Friday, March 30, 2007

Hegemonic Messages in "The Office"

My topic for this blog, NBC’s comedy/mockumentary series, “The Office,” was first introduced to me by a friend and has since become one of my favorite TV shows. As a popular prime time TV show it is a major part of popular culture. Aside from being extremely funny, it is also a strong source of the hegemonic messages that are so prevalent in popular culture today. The messages portrayed, whether they are about gender, race, or sexuality, deal mostly with oppression, hegemonic hierarchy, and the stereotypes by which they are perpetuated. Most of these stereotypes stem from the ignorance of the main character, Michael Scott, who happens to be the boss of the office. Although there is a vast amount of hegemonic messages portrayed on this show, two examples stand out to me in particular. One pertains to race, and the other to sexuality.

In an episode entitled, “Diversity Day,” Michael tries to educate the office about race and diversity through the use of stereotypes. He has each employee play a different race and make stereotypical comments to each other about the races they are portraying. This failed attempt at diversity education brings to light the prevalence of racial stereotypes, not only in popular culture but society in general, and how carelessly they are thrown around. Racial stereotypes, as evident in this episode, can be used to raise the social standing of a racial majority by subordinating someone of a racial minority. “But hegemony is more than social power itself; it is a method for gaining and maintaining power” (Lull, 61). This power is maintained in a hegemonic hierarchy, in which race is significant factor. The messages sent in “Diversity Day” do a good job of showing this.

Another episode whose hegemonic messages stood out to me involved the topic of sexuality. In the episode, “Gay Witch Hunt,” after finding out that one of his employees is gay, Michael tries to devise a way to find out who else in the office is gay so he does not offend anyone in the future. His assistant, Dwight, suggests that wearing women’s clothing defines someone as gay. This episode sends a message common in popular culture, that gay men are more feminine than straight men, with “manhood and masculinity most associated with being human and womanhood and femininity relegated to the marginal position of ‘other’” (Johnson, 94). In trying to identify any homosexuals in the office Michael casts them aside as different, people who need to be separated from everyone else. Through messages like this, “The Office” places homosexuality, femininity, and racial minorities, as seen in the previous example, at the bottom of the hegemonic hierarchy.

At the same time that these hegemonic messages are being disseminated, “The Office” also counters them simply through the way they are presented. These counter-hegemonic messages can only be seen, however, if you take the show as satirical comedy and not as “just a show.” For, if you do take it as “just a show,” you pick up all of the hegemonic messages and leave behind the fact that the show is purposely making fun of the ignorance behind these messages. By poking fun at this ignorance, especially that seen in the character of Michael Scott, “The Office” challenges hegemonic norms and ideals. In challenging these norms it becomes a more meaningful source of popular culture and not just a television show.


References:

Lull, James (1995). Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. Columbia University Press.

Johnson, Alan G. (1997). Patriarchy, the System. An it, Not a He, a Them, or an Us. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Temple University Press.

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