Ideology in Film


Hawkes argues that a person is a reflection of their environment and that their ‘personality’ is a composite of stimuli such as images and attitudes accumulated throughout life (Hawkes, 1996); the sum of this accumulation constitutes any one person’s ideology. Ideology can be a set of beliefs for example capitalism, feminism etc. Dominant ideology are, according to Marx, the ruling ideas and practices of any particular epoch. They are self-perpetuating in order to self-preserve, for example in today’s patriarchal society: the subjugation and objectification of women is perpetuated by their portrayal in media.

Marx and Engels argue that the ideology of the ruling class, due to their control of the material and intellectual force (the factories and the schools), is found in all aspects of  production and those without the capacity for production are subjected to said ideology (Marx & Engels in Durham, 2001). In regards to Film, in American Graffiti for example, a film set in the 60’s about racing cars, chasing girls and growing up: the ruling ideologies of the time are apparent. A capitalist agenda is apparent in Terry ‘the Toad’s’ narrative, in which geeky Terry’s luck changes and he gets the girl upon borrowing a much ‘cooler’ car. Here the girl is his prize via the material object of the car. This adheres to both capitalist and patriarchal ideologies. Buy the car get the girl. Marx saw audiences as passive; meaning films like this brainwash them into following the example it provides i.e. they go out and buy cars in order to get girls.

According to MacCabe, the definition of realism stems from the search for an ‘empirical notion of truth’ in a text. He describes Film as taking a knowledgeable position in regards to its audience. The passing on or distribution of this knowledge is what creates realism (or at least a sense of realism). Films create a ‘metalanguage’ to contextualise themselves, aiming to appear more real. Like a novel does through prose, description and a characters thoughts, a film portrays its world through mise en scène and other visual cinematic techniques, e.g. in American Graffiti the cars and the music make up this metalanguage – informing viewers of its setting (MacCabe, 1974).

Realism is arguably a more effective tool for inciting or maintaining ideologies than other ‘less real’ styles. The more real something seems, the more likely an audience is to drop its guard and accept what they are seeing for the truth. Such is the case with American Graffiti which is cited as a realist text, although there are few mentions of socio-political issues. When attempting to replicate life, ideology is inescapable and is in fact ‘reproduced in familiar, apparently benign institutions that are part of everyday social life’ (Althusser, 1970).

Christopher Nolan described The Dark Knight Rises as the sum of ideas and attitudes that stuck to the proverbial wall when several were thrown against it. Claiming, therefore, that the film has no fixed ideology and leaves itself open for various interpretations, hence a range of different readings. He argues that the film is simply a story and the questions that might arise from it are simply its backdrop (Rolling Stone, 2012). Bordwell argues that this explanation is flawed and that the ‘cultural mix on display in a movie can still exclude certain possibilities’ i.e. what is not on the screen says as much as what isn’t.

Ideology in film can be consciously situated and stem from agendas, it can also be subconsciously installed – seeping into a film regardless of intention, or it can manifest in a third sense. That being when a film, usually a Hollywood blockbuster, is intentionally ambiguous, skirting around big ideas in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Recent examples such as Warcraft have clear thematic roots in refugee based issues, although no clear statement is made thus a sense of pseudo-depth is achieved without risking offence or exclusion ( 2012). 


Bordwell, D. (2012). Nolan vs Nolan. Available: Last accessed Nov 2016.

Hakes, D (1996). Ideology. New York: Routledge. pp1.

McCabe, C & Easthope, A & McGowan, K (1974). A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (Colin MCabe, from ‘Realism and the Cinema’ (1974)). Glasgow: Open University Press . pp28-30.

Marx, K & Engels, F & Durham, M & Kellner, D (2001). Media and Cultural Studies; Keywork (The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideals). Malden, USA: Blackwell. pp9

Rolling Stone. (2012). Christopher Nolan: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Isn’t Political. Available: Last accessed Nov 2016.


The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Directed by Christopher Nolan [Film]. USA: Warner Bros.

American Graffiti (1973) Directed by George Lucas [Film]. USA: Universal Pictures.

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