The term “cultural hegemony” refers to the way that a society’s norms and values are constructed by, and for the benefit of, the most powerful members of the society, and how the less powerful come to accept those norms and values as natural and inevitable.
Matt Bruenig illustrates how this can happen even within a small group in a brilliant short article, “What Dance Moms Teaches Us About Cultural Hegemony.” Dance Moms is a reality TV show featuring a competitive team of young dancers coached by Abby Lee Miller. Early on, Abby introduced “The Pyramid”, supposedly a system of ranking the dancers by their abilities, but sometimes applied arbitrarily.
The dance moms objected strenuously to The Pyramid at first. But eventually they came to accept it as a given and began to focus all of their angst on where their kids were ranked within The Pyramid. The fact that The Pyramid was an artificial, unnecessary construction was somehow forgotten, even though it continued to cause a lot of unhappiness.
As another example of cultural hegemony, Matt Bruenig goes on to discuss the way we think about poverty and wealth in the United States, as if massive income inequality is an inescapable law of nature.
Most of us have a strong tendency to accept much of the culture and circumstances we’ve grown up with and live with as normal and inevitable. But it’s not always just the rich and powerful that control the way things work. Even in small groups that are fairly egalitarian, norms get established by consensus, or simply by haphazardly falling into certain patterns. Once established, they become shared expectations and can be difficult to challenge or change. The term “hegemony” seems less applicable in this situation, but these norms can become tiresome or even oppressive, just the same.
Income inequality is one of these apparent facts-of-life in America. But the truth is, it hasn’t always been as extreme as it is now, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
So look around. What else have you accepted as a given?