Hegemony is defined as the power and dominance that one particular group holds over another. The term was coined by Italian intellectual, Antonio Gamsci. He explained hegemonic systems in society as things that we all view as “just the way it is”, instead of examining why they exist and what effects they have on both the parties involved and society as a whole.
A primary way in which many of us experience hegemony on a daily basis is represented in the patriarchal society in the United States and certain attitudes held about both men and women. For years, men had countless rights and privileges that women did not have. While in the past few decades, women have gained the right to vote, work certain jobs, and many other things that are considered steps towards equality, many of the attitudes regarding gender are still very prevalent. The hegemonic dominance that men hold over women is demonstrated in many examples such as unequal pay, traditional roles within the family structure. etc. However, the attitude I would like to focus on to best illustrate hegemony has to do with attitudes and expectations towards women with regards to sex.
In today’s society, whether we want to face it or not, sex is expected from women, and many/most of their actions are interpreted as a way to receive male attention. This can be seen in something as simple as the interactions between men and women in nightclubs and bars. Men will frequently approach women in bars and invite them to dance. If the woman refuses, the automatic assumption is that there is something wrong with the male. Sometimes these interactions result in harsh words from the man to the woman. If you break this situation down and examine the underlying causes of these reactions, the hegemonic structure becomes obvious. Simply put, in todays’s society, a woman should want to have sex with a big strong man who approaches her in a bar. If this is not something the woman is interested in, it must mean there is something wrong with the man. Because we all know that if an attractive woman is dressed up at a bar, she must be seeking out sex with a man, and if she refuses an offer to “grind up” on a stranger, there must be something wrong with him. These kinds of attitudes can have negative effects on both the subordinate and the dominant group.
A perfect illustration of these attitudes comes from the movie “Easy A.” For those of you who are not familiar with the movie, it features a teenage girl named Olive who, in order to help her homosexual male friend remain in the closet, pretends to lose her virginity to him at a party. After word gets out about the favor Olive did for her friend, other boys at the school with various self-esteem and image issues seek her out for the same favor in order to boost their popularity. Because apparently the only way to determine if you’re a real man is whether or not girls are sleeping with you. While this still keeps men in the dominant category since they are the ones who should be receiving the “gift” of intercourse, these are insensitive and damaging expectations to place on them that can cause serious emotional damage. Not to mention the fact that this structure labels all women as sexual objects. I don’t even have time to discuss the films representation of “slut shaming” and the unfair stigmas attached to both a woman who chooses to become sexually active and a woman who chooses not to. The Breakfast Club said it best with “If you don’t do it, you’re a prude, and if you do it, you’re a slut.”
Gramsci believed that by continuing to think critically about the hegemonies of our society rather than just blindly accepting them, we have the potential to change our society for the better. So when you see a commercial featuring a naked woman covering her body in Doritos in order to attract the sexual attention of her partner, think about what ideas and attitudes it’s promoting about both women and men and the potential dangers it could have for both.