How to: Mass Culture and Hegemony in “The Lego Movie”

Jackson Thurman

MACS 320

Valkanova

10/3/16

The Lego Movie (2014) presents so many theories of society and popular culture that it’s impossible to talk about all of them with a limited word count. This essay specifically will take a look at how The Lego Movie addresses and critiques mass culture and hegemony throughout the film. This essay aims to critically inform and discuss the common themes and ideologies prevalent in this film; not to give a personal opinion or viewpoint. By the end of this essay, readers should be able to look back upon that film and notice other examples of the topics listed above in addition to the scenes this essay will reference.

Before analysis, a brief synopsis of the plot is always a useful tool when deciphering themes and messages in a film. The Lego Movie is a film about a normal construction worker, Emmet, who mistakenly becomes a prophesied hero that will save the world from an evil Businessman/Political leader “President Business.” The movie follows Emmet and his friends on a quest to seal the “Kragel” with the “Piece of Resistance” and end President Business’ plot to freeze everyone. Along the way, Emmet and his friends discover who they are and this in turn helps them complete the quest and save the world.

The Lego Movie’s critique of mass culture is evident throughout the entire film, from beginning to end. The directors critique of mass culture begins when the character Emmet is introduced. The scene begins with Emmet waking up and reciting his daily routine from an instruction manual called, “How to: fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy.” This guide includes directions like breath, shower, eat breakfast, etc. Whilst going about his morning routine, which is the same routine of everyone in this city, Emmet watches TV that introduces us to our first, and arguably most important, critique of the mass culture.

On the TV program, President business, who lets everyone know that he is “President of the world,” tells everyone to make sure that they follow their directions, or they will be put to sleep. After his terribly veiled threat, President Business then promises his love and free tacos to every rule following citizen. Emmett briefly notices that President Business mentioned the “putting everyone to sleep” part, but after a portion of the TV show “Where are my Pants?” plays, Emmet falls onto the floor laughing then says, “What was I just thinking? I don’t care.”

This scene is only 30 seconds long, but it provides the viewer with a massive look into the directors and writers’ ideology and their opinions of mass culture. This scene paints the picture that the people that consume mass culture, like the instructions Emmet has or the shows that Emmet watches, are being repressed. This idea echoes the work of Ernest van den Haag, a dutch-american sociologist who theorized that addicts of mass culture, like Emmet, are “trapped in a cycle of non-fulfilment, moving aimlessly between boredom and distraction.” (Storey, p.32.) This idea of the consumer of mass culture as easily distracted, aimless, absent minded, etc. is a very popular critique, but the directors of The Lego Movie make it known that the system they live in is the cause of this repression. It is because of President Business and his instructions that the viewers of mass culture are sucked into this “cycle of non-fulfillment.” Not only is this point easy to miss, but it is a very important distinction when discussing mass culture in The Lego Movie as opposed to our real life critiques of mass culture.

The next topic that The Lego Movie indirectly critiques is the ideology of hegemony. A Marxist Intellectual by the name of Antonio Gramsci theorized the idea of cultural hegemony. Gramsci believes that cultural hegemony is the, “moral, cultural, intellectual, and political leadership over the whole of society – between the ruling class and the working class.” (Bennett, p. 95.) For example, a society with a cultural hegemony would be like if the wealthy passengers of the Titanic convinced the middle and lower class passengers that it was in their best interest to lock themselves in their room and drown whilst the Titanic sunk.  By this definition, Octan, the company owned by President Business, and President Business himself appear as prime example of cultural hegemony.

The scene where this is epitomized is when Emmet is being questioned by Bad Cop. Bad Cop informs Emmet that President Business intends to end the world. Emmet then goes on to tell the audience that Octan controls and produces, “music, dairy products, coffee, tv shows, surveillance systems, all history books, (and) voting machines.” All of these productions have a massive influence on a society’s culture and the fact that one person or one corporation has control over these influences is a scary thought. The fact that President Business and Octan have assumed this leadership role and is now negotiating this power among the different social classes is an integral part of Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony.

In conclusion, The Lego Movie is full of critiques of mass culture and hegemony, but it seems that the directors definitely relate the film to van den Haag’s idea of mass culture and they paint hegemony in a negative light.  There are many other examples in the film that point to the same ideology, but the examples given in this essay are the first time these ideas are presented in the film and, arguably, the most blatant examples of these ideas.

Works Cited:

The Lego Movie. Dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Perf. Chris Pratt and Will Ferrell. Warner Home Video, 2014. DVD.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. 7th ed. New York: Pearson Educated Limited, 2015. Print.

Bennett, Tony. “Popular Culture and the ‘Turn to Gramsci’.” pp. 92-98

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