03 October 2009

Sunday Salon: Books and Ideology

Jen at Multi-Genre Fan posted an interesting discussion about stereotypes in television, and I found myself wondering how the issue translates to books. Jen writes: "I think it’s important to notice what the stereotypes are and realize how they impact others. If show after show after show portrays people of color, women or people with disabilities a certain way I do believe viewers are influenced more than they’d like to admit." I couldn't agree more. While Jen was focused primarily on negative portrayals of race, gender, and ability, my thoughts extended to ideologies in general. The ideology of a culture is disseminated through, perhaps even created by, its media through a process of normalization. That which we see everyday we accept as inevitable truth whether it's a belief like 'women are objects for male pleasure' or an action such as opening a door for an older person.

Are the ideologies portrayed in books as influential as the ones seen on television and in movies?

I think to truly address this question we have to look at the extremes, works of fiction that have reached a large number of people, and the first books that popped into my head were...Harry Potter and Twilight. Millions of people throughout the world have read these books; many have read them multiple times. Are the morals and standards of behavior in these books affecting the real world? Do readers adopt the ideologies of the texts?

For example, a prominent theme in Twilight is "no sex before marriage". Will readers adopt this philosophy? Will the popularity of this book cause a change in teens' views of premarital sex? Or in Harry Potter, readers learn that rules sometimes have to be broken for the greater good, and that secrets sometimes have to be kept from adults. Is this going to carry over into the young reader's real life interactions?

I hate to be posing all of these questions, but the truth is I just don't know the answers. I think television and film are more influential as a rule for a variety of reasons:

1) I think there is a greater homogeneity in visual media. TV and movies, especially the "popular" shows tend to carry similar ideologies. There isn't much differentiation in views on women, race, physicality, sexuality, etc. from Criminal Minds to CSI to Eastwick to Grey's Anatomy to etc. etc. etc. Because of this, viewers are consistently bombarded with the same messages. Books on the other hand are more varied, partially because there's just more of them.

2) TV and film reach more people than books do. I think we can all agree that the world is full of more tv watchers than book readers. 3) And those who are watching are (mainly) passively taking in the messages being portrayed. Reading, on the other hand, is a more active process requiring a mental effort on the part of the reader that is absent for the viewer. 4) This mental effort also provides the opportunity for personal interpretation and hence manipulation of the ideologies within the text. Again, this ability to affect meaning is not as apparent in visual media, so the ideologies are being placed on rather than created by the viewer.

I hesitate, however, to say that books aren't influential. The Bible, Koran, Talmud, and other religious texts disprove that theory.

So what do you think?

On a Side Note: I have a new email address: eclectic.eccentric@hotmail.com : trillian_lalienvaliel will still work but I'm slowly switching over.


  1. I think that you can be as passive when reading as when watching TV and you can be extremely thoughtful and discerning while watching television. Do these things have influence? Well yes I hope so. I hope books can influence but I don't know how often they influence the culture at large as they influence individuals, especially in our current age when everything is so indivualized. Just like there are few TV shows or films....there is much less centralized cultural influence these days.

  2. I agree with you because I think the visual media reaches more people, and I think visual images have more impact than words, and even with the books you mention - Bible, Koran, Talmud there are lots of believers, but how many have actually read the whole books?

  3. I think books are more varied because there are more authors of color, of different genders, of different sexual orientations, of different faiths, and with different disabilities. Granted readers need to be willing to make an effort to read books by those unlike themselves but they still have more of opportunity to do so.

    Unfortunately I think TV and Movie entertainment still very much straight, white able-bodied, male oriented and as such it's limited to what THEY want to see. Some shows do better than others but again most of the characters you see are straight, white, able-bodied and male.

  4. A couple of things that occurred to me while reading points 1 and 2:

    1) Does the homogeneity of the visual media suggest that these ideologies stem elsewhere than visual media themselves? Is it better explained that the ideologies presented are not those of the media specifically, but of those to whom they are 'selling' their product? It's a chicken-or-egg problem, but there must be a reason those patterns are so common.

    2) I agree that there are more TV and film watchers than readers, but I do not think this is the sole reason for TV and film reaching more people. When we talk about TV and film, we're probably referring mainly to a couple dozen popular prime-time TV shows and a few hit movies. When we compare that to 'books', what are we talking about? The hundreds of books on the bestseller lists? Viewership and readership aside, I would think that any given TV show has a greater chance of reaching more people than any given book.

  5. I'm a firm believer that the personal is political and that ideology permeates everything. Also, I agree with Amy that both TV and books can be consumed both passively and actively. I also think that art and the media influence, touch and inspire people, but the way it happens it probably not straightforward. Possibly one of the reasons why is that in our day and age nobody is exposed to a single thing. So a kid might read Twilight or whatever and get certain ideas about sexuality and marriage, and then read something else that transmits a different ideology altogether.

    Having said that, I do think it's important to engage with the ideology behind a story...doing so is one of my favourite things about reading and watching movies and TV series. And I also believe that stories have consequences; that those that perpetuate stereotypes actively harm people. Then there is also the problem of invisibility: certain groups are barely ever represented at all. Brandon's first point is a good one...it is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. I think the answer is that art and entertainment both reflect widespread ideologies and help perpetuate them. Which is why I think it's important for them to stay a bit ahead of current dominant ways of thinking: change has got to start somewhere, after all.

  6. Interesting debate and of course I cannot think of much to add. :o)


Talk to me baby!