Monday, November 18, 2013

Media and Ideology: Breaking Through The Matrix?

In the '90's dystopian cult classic, "The Matrix," Morpheus tells the trapped Neo he can understand reality but "if you take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." Reading Chapter 5 of "Media and Ideology" by David Croteau is a bit like contemplating taking the red pill. Although a dense, academic treatment of the examination of messages and media content, it is also a fascinating reminder to continually assess, as Morpheus advises Neo, "What is real? How do you define real?"

Ideology, Croteau says, must be understood contextually; however, ideology in media concerns the "underlying images of society" which influence social and cultural issues. He says we must, like Neo, determine "which aspects of whose 'reality' do we define as the most real" and in doing so take into account the most visible, most common, and most powerful that tells us about ourselves and society. Croteau points to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who claims that in liberal democracies power is retained not through physical force but through culture wherein the ruling elite "seek to have their world view accepted by all members of society as the universal way of thinking." This includes media, schools, religion, and business. Correct cultural beliefs become ingrained as "common sense" and thus, create permanency, a type of matrix in and of itself.

Media controls our daily existence. Rarely is there a moment when some strand of media isn't imposed upon our thoughts. So, it's legitimate to say that the media is our matrix: it subtly and not so subtly invades and trains our thinking, from the limited pool of news events to which we are exposed by television main stream news channels, to the incessant ads which permeate in and around us daily, continuously. Croteau says the news media "reaffirms the basic social order and the values and assumptions it is based upon." For instance, political pundits on news channels are chosen from folks who have been "insiders" and debates are also framed around "permanent" political thoughts. Those who are not "invited to the table" are ignored by the press. As an example, I noticed that during the last presidential election, Ron Paul, who amassed a loyal following of young libertarians, was usually ignored during debates, or viewed as a person with views too radical to be taken seriously. Consequently, he had very little air time. Also, blatant bias towards business is highlighted by the reminder that though all newspapers and news stations have investor sections, segments, or whole shows, labor is ignored or mentioned only as a by-product to how laborers add to or diminish profitability.

Croteau also examines film genre and how formulaic plots and heroic archetypes have either emphasized the dominant social order or propped American's ego and pride in times of need, such as movies which have "re-written" the role of America's military might in the Vietnam War.

But, the topic that truly affects us all is advertisement and consumerism, the ubiquitous branding of America. We are bombarded with ads every minute of every day. It is what drives our society  - selling just about everything and anything to consumers. It is the American dream and what we think makes us happy and loved. That's what sells and what is marketed to all of us. And, in doing so, the American "brand" is also sold to overseas markets, creating a two-dimensional view of America and inviting other cultures to buy into this limited view for themselves.

Teaching students to understand media propaganda, and how to decipher what is real and what is marketed so that we think it is "common place" and thus, inevitable, is an important part of our jobs. But, many of us are oblivious to this ideology, this power structure, and so reminding ourselves how brainwashed we as a society are, via articles such as this, is an important first step to swallowing the red pill.


  1. The description of Antonio Gramsci is reminiscent of how we look at Paris Hilton for fashion sense? Maybe we don't, but surely some of our young people did at one point. With enough images of her and her antics they become the norm of our society ... that is a stretch, but there we are.

    OK, so this is too freaky. Last week we independently found and used the same video. This week we are both referencing Ron Paul (check the comment on Keith's blog) and his treatment by the media during the presidential election. Play twilight zone music!

    Have you ever seen the youtube video "The Story of Stuff"? I think you would find it fascinating.


  2. Hi Polly, this is a very well written and concise post. I agree with you entirely, I think that we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are all influenced every day by in-your-face media. Kids need to be able to pick through and decipher what the media wants and expects them to do, and what they think is right. Also, great connection to the Matrix. There are so many cultural commentaries that can be used (especially with older kids), it would be interesting to see a more modern video or song, etc. compared to a piece of literature kids are reading in ELA. Even the Hunger Games would synch nicely with the Matrix...Too bad I don't teach ELA :)

    1. OK- So funny thing is that I mentioned the Hunger Games without reading any of your comments on others' blogs. I guess that wasn't the best example to look at the ways in which girls should be portrayed in media. I do think it's a valid text, though, as far as the blatant propaganda and advertising. Seeing the propaganda portrayed in such an obvious way would be a good segue or connection to students recognizing sneakier forms of propaganda in their own lives.

  3. Polly, I ask my students all the time whose reality are they living in? Who are they trying to emulate? Are they attempting to act as a celebrity, or a super model in a magazine, or are they being authentic? What is their definition of reality? I think thats an interesting place to start...because their reality is what shapes the things and attitudes that they have been looking at the world. I think I might ask my students to think about that question at some point this week. I agree with so much of what you write here, and I love the creative spin of connecting your thoughts to the Matrix.