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Essay by
Reena Mistry.
Edited by
David Gauntlett.

Can Gramsci's theory of hegemony help us to understand the representation of ethnic minorities in western television and cinema?

By Reena Mistry

Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony is of particular salience to the exploration of racial representations in the media because of its focus on culture and ideology. Unlike Marxist theories of domination, Gramsci relegates economic determinants to the background and brings to the fore the role of intellectuals in the process. The fact that television and cinema are central to popular culture is crucial because Gramsci says particular attention should be given to 'everyday' routine structures and 'common sense' values in trying to locate mechanisms of domination (Gitlin, 1994:517). Many of the clearly racist images of past television and cinema that are now fading from western screens can, in hindsight, be easily explained in hegemonic terms - particularly in relation to colonialism and white supremacy. The use of Gramsci's notion of hegemony does not expire here, however; it can be used to identify both elements of the old racist stereotypes and new, but destructive, representations of racial minorities in the current media of a seemingly liberal society. Thus, it is unsurprising that racism, though perhaps more covertly, still pervades our society.

In order to see how hegemonic ideals of white supremacy hide themselves in current media, it is first necessary to illustrate the racist stereotypes which evolved in the media of a less liberal society. Hall outlines three base images of the 'grammar of race' employed in 'old movies'. The first is the slave figure which could take the form of either the 'dependable, loving… devoted "Mammy" with the rolling eyes, or the faithful fieldhand… attached and devoted to "his" master' (Hall, 1995:21). The underlying message of such images is clear: the slave is someone who is willing to serve their master; their devotion allows a white audience to displace any guilt about their history of colonialism and slavery. The consequence of such messages relates to Gramsci's idea of 'spontaneous consent' (Strinati, 1995:165) or 'consensual control', whereby individuals '"voluntarily" assimilate the world-view or hegemony of the dominant group' (Ransome, 1992:150). Thus the practice of slavery has been made acceptable and therefore goes unquestioned; the destructive potential of such images is evident - especially when you consider that the slave figure is prominent in the classic film Gone With the Wind (Hall, 1995:21).

Although loving, the slave is simultaneously depicted as unpredictable and capable of 'turning nasty', taking us to the second of Hall's base images - the native (ibid:21). Their primitive nature means they are cheating, cunning, savage and barbarian. In movies, we expect them 'to appear at any moment out of the darkness to decapitate the beautiful heroine, kidnap the children … And against them is always counterposed the isolated white figure, alone "out there", confronting his Destiny' (ibid:21). The primitivism of black people demonstrates their suitability to their servile positions; the fear of their unpredictability provides justification for maintaining control over them, while the image of the civilised white man 'confronting his Destiny' makes the exercise of this control not only acceptable, but also respectable.

The last of Hall's variants is that of the clown or entertainer, implying an 'innate' humour in the black man (ibid:22). Interestingly, the distinction is never made as to whether we are laughing with or at the clown; overt racism is rare in the media rather, says Hall, it is 'inferential' (ibid:20). Tony Freeth (producer, director and active member of the Campaign Against Racism in the Media, CARM) adeptly puts this concept into the context of his experience of the BBC: 'It all takes place in an atmosphere of smiling, middle-class gentility, an air of righteous indignation if confronted with charges of racism. No one in TV shouts racist abuse at black people… No one in TV physically assaults black people, they simply feed us on a diet of "Blacks are the problem"' (Freeth, 1985:26-7). This, of course, is a more recent instance of inferential racism, but the implication is the same - that racism is inferred and reinforced in 'the routine structures of everyday thought' (Gitlin, 1994:517) that Gramsci says we should focus on.

The image of 'Sambo', introduced in 1795, is one of the most enduring and pervasive representations of black people in the history of the media. In this character we can see manifestations of all three of Hall's base images; Rhodes recalls how he was the 'ignorant darkie whose life revolved around song and dance', perpetuating 'the myth that blacks were happy with their slave status' (1995:35). A similar process of normalising black subjugation can be seen in more recent times in 'black' sitcoms; Gitlin argues the emergence of black comedies (as opposed to a serious black drama) reflect an acknowledgement of a rising black middle-class in a non-threatening way to white audiences (1994:524). Using comedy perpetuates the myth of the black clown - a recent example is Will Smith's character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

When considering the representation of race throughout media history, it is important to understand that what underlies the concept of black inferiority is western resistance to decolonization and immigration - Britain has been referred to as 'the last colony in the British Empire' (Freeth, 1985:27). Pierterse notes that 'stereotypes are… reasserted precisely when existing hierarchies are being challenged' (1995:26). Of particular interest is Pierterse's observation of the deliberate nature of the likening of blacks to savages: 'What is striking is how consistent the colonizer's cultural politics are, regardless of geography or ethnicity. Like Africans and blacks, the Irish have been referred to as "savages" and likened to "apes"' (1995:25). The rationale, then, for subjugation is political and social, rather than the actual belief that the savage characteristics are true or innate. Along similar lines Rhodes notes how the stereotype attached to any one race shifts to coincide with political and social mood. Prior to the American Civil War, slaves were depicted as benign and happy with their position; however, during the Reconstruction, when there were pressure on resources, this image was replaced by 'the black brute whose sole aim was raping white women' (1995:36). This idea developed in the early twentieth century, creating hyper-sexualised black stereotypes, representing white 'irrational fears of miscegenation and black liberation, and were employed liberally in early motion pictures' (ibid:37).

