‘NORTHERN EXPOSURE’: A Site for Hegemonic Struggle?

Jennifer Gatzke

Department of Anthropology, University of Idaho

April 2003


Popular Culture can be defined in a number of ways, but it is generally thought to consist of cultural texts and cultural practices that are consumed on a large scale. These texts and practices are creations and reflections of the western industrial societies that produce them. ‘Pop’ culture says something about who we are and who we would like to be, and as with any artifact of culture, there are many theoretical approaches that may be utilized in its analysis.

One of these approaches draws from the Gramscian concept of hegemony. This approach treats ‘pop’ culture as a site of exchange; a struggle between the forces of resistance by subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation by dominant groups. Gramscian theory suggests that texts move within a ‘compromise equilibrium’ of resistance and incorporation. I propose that the television program Northern Exposure is a cultural text that demonstrates this compromise equilibrium, as it represents dominant ideology through characterization and plot while countering it with alternatives. Capitalist and alternative ideologies are depicted within the same arena, and the tensions resulting from this interplay are compelling and the alternatives appealing. Therefore, Northern Exposure is representative of hegemonic dynamics, depicting struggle and resistance. This ideological exchange is evident in both the cultural text and the cultural practice. Due to time constraints I will focus primarily on a textual analysis, as the analysis of cultural practice by fans is a continuing research project.

In order to support this thesis I will examine how these dominant and alternative ideologies are portrayed in the text and how they interact. The dominant ideology to which I refer is the capitalist ideology of individualism and the private accumulation of material wealth. Aspects of this ideology that will be briefly examined include class structure as a result of capitalism, success and failure in a highly competetive society, materialism and consumption, and the loss of community in an increasingly mobile and individual existence. Beginning this analysis with a background history of Northern Exposure will provide an anthropological significance for this study and a context for this ideological negotiation.

Northern Exposure was produced from 1990–1995 and aired during primetime on CBS. It enjoyed critical and commercial success, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Drama in its first season and launching its cast into commercial stardom. People began buying property in Roslyn WA, the town in which Northern Exposure was filmed, while the show was being produced, and fans traveled to witness the filming. Northern Exposure merchandise was heavily marketed and there was a write-in campaign to save the show when CBS announced its final season. It is clear that while still in production the show had a significant impact on a number of its viewers, and perhaps an examination of the series’ history of production can provide a context for this significance.

The success of the series was probably related to the many social movements in the world in 1989-1990: the revival of Earth Day and the Environmental Movement, the eruption of New Age Spirituality and ‘political correctness’, a move toward global awareness, and the collapse of communism. It was a time in America’s history for reevaluation, and social change seemed possible. A Republican administration was in office when the show was formulated. The global events combined with the political framework for its historical production indicates a possible need for a competing ideology. Evidence of this need for a shift in political power was the election of a Democratic President in 1992, mid-series for Northern Exposure. The television industry recognized that the American audience was becoming more diversified and saw an opportunity to target a fragmented population. The producers of Northern Exposure used political fads as character traits and challenged ‘political correctness’ and stereotypes, all with a cross-cultural and global perspective.

While these are possible reasons for the appeal of this show in the early 1990’s, my focus lies in examining the reason it continues to be so appealing today. The text has become integrated into a cultural practice for many fans. There is a strong following of the series today with active fan communities in cyberspace as well as in ‘real’ space. There are several annual gatherings in the town of Roslyn WA, where many of the outdoor scenes for the show were filmed. Others have commented on the mythological content of the show and its value as such, but I believe there may be more to its appeal than a much needed and inclusive global mythology. It is possible that Northern Exposure can be used as a site for the disenfranchised in today’s world to find expression, a site for the ideological struggle in America to be played out. Textual analysis supports this possibility by featuring the confrontation of alternative ideologies with dominant ideology.

Northern Exposure was an hour long weekly television drama that featured a storyline based on the experiences of a New York City doctor who gets stationed in Cicely in 1990 to work off his medical school debt to the state of Alaska. Rob Morrow, the actor who played Dr. Joel Fleischman on the show, stated “I can’t think of another mirror world more emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually right than the one that we created in Cicely” (Will, 1999). ‘Cicely’ is a small remote town in Alaska that was founded in the 1800’s. What began as a frontier trading post was transformed into an artist colony of freethinkers under the guidance of characters named Roslyn and Cicely. These two lesbian women had traveled from Billings MT on a quest to create an alternative place for people to live in freedom and harmony, to live how they chose and to explore their human potential. The town was unofficially founded on the day of a ‘wild west’ showdown of words –when the townsfolk defended their new Utopia from the bullying wealthy cowboy who had ‘owned’ and dominated them. The text consistently supports the expression of alternative ideologies in Cicely, beginning with its founding days. This is evidenced by the characterization of both dominant and subordinate ideologies and the manner in which the thematic episodes are resolved. The dominant ideology is characterized primarily by Joel and Maurice while the subordinate ideologies are characterized by most of the other Cicelians, all of whom participate to varying degrees in the economic system.

