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Hal Himmelsten: Television Myth and the American Mind


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Title: Hal Himmelsten: Television Myth and the American Mind

Hal Himmelsten Television Myth and the American
  • Himmelsteins 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

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.

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.

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.

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

  • 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).

Dominant ideology
  • The main belief system that explains social
    reality and establishes the collective goals of a
  • 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.

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 womans place is in the home. How did
    it justify this?

Cultural Myths
  • Advocates of the dominant ideology typically
    employ the use of cultural myths to elevate their
    ideology into the sacred realm of eternal
  • Myths are recurrent themes and stories that speak
    to a cultures heritage and identity.

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.

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
  • 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

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 Macys parade is a spectacle of celebration,
    little of it having much to do with Christ. Isnt
    Macys a capitalist department store? What are we
    really celebrating?

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?
  • Didnt 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?

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.

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.

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
  • Television, the most powerful media in history,
    promotes certain cultural myths in the service of

Cultural Myths used in the Service of Capitalism
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 cant 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 Jeffersons, tabloid interviews
    with sports stars who worked hard to get ahead,

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

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

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
  • 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.

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
Rural Frontier
Rural Middle Landscape (Mayberry)
Suburban Middle Landscape (suburbia)
Urban Frontier
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,
  • 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

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
  • 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.

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.

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.

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
  • This myth says to look out for Number 1 - that
    your interests matter more than others
  • 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.

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), womens magazine
    ads, etc.

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.

Myth of Technological Utopia and the Myth of
  • Problems are solved - not created - by new
  • 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
  • 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,

Myth of Feminine Mystique
  • Women belong in the home as wives and mothers,
    not in the workforce or in most other
  • 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.

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.

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

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
  • 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).

Six Net Effects of TV Myths
  • 3. Ones gain at anothers 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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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 viewers
    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.

What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional
  • 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
  • The ideal citizen is a spectator a voyeur
    rather than a real participant in culture.
    Furthermore, they are not allowed to be an
  • 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.

What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional
  • 3. Dominant culture legitimizes the wealthy, or
    the existing status quo distribution of power and
  • An oppositional culture challenges existing
    social class arrangements and questions
  • 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?

What is meant by the dominant vs. oppositional
  • 4. Dominant culture tries to defuse oppositional
  • 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.

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
  • Therefore, there is much censorship and
    cooptation of alternative ideologies.

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.

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