Movies as Ideology

On some level the operation of ideology in popular cinema is really simple.  Almost all widely distributed movies are either capitalist or aristocratic fantasies. Each of these types comes in two flavours, idealistic and nihilistic. Take away these four kinds of movies and there isn’t much left over.

Aristocratic fantasies revolve around the idea that transcendence comes from superior might and/or virtue, which is granted by affiliation to the ‘traditional’ social order.

Capitalist fantasies revolve around the idea that transcendence comes from superior personal skill and/or willpower, which is granted by the unique individuality of a person.

In idealistic aristocratic fantasies the hero is usually a prince who goes through a Campbellian Hero’s Journey, who triumphs over his enemies by connecting with his princely lineage. The original Star Wars, for example. A variant involves the hero being lower class but accepting of their station, as in Die Hard, the Dirty Harry movies, etc.

In idealistic capitalist fantasies the hero is either usually either an intellectual entrepreneur or a moral entrepreneur who triumphs by connecting with his unique individuality, believing in himself, that sort of thing. See Pollock, The Imitation Game, and every other Hollywood movie about geniuses.  See also Erin Brockovich and most of the movies about underdogs fighting social injustice.

In nihilistic aristocratic fantasies the hero cannot triumph or, more commonly, achieves only a Pyrrhic victory because evil is neverending. The Dark Knight is an example of this, along with Man of SteelBatman v SupermanSuicide Squad. In general it’s a theme in “gritty and realistic” genre movies. Rogue One has a touch of this although its position in the overall Star Wars canon makes its narrative ultimately more idealistic than nihilistic.

In nihilistic capitalist fantasies the protagonist cannot achieve transcendence because they lack any special genius; for someone who is just a regular person, life presumably has no purpose or meaning. See Boyhood, along with a ton of other critically lauded quirky indie films.

These four types can overlap of course. The Coen brothers’ work, for example, mixes capitalist and aristocratic nihilism. The films of the Dark Knight Trilogy mix aristocratic idealism and nihilism to varying degrees. The Matrix mixes the idealisms of aristocratic ideology (Neo is superior by birth) and capitalism (Neo must Believe In Himself). And so on.

The point is that if you take away all movies that use at least one of these four themes as their emotional core, not much is left over.

And of course we could make the picture more complicated by layering in the operation of gender, race, and other forms of identity. Both conservative and capitalist fantasies tend to be male, white, heteronormative, cisgendered, ableist, and so on.

But the one thing you’re not going to see very often is a socialist fantasy. What would that even look like?

4 thoughts on “Movies as Ideology

  1. “Capitalist fantasies revolve around the idea that transcendence comes from superior personal skill and/or willpower, which is granted by the unique individuality of a person.”

    “But the one thing you’re not going to see very often is a socialist fantasy. What would that even look like?”

    How would you define “socialist fantasy”? The question you pose could lead to the answer that’s needed universally. I’m just playing devil’s advocate (I enjoy your articles and they’re always extremely well thought-out, and I love how you are thinking aloud), but if one takes the obvious response, within your framework, and says that it’s a ‘narrative that revolves around the idea that transcendence comes from a group/society’s superior collective skill or willpower’, (“Calendar Girls”, “The Full Monty”, even “Power Rangers” etc) then you’re entering into a position that could (in theory, not spirit!) equate colonial texts with socialist fantasy.

    If you argue that a socialist fantasy can be defined as a film that follows the story of a social group that does *not* demonstrate a superior skill or willpower, then the film is aristocratic because social status isn’t challenged.

    In defining those four groups in the way that you have, “socialist fantasy” cannot exist! The extension to this is that socialism cannot exist purely and without overlap in any narrative situation, including day to day reality. If an answer to “what is a socialist fantasy movie?” can be found, you might have an answer to help with its practical application. So, the quest for an answer to this is really worthwhile if not crucial.

    Does it help to appropriate so many narrative motifs/cliches to capitalism/aristocracy? Do these now become barriers to an acknowledgement of socialism as a progressive force? Can we allow overlap between the same pattern but with eight groups? Then a socialist fantasy might be easier to create and recognise, but with the result that your argument here is compromised.

    I think that these theoretical problems are impacting us all the time. You mention “The Imitation Game”, a kind of biopic. Would a biopic of Karl Marx, Helen Keller, Aneurin Bevan, Robert Owen, Che Guevara, directed by a socialist thinker, have a chance of being anything other than a capitalist or aristocratic narrative? Even the director, no matter how committed s/he was to social equality/change, would have lived an idealist capitalist story by using her or his individual skill to create the film.


    • Interesting ideas!

      I think the first thing about a socialist fantasy is that it isn’t oriented to transcendence. Transcendence is elitist. There are other ways to achieve success or satisfaction as a human being, so exploring those would be one mark of a socialist work.

      The other major feature that springs to mind is the importance of relationality, of people working together in a non-alienated way.

      So maybe at its simplest that is a socialist fantasy: a character or characters working with others in the struggle to achieve non-alienated relations, whether in the domain of economic production, political decisionmaking, sexuality, family, or anywhere else…

      Liked by 1 person

      • it’s fine as far as it goes but where does “When Harry met Sally” fit in to all of this? – ie. the family (very important in Hollywood). And you say an example of a socialist fantasy is Star Trek – there’s no money in it. Can you comment?


      • That’s a really good question and one that I hadn’t thought of.

        I think When Harry Met Sally and those movies about romance or family are idealistic capitalist fantasies in a somewhat subtle way: they are about people pursuing non-alienated relationships without changing or challenging the capitalist social order.

        The same applies to most love songs and the general emotional significance of both romantic and familial love in our culture today. Romance and family are two kinds of relationships where we believe we can achieve emotional authenticity, and our urgent need for that authenticity is a symptom of the inauthenticity imposed on us by the objective demands of our lives as workers or capitalists.

        Movies about romance often play with this directly, making explicit connections between the inauthenticity of work and the authenticity of love in idealistic ways (e.g. Pretty Woman) or nihilistic ways (e.g. Revolutionary Road).

        Re. Star Trek, I think that’s an interestingly complicated example with both socialist and capitalist elements. The mode of production is nominally socialistic and the emphasis tends to be on problem solving through cooperation, teamwork, communication, social norms, and so on. On the other hand I think the philosophical core of the show is more Enlightenment liberal humanism than historically materialist socialism, and that comes through in various ways. I could give examples if you like … like I say, I think that one is complicated in an interesting way.


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