“My kid watched The LEGO Movie and now he’s reading Marx” What gives?

If I told you about a movie that followed a protagonist on his journey to take down the establishment by galvanizing the working class and shaking up the status quo, you would most likely assume I was describing the latest rated-R action blockbuster or an artistic indie think piece about a real world revolution. However, both of these guesses would be rather far off. The film in question, The LEGO Movie, is actually an animated children’s flick about toys coming to life thanks to the power of imagination. While The LEGO Movie is in fact fun for the whole family, it still presents a powerful and prudent underlying message about the power of ideology and hegemony in a society. For kids it is a funny movie about a favorite toy; for anyone with an understanding of the concepts above, it is a lesson in history.

The LEGO Movie follows a member of the faceless masses named Emmet as he gains a better understanding of the world around him. At first, Emmet is entirely satisfied with his life as just another cog in the machine. He follows all the laws enacted by President Business, who is more of a dictator than his title would suggest. However, the plot is driven by Emmet’s realization that his leader is using ideology and hegemonic practices to maintain order in his world.

president-business
President Business

The government of the LEGO world uses ideology very effectively up until Emmet runs amok. According to Storey, ideology is used in order to instill a ‘false consciousness’ in a society revolving around whatever ideology the ruling class favors. This tactic is used to “work in the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless” (p. 3). This is made possible by the fact that President Business also happens to be in charge of the company responsible for producing everything from dairy products and coffee to surveillance cameras and all the history books. Legendary theorist Karl Marx stated that control of the means of production is what enables those in power to manipulate the messages sent through popular culture. Apparently President Business read a lot of Marx, because he does just that.

The ideology that drives President Business is his belief that order and perfection are the ultimate pursuits, and he uses the media to make sure his people agree. All citizens are given instructions on how to fit in throughout their day, and all popular culture is heavily inundated with subliminal messaging. For example, the most popular song, titled “Everything is Awesome”, is hopelessly catchy and describes how awesome life is when people fit in and work as a team. The government even employs a secret police force tasked with taking down any “Master Builders” who might mess up their plans for perfection. Ideology takes certain forms which “always present a particular image of the world” (p. 3). The song and other forms of media work to convince the general public that life is good despite the fact that they lack the fundamental right to make their own choices.

emmet
Emmet

If ideology is precious cargo, hegemony is the ship that carries it to its destination. President Business uses hegemony extensively in his society so that he can better spread his ideology, which revolves around an obsessive need for order. Noted nineteenth century theorist Antonio Gramsci is considered the father of the concept of hegemony, and he believed that it hinged on the ability of the ruling class to convince society as a whole that their interests are shared among everyone. Gramsci used the concept to “suggest a society in which, despite oppression and exploitation, there is a high degree of consensus, a large measure of social stability” (p. 83). President Business follows these guidelines perfectly, convincing all of his citizens that the pursuit of order and perfection is the ultimate goal. They are oppressed from building creatively and exploited into working for the president’s company, Octan. The Octan commercial shown early in the movie is a perfect example of the hegemonic influences in the LEGO world, featuring endorsements for the president and his ideal way of life while also adding in a quick threat of being put to sleep if said way of life is not accepted.

Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to answer the Marxist question of why the masses tend not to revolt against the power structure in Western civilizations. In the LEGO universe, the citizens experience a classic trait of ideology: they are unaware that they are being oppressed. This lack of awareness can be attributed to the hegemonic tactics described above. However, hegemony is not characterized by no conflict at all. Rather, hegemony is maintained through a push and pull between the masses and those in power (p. 84). This was the answer that Gramsci proposed for the aforementioned Marxist question. When there is an outcry from the masses, the dominant group attempts to contain the issue in such a way that will placate its citizens while not actually shaking up the power structure. The LEGO Movie does not show this perfectly (a children’s film rarely ends with the antagonist having his way), but it does feature a decently parallel situation.

At the beginning of the movie, President Business and his government are fully entrenched in society with balance and order ruling the world. Emmet is convinced that his way of life is what is best for everyone. This perfection is then disturbed once Emmet meets Wyldstyle and Vitruvius and they begin to unravel the status quo. The adventure leads Emmet to realize that everything does not have to be by the book, and that creativity is a key to freedom. However, during the climax of the film, the underlying message of the establishment pushes back when Emmet saves the day by supplying order to the group through the use of instructions. In the end, the dominant power (President Business) makes some concessions to the masses (no glue for permanent perfection, less restriction on creativity) in order to maintain his position of dominance and end the rebellion. Had this taken place in the cold reality of Gramsci and Marx, said characters would most likely still be stuck in glue convinced that being stuck is a blessing.

Citation

Storey, John. (2015). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (7th ed). New York. Routledge.

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