            The ideology of capitalism in US society is presented through the characters, Joel and Maurice. The goal of material wealth is a major drive in capitalist ideology, and both Joel and Maurice share this goal. However, Joel is prevented from pursuing his plans for economic and professional success, creating an immediate tension between himself and his new community.The television series begins with Joel, a Jewish New York doctor coming to Alaska to work off a debt to the state for his medical education. The first several episodes feature him struggling with his incarceration in such a remote setting, and trying to think of an escape plan. The townsfolk he skeptically encounters are entirely alien to his ‘highly cultured’ urban worldview and he feels ‘alone’ in a wilderness of eccentric personalities. The series develops as Joel slowly adjusts while he and his new community learn life lessons in dealing with humanity. Maurice Minnifield is Joel’s captor, the benefactor and patriarch of the town.

Maurice Minnifield has achieved some of the goals mandated by his capitalist ideology in his accumulated material wealth, his authoritarian elite status, and his goals of ‘progress’ through increasing financial prosperity. He is an extremely wealthy ex-marine, ex-astronaut and frontier developer with dreams of his own legacy. He is a man comfortable and self-identified with his status as an elite in a nation of economic, cultural and political hierarchy, although he continues to be unaware of the fact that his prominence and authority as leader is unrecognized in the rural town. His authority is indeed a figment of his imagination when it is placed out of context with the outside world. There are also some supporting characters when it becomes necessary to set an exclusive capitalist environment, but Joel and Maurice generally find themselves in the minority, sharing a common set of values when it comes to politics and goals. Maurice and Joel are offended by a lack of respect for authority and elitism, confirming their legitimization of the class structure. Maurice holds tightly to his position as king of the lonely castle and his imaginary reign over the kingdom of Cicely, while Joel holds tightly to his inflated self-image as glorified ‘healer of man’ and ‘leader’ in his forced community. Both cling to illusions of power expressed through influence and of control, neither of which is recognized in this community.

In contrast to the capitalist ideology demonstrated by Joel and Maurice, the rest of Cicely’s residents tend to fall into an alternative category of diverse values and ideologies, none placing much merit on materialism. And while they all participate daily in the capitalist system without contention, as a whole they place far more value on intangibles than on material wealth, a counter hegemonic ideology that minimizes consumption. Their choice in residence denotes their placement of value. Many of the residents are transplants from other states, dreamers and gypsies who settled in Alaska to enjoy more freedom and a higher quality of life. They were not lured with economic incentive, and their access to market goods is limited by the remote location. Power is defined differently in Cicely and the social structure limits power, but partially because it is a small scale town. Power is expressed by these alternative ideologies as self-determination and self-realization and as so defined, is equally accessible to all. Most of the characters appear to be satisfied with their chosen positions in society and do not legitimize a hierarchy with regard to class.

As a product of the economic system of capitalism, which includes the ideology that legitimizes it, social stratification and class structure is represented in this text. This is done through the images of class that are portrayed by characters. However, the extent to which the hierarchy of stratification functions is questionable. Access to resources considered valuable in Cicely is relatively equal. One example of this class struggle is the dual opposition of Maurice and Chris Stevens. Maurice imagines himself influential and authoritarian, but rarely inspires followers for his capitalist endeavors. He has access to material goods but generally acquires them as investments and status symbols. Chris Stevens, an ex-con DJ artist who contently resides in a trailer is Maurice’s employee and opposite on every scale, but they share common cultural texts, primarily literature and music. The interpretations of those texts, as well as the appreciation for them are quite different, but access to them is equal. Each man has a different value for money, and different motivations. They represent the upper class and the working class, and each identifies himself by that status. Chris is proud of his class status and his past, and sees no division separating him from having both a life of petty theft and moonshine and an intellectual life of great literary culture, which challenges the myth of the working class and the division between high and low culture. Both men have vastly different identities connected to their class status, but only Maurice strives for an elevated class ranking.

