Pop Culture, Polemics and Provocation: A Semiotic Analysis of Michael Moore
(c) Jessica Densmore, 2005
It is a hegemonic cultural myth that western media is guided by a left-wing bias. It is not “bleeding heart liberals” but rather multinational corporations who control the production and distribution of media. In a world where the daily news is too often translated through conservative propaganda vehicles like CNN, and in which films must be approved by “big six” media giants to reach an audience, it is difficult for voices of dissent to establish a mainstream following (http://www.pbs.org/). Over the past decade, writer and filmmaker Michael Moore emerged as an icon of resistance whose work single-handedly demonstrates how generic and/or conservative mainstream media representation has become. Moore uses a satirical, multimedia approach to critique American domestic and foreign policy in support of social democracy; simultaneously he has become a multimillionaire, who has been labeled a “hero” by his fans and a “fraud” by his detractors. Either way, with the commercial success of his documentary films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore has earned enshrinement as an icon of popular culture. Michael Moore is a paradoxical pop culture icon, who critiques the American cultural-political system from within, and who provides a mainstream face and voice to political leftism.
Figure 1, Michael Moore Image, http://www.wikipedia.org
Michael Moore is a recognizable pop culture icon (see. Fig.l):
An initial semiotic analysis of this photo of Michael Moore reveals a big, middle-aged, white man with light brown hair and glasses, dressed in a black and white suit, holding a statue of a golden man in his right hand, and sticking two fingers up on his left hand. A secondary semiotic analysis communicates that this is indeed a photo Michael Moore: writer, film maker and activist, dressed in a tuxedo, holding an ‘Oscar’ Academy Award statue for Best Documentary Feature (Bowling for Columbine), and forming a peace sign. An even deeper level of semiotic analysis indicates that Moore is a wealthy, successful self-actualized man who is living the “American dream”. Probed to yet another semiotic level, Michael Moore is a polemicist and journalist who represents a public voice of liberalism that critiques the American system and evokes dialogue, thought and controversy; a mainstream catalyst for the voices of many under represented Americans.
In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell writes, “[t]he two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought” (210). Popular culture is often a vehicle for those in power (“the Party”) to perpetrate oppression, pacify the masses, and discourage critical thinking. When six major companies with significant private interests both own and distribute representation, it is rare for critical voices that fail to propagate those interests to access a mainstream audience. Michael Moore, however, has managed to bypass conservative cultural gatekeepers and to navigate the American pop culture landscape. Moore is one of the few contemporary American filmmakers who has successfully managed to “bite the hand that feeds him” by using television, film and books to critique the American system, while never-the-less receiving mass publication and distribution.
It is important to note that Michael Moore has continually struggled against the censorship of his work. In his book Dude Where’s My Country Moore explains:
…after 9/11, my former publisher Regan Books (a division of HarperCollins which is a division of News Corp which owns Fox News which is all owned by Rupert Murdoch), was trying its hardest to make sure my career as an author would come to an early end….The publisher then held the books hostage for five long months-not simply out of good taste and respect (which I might
have been able to understand), but out of a desire to censor me and the things that I wanted to say. (xi – xii Introduction)
Notwithstanding the numerous attempts to censor Moore , and the difficulty he experienced finding a distributor for his book Stupid White Men and his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has become an uber-commercial success. Moore has transcended his fifteen minutes of fame to establish himself as an icon pop culture who manages to critique the system from within.
A political tumult, Michael Moore occupies a unique space in American culture and politics. When Michael Moore accepted his Academy Award for the Best Documentary of the year in 2002 for his film Bowling for Columbine, he stated in his acceptance speech “[w]e live in the time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons” (Bowling For Columbine DVD Special Features). This statement came in the immediate aftermath of America declaring war on Iraq , during an Academy Award ceremony that was scaled down as a response to America ‘s declaration of war, and was broadcast in a time of heightened post-9/11 censorship (www.wikipedia.org). Likewise, in post-9/11 America , when network television had an American flag in the corner of every television station, and most American media was perpetrating stereotypes of people of colour and exploiting an overly-simplistic good vs. evil analysis of terrorism, Michael Moore asked questions of American foreign policy and interests. He illustrated the doublespeak of American policy when he pointed out that when American soldiers kill civilians it is dismissed as “collateral damage” whereas when they (non-white foreign others) kill Americans it is denounced as terrorism; Moore also voiced concerns about the Bush administration (Dude 124). In this way, Moore solidified his iconic status as the voice of the left—an icon of pop culture who provided a timely public voice for a number of Americans who were otherwise not being heard.
