Yushin- a Soviet version who also has the strong body as the same as Rambo, and completed mechanized, machine-made Terminator are all the reflections of outside forces which could potentially destroy all freedom of human being, in Reagan’s ideology are no different from Soviet communists. Then moving into the late-1980s, a new screen character was able to transcribe the Reagan’s pro-technology militarism at home, which consequently formed a comparison with the external negative feature of the Soviet Union, that was Robcop, a totally computerized, law-enforcement officer, who can eliminate all kinds of criminals. The difference between Robcop and the former mechanized character is, although they are all computer-programmed, their standpoints are different, Robcop was endued new conceptions-humanity and punishing crime. From this image, we can know that Robcop is the endorsement of revived Reagan’s military, it can eliminate any enemy including communism.

Vietnam War Films

One prevalent films genre in 1980s was “return to Vietnam” films, the most typical one is the series of Rambo, which depicts the hardened image of a Vietnam veteran, who returns to Vietnam again a couple of years after the Vietnam War in order to rescue American prisoners who were forgotten by the U. S. government. The research question in this paper is why these films were so popular in that period? And what kind of respond did these movies want from audiences? First of all, it is necessary to clarify the historical context in which these films took place. During the period of 1980s, American people were immersing in a condition called the “Vietnam syndrome” (Croteau and Hoynes 2003, p. 175), they were shameful of the defeat in Southeast Asia. In essence, the revival of national self-confidence was the primary mission in that time. As a result, the appearance of Rambo stirred up this important task, it through the power of mass media brought the United States citizens returning to the battlefield of the Vietnam War, and it altered the end of the story. In this renewed battlefield, American soldiers were all good guys and victors, they won the pride, strength and glory for America. It is not difficult to find that these films were just the projection of Reagan’s political declaration in the 1980s, which called for a kind of redemption for the shame of loss in Vietnam, and helped American citizens move out from the “Vietnam syndrome”, to re-establish American pride and national image. Indeed, Americans did overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” in the late 1980s, which can be demonstrated by American people’s active support towards U. S. military action in Iraq, Panama, and the till now the events against terrorism (Croteau and Hoynes 2003).

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Apart from the impact of reviving American image, according to the statement of Susan Jeffords (1989), the representation of the Vietnam War was also an effective process of “remasculinization” of American society, which as well as another essential component of Reaganism. Above all, the social precondition of this process was, because of the defeat in Vietnam, the advent of feminism, and the “generation gap” occurring in American society, the stability of the traditionally social framework-patriarchy has been challenged, so, “the primary mechanism for this renegotiation of patriarchal relations is through ‘remasculinization’, a revival of the images, abilities, and evaluations of men and masculinity in dominant U. S. culture” (Jeffords 1989, in preface). There is the need to define the terms of “patriarchy” and “masculinity” referred here, it is relative to the analysis of the films characters in the later paragraphs. As Lerner’s (1986) conclusion, generally, patriarchy is the institutionalization of male dominancy over women, children, and even to the extent with the whole society. As for masculinity, which is a mechanism for the establishment of patriarchy, and “is used to refer to the set of images, values, interests, and activities held important to a successful achievement of male adulthood in American cultures” (Lerner 1986). Then, what can audiences get from the films returning to the Vietnam War? What meanings do these films represent to American peoples about remasculinization? In part one it is said that the representation of mass media could make new meaning on events, if plus the effect of narrative story, it may generate certain ideological resonance among audiences. The set films Rambo did successfully wield this point to represent the masculine American soldiers’ images on the screen, and to shape them as the victims of society, government and the war itself, in which even use the comparison between American soldiers’ unyieldingness with the government’s weakness to set off Rambo and Braddock’s masculine and heroic images. Following this kind of representation of the Vietnam War, audiences will normally resurrect the confidence and admiration on American soldiers. And consequently, it is largely effective to restore masculinity and male status in that time American society.

Civil Rights and Social Justice

Within Reagan’s political revolution, it was not enough to merely depend on hard body to manage a country well. He placed more emphasis on the unity and power of spirit. No matter in what kind of social system, all the dominant classes expect the citizens could enjoy and conform to its established civil rights and social justice, especially under the democratic regimes. In the late-1980s of America, there was another genre of films existing as well as the mid-1980s Vietnam films, which jointly formed the full heroism. There were many representative films in that period, in this section I picked out one of them to examine- Accused (1988), which is grounded in true occurrence that happened in 1983, six men gang- raped a woman on a pool table, and at that time no one of the onlookers stood out to rescue the victim. But after five years, when this crime was represented on the screen, a hero came out, who was the main male character- Kenneth Joyce, helping the victim-Sarah Tobias gain the victory of a justice war. This film from two aspects to indicate the powerful of justice system and the importance of civil rights. Firstly, through the comparison between Joyce with the rapists and onlookers, to enable audiences are easily to prefer and support Joyce, contrarily, to hate the rapists and onlookers, and hope them to be published by the law. Secondly, this film is able to bring audiences to think the questions as same as the characters. For example, besides Joyce, there was another person- Murphy, who also helped Sarah win the court case. In the early part of the film, the situation of Murphy is if she takes this case as a district attorney she maybe have the risk to defy her boss and lose the job, because in the district attorney’s office no one is willing to try a case like this. So, at this time, audiences will have suspense whether or not Murphy will take the case for Sarah. Another question is about Joyce and his fraternity brother, who is one of the rapists. Most audiences maybe sustain a question that will Joyce accuse his best friend on the court to help a strange woman. The answer of these two questions is they do help Sarah to win the accusations, and the dynamic connecting them together is the justice system and the faith of defending self-right. It demonstrates the clear answers to audiences that civil rights can be protected no matter in what a tough situation, and in addition, justice and law could beyond any gap which including friendship and self-interest as well. Collectively, this perspective and the hard body image were both just the appeals of Reagan’s policy, for against the outside force, and shaping the powerfully national character, and turning back to the demotic condition, it relied on the morality and justice to maintain the country stability.