Rhodes also asserts that the history of the media as a social institution is an important part of examining the construction of racial representations. The 'struggle between the transmission of racist ideology and dogma, and the efforts of oppressed groups to claim control over their own image , is part of the legacy of the American mass media … Yet this story has received minimal attention in a historiography that has focused on the celebration of technological achievement and financial success' (1995:34). The failure to recognise the white hegemony over media production plays a central role in continuing oppressive representations, in spite of an industry that has distinctly labelled itself as liberal in recent times.

To identify how current television and cinema continue disseminating oppressive racial images, first it is necessary to briefly look to the recent changes that have occurred in the portrayal of racial minorities. Ross details the development of British television's 'multicultural' agenda, which evolved during the late 1970s. Black communities and organisations such as CARM began to express their dissatisfaction with 'public service' broadcasting, objecting to poor representation and a lack of access to the means of media production. What followed was the establishment of the London Minorities Unit (by London Weekend Television), the African Caribbean Programmes Unit and the Asian Programmes Unit (the BBC, both of which were replaced by the Multicultural Programmes Department in 1992) . British audiences saw multicultural 'magazine' programmes such as the BBC's Ebony and the LMU's Skin (1996:120-125). Then there was the all important launch of the commissioning Channel 4 with its minority interest remit, providing hope for media practitioners out side the 'usual mould of white, middle-class male' (ibid:126).

Meanwhile in America, the early 1970s saw Hollywood developing a liberal conscience; the industry appears to have responded to the black liberal movement in two central ways. First is the production of historical anti-racism films; Ferguson notes how films such as Cry Freedom (1987), Malcolm X (1992) and Schindler's List (1993) all focus on the issue of race with a 'didactic' as well as 'entertainment' purpose. Second is the development of the 'blaxploitation' genre; characters such as 'Shaft', 'Black Caesar' and the numerous accounts of the black revolutionist Angela Davis (such as Foxy Brown, 1974) showed black individuals as the central protagonists and in control, in contrast to the marginal roles they were accustomed to in other Hollywood movies. The genre has endured, spawning a 'neo-blaxploitation' (Robinson, 1998:1) in which we could include films such as Bad Boys, Pulp Fiction, and White Men Can't Jump.

Despite these apparent positive developments in Britain and America, the white hegemonic hold over the television and film industries appears to have merely created different, but equally harmful, racial representations and to have repackaged the old stereotypes into forms more acceptable in a 'liberalist' society. A prominent problem is that the media industry is still dominated by white practitioners (though more black people are starting to get behind the camera). Producers and directors may consider themselves to be liberal individuals in trying to bring 'race issues' to the screen, or for avoiding the traditional stereotypes, but largely they rely on the racial stereotypes that they have assimilated as white people living in a racist society (Freeth, 1985:30). Freeth examines programmes about 'race problems' and finds that colonial attitudes seem to dominate the whole production process: 'When the safari hunters from the BBC or TV companies drive into Brixton or Brent they've already decided what they want to say. Out come the cameras and the anxious directors, looking over their shoulders for trouble; out come the long zoom lenses to capture the people but not to get too close… There are the long telephoto shots of young blacks in the street… There are the pans across inner city decay, and the shots of rubbish in the lifts. I sometimes wonder why they go out at all - they could just as well use the out-takes from last time' (1985:24). Freeth's metaphor of television companies as safari hunters clearly illustrates the persisting conception of black people as primitive; for a white audience who (like the producers) have little other contact with black people, these are powerful and destructive images which only confirm the stereotypes rather than portray 'reality'.

This reliance on preconceived ideas about racial minorities can be seen as a form of elitism in which 'liberal' media practitioners see themselves as intellectually superior to the people the programme is about or for. These attitudes can be identified also - and perhaps with greater consequence - at the highest levels of media institutions. When Farrukh Dhondy (one-time commissioning editor for multicultural programmes at Channel 4) was asked how he, as an Asian man, addressed the needs of the Afro-Caribbean community, he replied: 'Just through familiarity with what the Afro-Caribbean community wants, needs and does… I do not attend any committees to advise me on it because my brains are better than any group of advisors I could gather' (1993:38). Such attitudes have tended to lead to presumptions that black people want to know about policing practices and Asian people about immigration law. Paul Gilroy (1983) argues that this distances minority groups even further from mainstream society.