Another class struggle is seen in the characters of Joel and Maggie who challenge the classes they were born into and exemplify the desire for mobility between classes. Joel was born to a blue-collar family and strives for the American Dream of success, while Maggie was born to a Country Club executive, and strives to live out the opposite idealized democratic vision of social equality. Joel is attempting to elevate his class status, by choice and through effort, supporting the dominant ideology with its ‘high’ culture and emphasis on prestige and privilege. Maggie condemns her class status and attempts to pursue her dreams with no regard for financial consequence. Throughout the series Joel wrestles with his ‘black and white’ worldview until ultimately, in his final season he surrenders the illusion of control to which he has been clinging and chooses to live in a remote Indian village during his inner search for ‘enlightenment’. Joel completely transforms through a spiritual rebirth and burns his favorite material possessions including symbols of his elite status. Following a vision quest he returns to New York with an alternative and more holistic worldview, a more unified existence with the natural and social world. He has engaged the discourse between ideologies, has denounced the commanding influence of dominant ideology, and has embraced an alternative ideology. Both Maggie and Joel have challenged the dominant ideology in very different patterns, revealing that ideologies are not only not simply imposed, but also not static. We have agency. We can decide what success means regardless of how dominant ideology defines it.

Northern Exposure subverts the American ideal of success to include those who resist competitive capitalist oppression. By presenting alternative definitions of ‘success’ this text may generate a sense of empowerment for those who do not personally legitimize the economic system and ideology. In Cicely, more value is generally placed on art and free spirit than on a sizeable financial portfolio. An example of this is an episode in which Ed invites to dinner Ruth Ann Miller, general store owner and his new employer. She proceeds to tell him about her children and proudly describes her son Rudy as a truck driver in Portland who writes pastoral poetry in his spare time. With an aire of regret and disappointment Ruth Ann describes her son Matthew as being an investment banker. She clearly places more value on the artistic pursuits of one son over the financial success of the other son. Northern Exposure offers an environment in which alternative lifestyles and values are not only appreciated and nurtured, but constitute the majority. In the minority are those who favor the capitalist ideology of material wealth as a measure of success, and that minority is accepted so long as it does not impose on the rights of the others. I believe that this idyllic village, where art and individuality are revered, may alleviate the pain of failure felt by some in this society; ‘failure’ of choosing not to conform to the capitalist definition of success.

            Failure is embraced in Cicely. Failure is inevitable if life is truly lived and risks taken. Perhaps this can be seen as embracing the American ideal, the myth of the American west and the pursuit of individual happiness. Risk taking is encouraged in capitalism. However, Northern Exposure may also provide a new definition for failure, one which challenges our current negative association toward failure in a highly competetive culture. In the episode in which Chris is struggling with the logistics of remodeling his trailer in a timely efficient manner, a manner encouraged by capitalist ideology, he remarks to Joel on the sublime lesson he learned from the universe in his failure to do so. He failed at his home improvement, it caused conflict with his contracted friend, and he did not enjoy the role of employer. He attempted to participate in a new role consistent with dominant ideology and he failed. Risk is embraced and failure is relative in Cicely. All is relative in Cicely; all is a state of mind, including freedom. In addition to a theme that examines ‘failure’ and the freedom discovered in accepting failure, this episode is one of many that demonstrate the deep significance we place on a house in American culture.

As a feature of the dominant ideology in America, material consumption is required and encouraged by a capitalist economy. Materialism is generally battled in this text which questions its necessity and its effects. One example of this treatment of materialism in the text deals with the American Dream to own a house. A house is the largest material possession one purchases and is often considered a rite of passage to adulthood and responsibility. There are several episodes that challenge the value of a house in our society and its use as a class status symbol, a benchmark of ‘success’. In one episode, Shelley thinks she wants a house, but after learning that neither Holling nor Ed wants one, she seeks the experience of being alone in a house and decides that, while conditioned by society to want one, she does not want to live in a house because of the sense of isolation. Ed Chigliak struggles with a similar dilemma in the episode in which he housesits for Maurice. At first he is terribly lonely and uneasy in the mansion, so he invites friends over to share in Maurice’s wealth. Before long he has assumed Maurice’s arrogant personality. I interpret these episodes as commentary on the consuming nature of material possessions and as further evidence to counter the assumption that a grand house is the key to every American’s happiness. In each of these episodes the character comes to the realization that, while conditioned to want a house, it is more likely to make them lonely rather than happy. Community is the choice in Cicely.