Effects of Historical Films

Through the demonstration in the former part, it is clear that some popular films are not simply used to entertain the masses, most time they are the representation of certain ideological meanings, political values and working to generate a kind of resonance. Majority material of films originates from real life and history, the main effectiveness of it is a sort of “return”, but the “return” possibly brings about different impact on audience in accordance with different era settings. For example, when the American citizens who were just under the period of Cold War and the “Vietnam syndrome” were watching Rambo, the feeling elevating from their deep heart was pride, excited and self-confident. However, if play these movies at the present, will it work as same as that in last century. So, there is a frequent question like what is the connotation of performing the past films in the context of modern society? And what is the impact on present politics?

About this question, Fredric Jameson (1998) has raised a suggestion about contemporary historical films, which he called “nostalgia films” as well. In his respect, “nostalgia films are necessarily based on the recognition by the viewer of pre-existing historical stereotypes, including the various styles of the period, it is thereby reduced to the mere narrative confirmation of those same stereotypes” (p. 130). Maybe we can understand his words in this way: in modern society, we already know what events happened in the past, those nostalgia films thereby “can do little more than offer the most predictable testimony features” (Jameson 1998, p. 130), which means the collective perception and historical lessons that already existing in our mind. In a word, the function of this kind of historical films is apart from momentously political effectiveness, but concentrates on the pure application of visual images to represent the history by variously narrative story, in this process, the reality of history is substituted by symbolic images, the impact of the films of past genre for the present maybe more foregrounds a kind of propagation by means of abundant images (Boorstin 1961). According to this perspective, what the meanings of representation of history in contemporary films exactly is.

The film genre relating with “The Holocaust” was a typical form of representation of history in the present society. It is effective to understand the question about historical films for contemporary people. The movies about the Holocaust mainly put weight on visual images and narrative truth to represent the horror of the Nazi’s final solution, and the innocent of victims (Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003). The contents of most these kind films generally emphasize two categories: one is to create a narrative story happened in the Holocaust or Auschwitz, and the other is the representation of a true historical story told by a survival who was witnessing the terrible disaster, in this way, the effects generating from these films are relative to “absence” and “memory”. For most people in present society, they are lack of the consciousness of the Holocaust, so, the representation of the Holocaust could offset this block of “absence” in their idea. And for majority viewers, what they get from these films are mainly a sort of ethical shock and moral education. Just as many scholars, in their reaches of the representation of the Holocaust, they all emphasize the term of memory, or we can say the Holocaust memory, which is a kind of memory cannot be forgotten (Apel, 2002; Adorno, 1995; Novik, 2000; Flinkelstein, 2003). However, among the various critique of the representation of the Holocaust, the statement of Flinkelstein (2003) is a little bit different from that of Jameson about the question of the historical films effects. Flinkelstein (2003) regards Holocaust memory as an indispensable ideological weapon, due to it not only effects on morality, but also has significant political meanings. It helps the United States successfully cast itself as a “victim” state.

To sum up, maybe the statement of Jameson is a bit of passive, which is too focus on the passive effects of visual images of historical films to overlook the affects of films on ideology and the audience agency, by which could produce and instill a kind of worldview and social values among the present society (Hall et al., 1980). The various images here are consistent with that voiced by Debord (1995), which express the world autonomously, and mediate spectacle between people in today’s consumer society. However, films are made by people and influenced by dominant culture, it therefore naturally serves for the interests of dominant power (Williams, 1980). For instance, the representation of Holocaust could arouse people’s consciousness of human rights and eagerness of racial equality, which is simultaneously acting on present political event – anti-terrorism. As a result, maybe we can say that the effects of historical films in contemporary society are depending on the transmission of ideological propaganda to meet the political demands.


This paper is through the examination of films, which is one component of mass media, to elaborate that media is not a simple channel to provide entertainment for audiences, it also could transfer and generate certain ideological meanings in different contexts, and consequently produces a kind of impact on the social relations or ideological resonance among viewers. And in this process, representation has played an important role. The reason is that, representation as one fundamental function of media not only could reflect the world, but also be able to make things have new meanings, thereby, this capacity naturally has media served for politics and makes certain political ideas underlying films contents so as to achieve another effects of media, which is apart from providing amusement, but referring to a more broad domain including politics, culture and social relations. However, as we known, ideology has different implications relying on the different contexts it is used. Such as the films made in Reagan era most probably has different effects on that time people and present audiences. For contemporary society, the historical films have double effects, one is to remind the memory of present people and to commemorate certain historical events, the other one is to affect contemporary politics by means of the ideology embedded in those films.



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