Ideological theories and practices constantly infiltrate culture and media, seeping into works of art and reflecting the current societal consensus. The 2014 film The Lego Movie serves as a satirical portrayal of some of these ideologies that often go undetected by viewers engrossed in the entertainment value. By depicting a society that has completely bought into the idea of a hierarchy, this movie presents a glimpse of hegemony at work, and how popular culture is an instrumental tool used to impose control over values and knowledge.
Hegemony’s defining characteristics are tied to the idea that power is negotiated between different class levels of people through mediums of folklore, popular culture, and religion. The idea of hegemony, which was first introduced by Antonio Gramsci (a scholar who opposed the Mussolini regime in fascist Italy), details how human struggle dictates the relationships of power (Storey, 2015).
In The Lego Movie, the citizens lead very structured lives and do not question the media and repetitive entertainment that is forced upon them. Everyone seems to be content, and willingly adheres to all provided instructions. One begins to wonder why all of the characters accept their subordination – agreeing to overpriced coffee, strict job assignments, and an overall lack of control in the outcome of their lives. The film shows how, with some prompting by popular culture, the majority of society can convince themselves to accept their station in life without question. The average citizens in the movie seem to enjoy the rigid structure. Their life is simplistic – they only need to follow directions and the difficult decisions will be made for them. The only song that plays – “Everything is Awesome” – serves as an upbeat distraction from the power-hungry President Business and his plans to freeze everyone. The catchy song, which is a phenomenon everyone knows and sings along with, is also played anytime the citizens are on the verge of overhearing a government secret. This reinforces the idea that hegemony must be constantly maintained in order to sustain the established power dynamics.
A societal environment such as this is achieved when “a social group seeks to present its own particular interests as the general interests of the society as a whole” (Storey, 2015, p. 83). Emmet, the film’s protagonist, is introduced to the audience as a member of the subordinate group that completes the same routine each day and is oblivious to the inner workings of the government that controls him. As the Bennett reading highlights, “cultural and ideological practices are to be understood and assessed in terms of their functioning within the antagonistic relations between the bourgeoisie and the working class as the two fundamental classes of capitalist society” (Bennett, 1986, p. 95). While hegemony is tied to capitalism, President Business owns and controls all modes of production and output. This is presented as being in society’s best interest, even though it truly only serves the desires of Lord Business himself.
The world of the film also appears to be very stable – only the small group of imaginative “MasterBuilders” are threatening to ignite a rebellion. The vast majority of the citizens subscribe to President Business’ political philosophy; however, it is important to note that conflict is not completely removed from this society, but is rather strategically contained by those in power (Storey, 2015). The government in The Lego Movie redirects any conflict to less threatening channels by airing only one television show that features highly simplistic comedy, and containing the MasterBuilders in President Business’ Think Tank (which functions as a prison). By isolating the innovative members of society, the government is able to mask or stifle the questioning of authority.
The film directly aligns with Gramsci’s statement that “in times of crisis … the processes of hegemony are replaced, temporarily, by the coercive power of the … army, the police, the prison system, etc.” (Storey, 2015, p. 85). Hegemony results from and depends on negotiations between classes, but when conflict does break out of its containment (Emmet and the MasterBuilders attempt to stop President Business from using his weapon, the Kragle) hegemony is not sufficient. President Business enlisted Bad Cop and the police to capture Emmet and his accomplices, imprisoning them.
Popular culture, in the case of The Lego Movie, has the ability to critique the very theories and practices it perpetuates – achieving leadership through hegemony is made possible by films and other works of mass culture. However, The Lego Movie shows its audience an outside view of what subordinates give up in accepting their subordination. We, as viewers and consumers of popular culture, have all been subject to the values and beliefs engrained in our world’s media. However, it is much more difficult to be self-aware of one’s own conformism to ideology. It is through The Lego Movie that we see hegemony at work, and how popular culture is used to manipulate class negotiations.
Bennett, T. (1986). Popular Culture and the ‘Turn to Gramsci.’ Popular Culture and Social Relations, 92-99.
Lord, P., & Miller, C. (Directors). (2014). The Lego Movie [Motion picture on DVD]. USA: Warner Bros. Animation.
Storey, J. (2015). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (7th ed). New York: Routledge.