Such presumptions could be attributed to ignorance, however there is still evidence of racist attitudes in media institutions. When trying to make a programme about white racism for the BBC, Freeth recalls how he and his producer we told: ' "There is a terrible prejudice between West Indians and Asians" (so it's not really a white problem at all!); "It's a human problem" (nothing to do with history, politics or economic, or anything like that!); and that "Many black people imagine prejudice when it doesn't really exist" (so racism's not a problem at all, just a figment of black people's imagination!)' (1985:26).

This attitude of locating the problem within the black community itself can be seen in the context of some additional aspects of Gramsci's theory of hegemony. One of these aspects relates to his concept of 'spontaneous consent'; it is the idea that hegemony works because it is based on the granting of superficial 'concessions' (Strinati, 1995:167). This involves the dominant group making 'compromises' that are (or appear as) favourable to the dominated group, but that which actually do nothing to disrupt the hegemony of the dominators. Gramsci employs a military metaphor to illustrate the process: 'In war it would sometimes appear that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy's entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter: and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defence which was still effective' (Gramsci, 1971:235). In the context outlined by Freeth, a concession can be seen to be made to black communities by the hegemonic media by bringing issues of race to the screen under the banner of 'multicultural programming'. However, this is a superficial compromise because the media address the issue in such a way as to maintain black subjugation.

Gitlin notes how in the 1950s hegemony operated through the exclusion of minority groups, but that in an era of liberalism it had to shift its operation to one of 'domestication' (1994:530); in the above case, hegemonic forces located race problems within the minority community itself, rather than within black-white relations. This dynamic nature of hegemony relates to another aspect of Gramsci's theory which is that hegemony is not a fixed set of ideas. Instead, it is a 'shifting set of ideas by means of which dominant groups strive to secure the consent of subordinate groups to their leadership, rather than as a consistent and functional ideology working in the interests of a ruling class by indoctrinating subordinate groups' (Strinati, 1995:170-171). Thus, by 'keeping up with the times' (i.e. the shift to more liberal attitudes) white hegemony is maintained.

These processes of making superficial concessions and reformulating depictions of race to maintain hegemony are evident in other contemporary changes in television and cinema which purport to improve minority representation. British 'multicultural' programming has been criticised along these lines; programmes aimed at racial minorities have tended to presume that the lives of these groups revolve around their racial identity and the problems it incurs. Programmes such as the LMU's Skin are, as a result, preoccupied with black-white conflict. A consequence of this is that racial minorities are then only recognised in relation to the white majority, thus further marginalising these groups (Ross, 1996:121-122). In fact, the very existence of separate 'ethnic' programmes can be seen to expound the problem; Chris Dunkley has described minority programmes as a 'benign fascism' that is capable of producing a 'cultural apartheid' (cited in Broadcast, December 2, 1982, and in Ross, 1996:122).

Minority programming has also been described as a form of 'tokenism'; Ross cites Trix Worrell (1992) who argues that the existence of multicultural programme departments 'lets everyone else off the hook of having to deal with black Britons and perpetuates the thinking that as long as there is one of something - one black sitcom, one black comedy show - then sufficient progress has been made' (Ross, 1996:144). Further, multicultural programming can form a 'ghetto trap' for 'black' programmes (ibid:144). It is an innovation based on prejudice, as Mike Phillips argues: 'When I watch Inspector Morse I don't think of it as not belonging to me and there is no reason why a white person shouldn't feel the same about our programmes' (1992:27). The 'superficial concession' made in this context is the media provision for racial minorities; however, this programming is labelled as being for minorities so that even if positive representations are being circulated within them they simply 'preach to the converted'.

Even if such programming did manage to reach 'outside' audiences, there is the problem that attempts by white liberalists to create more favourable images of racial minorities tends to lead to sympathetic portrayals rather than positive ones. Rhodes notes the paternalism of the nineteenth century abolitionist press which cast slaves as childlike and dependent (1995:35); this is patronising and presents minorities as intellectually inferior. It is still evident in modern representations: young blacks are regularly described as 'searching for identity' - you would be unlikely to hear the same said of white youths (Freeth, 1985:29). Deliberate attempts at presenting positive black images tend also to be based on normative white ideals, the classic example being the middle-class household of The Cosby Show; Mercer points out that there is 'nothing black' about the Huxtable's lifestyle (1989:6).

