Week 7 : Media and Society Lecture
Valerie Walkerdine: Video Replay
Most popular media production is owned by large capitalist companies - e.g. Murdock, MGM etc.
It would seem likely that the media produced by these companies would support the continuation of the economic and social power of the capitalist class.
Yet some media analysis questions this and suggests that popular media does not always support the power of the capitalist class. How could this be possible?
a) The owners of large media companies are a section of the capitalist class and their interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the class as a whole.
In particular, media owners are driven like all other entrepreneurs by the necessity to continue to make a profit in order to retain investment. If largish sections of the popular media audience enjoy shows that are somewhat critical of aspects of capitalist society, it will be tempting to air such programs in order to make money. Since media owners are in competition with each other for audience share it will be hard to resist pressures to maximize audiences by showing whatever is popular.
The reality may be that most of the audience are already convinced of the superiority of the capitalist system over any possible alternative - due the effectiveness of a dominant ideology. Nevertheless, discontent with the workings of capitalism is likely to be expressed in at least some popular media programs.
b) In analyzing the effects of the popular media on its audience, it is perhaps a mistake to concentrate all the attention on the content of the programs in question. A textual analysis of content is not the only way to look at the political impact of media.
If we look at the way different groups in society receive the media and make sense of it we may find that oppressed groups read the media in ways that are anti-capitalist, even in cases where an academic observer may see the content as pro-capitalist.
Furthermore, this analysis can be extended to say that we should look at the ways that people actually cope with their difficult position in capitalist society. We can ask how the media may help them to do this. By asking this question we may have more of an understanding of why particular programs are popular. In other words, programs may become popular because they offer the tools to cope with the stresses of capitalism. Whether they are pro or anti capitalist may be a bit beside the point for the people who are actually enjoying them.
This is how Walkerdine looks at the use of Rocky by the Cole family, viz:
1. Most academic analysis would see the Rocky films as conservative politically.
- They represent American society as an ideal in contrast to an evil Russia, suggesting that the capitalist mode of production is the best possible one, and the only one in which there can be any real freedom.
- They endorse a mythology by which the individual battler can get ahead in capitalism by hard work and struggle, which obscures the fact that real power is held by a ruling economic class that cannot be called to account by ordinary people.
- They glorify male violence and competitiveness; something which plays into the hands of the capitalist state as it uses military violence to subdue opposition in developing countries.
Walerdine doesn't spell all this out because she is assuming the reader has read all this in writers like Kellner (wk 6).
2. Walkerdine argues that as far as the Coles are concerned, the above is a very misleading analysis of how the Coles use Rocky. Obviously Mr Cole is the main fan of Rocky but much of what gets said about Rocky by Mr Cole also relates the way the whole family acts politically.
- Mr Cole is a strong trade unionist. Walkerdine thinks that the emphasis that Mr Cole places on Rocky as a fighter is closely related to the way Mr Cole talks about other conflicts that are relevant to his own life. She draws the conclusion that Mr Cole compares Rocky's struggle as a working class man with his own struggles against company bosses.
- Mrs Cole is also a strong unionist in her local workplace and acts as a shop steward to represent her fellow employees.
- Mr and Mrs Cole also engage in conflicts with the school authorities - an arena in which most working class people are sometimes made to feel inadequate by middle class experts. The article mentions incidents like the fight to have dangerous asbestos removed from the school, and their successful struggle to get their elder son into a top government school. In these ways the Coles engage in daily life struggles with authorities that are part of the capitalist system and in doing this they draw strength from films like Rocky which show successful actions fought by working class heroes.
- Mr Cole also urges both his son and daughter to stand up for themselves and fight to get what they need. This is practical action by the working class to maintain some autonomy and power in the context of a capitalist system which is ranged against them. Again, Walkerdine links this to the way Mr Cole admires Rocky's struggles.
3. Another key point of Walkerdine's analysis is to look at Rocky as a fantasy and to argue that its importance lies in the way it enables Mr Cole to cope with the humiliations of daily life in capitalist society.
- She argues that the working class man has only his physical body to sell and that this is a humiliating position to be in, in a society where intellectual work has the highest status and is rewarded the most. What makes this worse is that the demanding labour of work tends to use up this physical body meaning that working class men of fifty or more are often physically disabled with their years of work - e.g. bad back, asbestosis etc. Worse still, such physical labour never leads to any advancement or career path.
- A film like Rocky creates a fantasy myth around this unenviable life situation. It is about an ordinary working class man who is able to make use of the physical capability that is the job requirement of all working class men and escape from the working class to a life of luxury. A key sign of such status is the ability to afford to look after a wife and children who do not have to work because you can support them. She notes that the similar fantasy for working class women and girls is the fantasy of getting ahead through their looks and abilities as a performer.
- Unlike some marxist critics Walkerdine does not see this as "escapist" in the sense of distracting people from the horror of daily reality by giving them an unrealistic fantasy of "making it". In other words, she thinks ordinary people are not so stupid as to think that climbing the ladder of class into a wealthy or even middle class position is actually a real possibility. Instead this fantasy makes it possible to cope with a reality in which such things are seen to be what they are - dreams.
- She basically thinks the middle class academics who condemn popular media as "escapist" reveal an agenda in which the working class is not distracted by escapist media and makes a revolution of the kind Marx expected.
She finds this a very callous way to look at working class life. What these middle class critics think is - how can the working class be made to rise up and create the kind of revolution that the middle class academic is hoping for? They would like to see all this escapist media vanish so the working class would get really depressed with their situation and go for a revolution.
4. Another point that Walkerdine makes is about the middle class academic's reactions to films like Rocky in terms of violence. She believes that the middle class is actually scared of working class violence; of a violent and chaotic physical uprising by the masses. When they condemn films like Rocky and Rambo what they also show is their fear of this kind of violent response. The left wing middle class is in the paradoxical position of both wanting the violent marxist revolution to overthrow capitalism and yet being scared of working class violence.
5. A lot of the rest of the article is about how Mr Cole uses Rocky in a way that backs up his patriarchal control of Mrs Cole. It also deals with the way the viewing of Rocky reveals Mr Cole's attempts to reproduce patriarchal masculinity in his son and emphasized femininty in his daughter.
Mr Cole likes Rocky because of the way Rocky's physical and economic power as the provider give him control over his wife who is relegated to the domestic sphere. Mr Cole treats his own wife in the same way, despite the fact that she is in reality employed and not a "kept woman", like Rocky's wife.
He sees his daughter Joanne as "Dodo", a kind of cute feminine thing who represents all the mushy cuteness that he has suppressed in himself in order to attain to a masculine hardness of the kind Rocky represents. Dodo is a projection of Mr Cole's repressed feminine side. If Dodo gets to enjoy playing this cute feminine role it will interfere with her becoming an independent and assertive person in her own right.
6. The implication of all these points together is that Walkerdine sees the use of Rocky by the Coles as being radical from the point of view of class struggle - it encourages the working class Coles to make a stand in daily life - but it is conservative from the point of view of feminist politics - it encourages the working class patriarch, Mr Cole to continue his domination of working class women, his wife and daughter.