Moore is a paradox. In fact, Moore’s paradoxical position has only contributed to his status as an icon by generating public interest and controversy. On one hand, Moore is white, male, heterosexual, and affluent—the epitome of the self-actualized American dream folklore. On the other hand, Moore presents as the “average American” from working class Flint, Michigan who speaks for the “common man” against the hypocrisy of American policies (www.wikipedia.org). Yes, Michael Moore is a man of privilege; however, he uses his privilege responsibly by advocating for the disenfranchised and encouraging Americans to question their foreign and domestic policies. Moore has become a multimillionaire by critiquing the system that created him, and has lined the proverbial wealthy pockets of those who begrudgingly distributed his material. Of course, it is because of Moore’s very ability to generate vast revenue that he has continued to find distributors for his films, and publishers for his books. According to John Friske, Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin, “…the relationship between the commercial interests of mass culture and popular interests is always antagonistic and unstable” (331). While a mass audience has appropriated Michael Moore for their own cultural purposes, Michael Moore has also become a commodity which creates profit for the very system that he critiques. The name Michael Moore has become a marketable brand, guaranteed to sell books, films and other related merchandise.
Michael Moore is arguably one of the most stringently polarized pop culture idols of recent years. On the left of the great American political divide between Republican and Democrat, Moore has become a catalyst for activism and change. Moore has imprinted mainstream media with an unabashedly liberal voice; a voice that has, despite the myth of a left-wing media bias, been conspicuously absent from mainstream media. To his fans, Moore is the ultimate “patriot” and an advocate of democracy, exercising his free speech to question authority. However, for many people on the political right, the name Michael Moore is synonymous with ‘liberal bias”. From this lens, Moore has been labeled as “unpatriotic” for his critique of Bush and American policy (Clarke, intro). In an ironic criticism from the right, who are the political-cultural gatekeepers of America, Moore has also been characterized as a “liar” who spins “facts” to meet his political agenda.
The controversy over Michael Moore has fuelled his journey to iconic status. In the wake of Moore’s anticipated and acclaimed documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore became an active and visible figurehead of the Anti-Bush movement. Moore gained significant exposure and recognition as he demonstrated how film, which is too often used to perpetrate cultural norms, could be used as a vehicle of political critique. Whether you love him, or hate him, it is difficult to consider the landscape of American politics during the George W. Bush years without evoking the name of Michael Moore. Michael Moore provided an alternative analysis and an alternative vision of September eleventh (9/11) by exposing some of the deceit that was at the heart of mainstream media reports on 9/11, he exposed another side of the story to a mass-scale audience. As a pop cultural icon Moore represents provocation: a loud voice of resistance that demands attention. Moore has succeeded in making documentaries “cool” by using humour to expose the system for its flaws.
I was first exposed to Michael Moore when I saw his film Roger and Me at a repertory movie theatre in Toronto in the late nineties. I was a high school student at the time and watching Moore’s documentary empowered my desire to create social change. A writer, who would love to participate in the film making process, I was pleasantly caught off guard by the clever, funny yet scathing film that so actively worked to expose the system, and advocate for the disenfranchised. I was amazed at the ability of Moore’s documentary to promote dialogue. Indeed, post-movie my friend and I went to Fran’s Diner and spoke about the film for hours over Chocolate milkshakes. Having viewed the world through left-wing lenses as long as I can remember, I loyally followed Moore’s subsequent work as his career escalated, and he became enshrined as a cultural icon. For the most part, I consider Moore a professional inspiration who reminds me of the potential to manipulate the system from the inside, and evokes the possibility of utilizing media to promote liberal values. Michael Moore’s work resonates with me because it stands in sharp contrast to the generic, oppressive images that often populate the mainstream media. While not beyond criticism, engaging with Michael Moore’s work enables me to feel connected and inspires my need to be an agent of social change who questions authority.
Michael Moore is an unlikely pop culture icon who continues to dominate the American political-cultural landscape. A polemicist and journalist, Michael Moore has become a recognizable, marketable and profitable brand whose work is certain to generate both acclaim, and controversy. Michael Moore the icon is synonymous with liberalism, anti-Bush sentiment, and provocation. I am looking forward to Michael Moore’s upcoming project, a documentary that exposes the corruption in the American pharmaceutical and health care industry entitled Sicko, which will in all likelihood further augment his status as a pop culture icon of resistance.
Clarke, Jason and David Hardy, Michael Moore is A Big Stupid White Man. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Fiske, John. “Popular Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study 2nd ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia & Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Moore, Michael. Bowling for Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore, Atlantis Alliance, 2002.
—. Dude Where is my Country? New York: Warner Book Inc., 2003.
—. Fahrenheit 9/11. Dir. Michael Moore. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2004.
—. Stupid White Men and other Sorry Excuses for a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty Four. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1990.
PBS Online, “Media Giants.” Internet. March 2005. Available http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/giants/
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia, “Wikipedia: Michael Moore.” Internet. March 2005. Available http://en.wikipedia.orgAviki/Michael_Moore