Fusco (1988) refers to such 'white liberal' attempts as 'Fantasies of Oppositionality'; anti-racist media is constructed in such a way as to allow a white audience to displace the guilt of their racist history. Wings of Desire (1988) is criticised by bell hooks as 'another in a series where post-modern white culture looks at itself somewhat critically, revising here and there, then falling in love with itself all over again' (1991:165). The film tells the story of two white angels rejecting the genocidal holocaust; hooks stresses the presumption that the angels are white and believes that the film is merely an attempt to present white culture in a new light (ibid:166). Such films can be used by white audiences to 'pretend' they are identifying with anti-racist positions but still feel no need for personal active opposition. Ferguson identifies a similar 'guilt-removal' process in his analysis of Schindler's List. The narrative offers both the 'good' and 'bad' German (Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth, respectively); this 'could be seen as a way of absolving others linked with the oppressive group… ("I am white but I'm not like him")' (Ferguson, 1998:125). Ferguson also notes the tendency for white characters to be turned into heros; Schindler is presented as the 'James Stewart of the Holocaust' (ibid:121). In contrast, the Jews are depicted as pathetic and helpless (ibid:122), perpetuating the idea of Aryan/ white superiority.

Even within the blaxploitation genre, white members of society maintain a sense of intellectual and moral superiority. These films are veiled with 'black cool' but traces of the old 'primitive' stereotypes have been reworked: 'blacks are still the most frightening, cunning and glamorous crooks… the sexually available "slave girl" is alive and kicking' (Hall, 1995:22). Robinson examines the work of blaxploitation actress Pam Grier finding that often 'Grier wore… revealing attire; toted pistols, revolvers and shotguns; kickboxed, mutilated and "smoked" her opponents…' (1998:7). Hollywood responded to black liberalism by depicting the apparent empowerment of blacks, while still denotating an essence of white moral superiority.

It appears that Gramsci's theory of hegemony not only helps us to understand the motivations behind racist images in the media, but it is also part of a crucial process of demonstrating the inadequacy of white 'liberal' attempts at reform. In spite of well-meant ventures to present racial minorities favourably, white hegemony over the means of media production means that television and cinema continue to subjugate these social groups.


Dhondy, Farrukh (1993), Interview with Julia Knight, Spectrum, 1, 36-9. Cited in Ross (1996), p.142.

Ferguson, Robert (1998), Representing Race - Ideology, Identity and the Media, Arnold, London, New York, Sydney and Auckland.

Freeth, Tony (1985), 'Racism on Television: bringing the colonies back home' in Cohen, Phil and Gardner, Carl, It Ain't Half Racist, Mum - Fighting Racism in the Media, Comedia Publishing Group, London.

Fusco, Coco (1988), 'Fantasies of Oppositionality' in Afterimage magazine (December, 1988). Cited in hooks (1991), p.171.

Gilroy, Paul (1983), 'Channel 4: Bridge or Bantustan?', Screen, 24, 130-136. Cited in Ross (1996), p.130.

Gitlin, Todd (1994), 'Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment' in Newcomb, Horace, Television - The Critical View, Oxford University Press, New York.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, London. Cited in Strinati (1995), p.170.

Hall, Stuart (1995), 'The Whites of Their Eyes - Racist Ideologies and the Media' in Dines, Gail and Humez, Jean M., Gender, Race and Class in Media - A Text Reader, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Dehli.

Hooks, bell (1991), Yearning - race, gender and cultural politics, Turnaround, London.

Mercer, Kobena (1989), Introduction, in Daniels, Therese and Gerson, Jane, The Colour Black - Black Images in British Television, BFI Publishing, London.

Monaco, James (1981), How to Read a Film - The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Phillips, Mike (1992), Interview, Impact, 2, 27. Cited in Ross (1996), p.144.

Pierterse, Jan Nederveen (1995), 'White Negroes' in Dines, Gail and Humez, Jean M., Gender, Race and Class in Media - A Text Reader, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Dehli.

Ransome, P. (1998), Antonio Gramsci: An Introduction, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York and London. Cited in Strinati (1995), p.165-166.

Reisz, Karel and Millar, Gavin (1997), The Technique of Film Editing, Focal Press, Oxford, Boston, Johannesburg, Melbourne, New Dehli and Singapore.

Rhodes, Jane (1995), 'The Visibility of Race and Media History' in Dines, Gail and Humez, Jean M., Gender, Race and Class in Media - A Text Reader, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Dehli.

Robinson, Cedric J., 'Blaxploitation and the misrepresentation of liberation' in Race and Class, 40, 1, 1-12.

Ross, Karen (1996), Black and White Media - Black Images in Popular Film and Television, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Strinati, Dominic (1995), An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London and New York.

Worrell, Trix (1992), Interview. In Pines, Jim, Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television Since 1936, British Film Institute, London. Cited in Ross (1996), p.144.

This essay was writen in November 1999, when Reena Mistry was a Level Three student on the module Communications Theory at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.

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