Community is the skeleton of the text and a recurrent theme in many episodes. The concept of ‘tribe’ is intellectually examined, the ‘global village’ is a recurring theme, and an underlying psychological unity among cultures is explored. The increasing isolation of the individual due to technological advances is lamented in Cicely, where town meetings are the forum to debate moral dilemmas, and potlucks and picnics provide social networking. One particular episode features Maggie getting frustrated with the poor quality of the machines in the Laundromat which is owned and operated by Maurice Minnifield. She buys her own personal machines and five minutes into her first load of wash she realizes she is bored and lonely, sitting at home with her laundry. Following a conversation with Chris about America’s technological “blitzkrieg toward isolation”, Maggie realizes that the Laundromat was more than a place to wash her clothes; it was an informal bonding ritual that regularly reinforced her social ties with friends in the community; her ‘family’. She returns her machines and is welcomed back to the laundry circle by those who have missed her company. I believe that this sense of community, largely lost in an expanding industrial nation, is a key component to the appeal of the show. Cicely is not simply a group of friends, but a village of different souls muddling together along ‘individual’ paths of life. In a capitalist system that applauds individual financial success and encourages mobility of the nuclear family, community is a concept that is often incompatible with capitalism and therefore has become distanced and quaint. Community is now a matter of choice that one must seek and create. This choice, if made at the expense of capitalist pursuits, is one which supports an alternative ideology.

In addition to the text itself as a site of hegemonic struggle, the cultural practice of Northern Exposure fans also moves within this ‘compromise equilibrium’. Fans display this negotiation of incorporation and resistance within the context of the active consumption of this cultural text. The fans are integrated into the political atmosphere of Roslyn as they work closely with town officials to plan annual events and fundraisers aimed at preserving the integrity of ‘Cicely’ in the real world of Roslyn. They enact events from the series and use language from Northern Exposure to communicate with their online communities about philosophy, politics and the nature of reality. Many viewers come away from the experience of watching the show feeling ‘better’, with a sense of hope and satisfaction. According to participant observation and preliminary survey results, the fan base is comprised of a very diverse representation of the American and international population. Many respondents say that they watch very little TV besides NX. As an audience, television affects us in ways that carry into our daily lives, ways that may be often unrecognized but also often quite readily recalled. It is even a standard storyline in this series. Ed Chigliak, the film afficianado, experiences events in his life as they correlate with movies. His shaman mentor, Leonard, says that film media is the folklore we carry with us throughout our lives, our culture’s healing stories. The text recognizes this power of television and film and loosely compares it to oral tradition. Leonard comes to realize that television and film have become the replacement for myth in American society. The process of interpreting meaning in oral tradition is active, as is the process of interpreting meaning in film texts.  Through this active but subtle process of interpretation one can practice counter hegemonic ideas and explore different personalities and realities in a non-threatening arena. While decidedly not a typical revolution, perhaps it may be a subtle form of resistance to hegemony.

Following this analysis, I conclude that Northern Exposure was an anthropological analysis of, and an experiment with, contemporary American culture. Northern Exposure offered a site where dominant ideologies and practices are juxtaposed with alternative ideologies and practices, which represents in my analysis, the hegemonic struggle, resistance, negotiation, and compromise equilibrium. The alternative ideologies are ultimately integrated because the structure of the dominant culture is not threatened by this alternative expression, one that perhaps appeases some of the disenfranchised masses. Nonetheless, the examples of resistance demonstrate the dynamic nature of hegemony and the capacity of subordinate groups to alter cultural forms and structure in this ongoing struggle. The tension created between the competing ideologies is likely what drove the success of the show, evidenced by the cancellation of the series when the primary catalyst and representative for the dominant capitalist ideology adopted an alternative ideology and the tension was lost.

In conclusion, a Gramscian analysis is just one of many possible theoretical approaches to this rich cultural text, but it is one with merit as television ‘fiction’ is an ideal media for ideological dialogue to occur in a non-threatening atmosphere. In order to examine contemporary American culture within its framework of an industrial market economy, it seems reasonable that an analysis of the material culture produced and consumed by that culture is particularly useful. Its value increases when one considers that this cultural text clearly carries strong significance to a segment of society.  In a Gramscian analysis, popular culture is what people actively make from the products of the ‘culture industry’; it is a social production (Storey, 1998). Both the cultural text and the cultural practice of Northern Exposure fans demonstrate this active production. As a product of the culture industry the text of Northern Exposure is actively and continually interpreted by its fans, and utilized as a foundation for community and ideological exchange. In continuing research I am examining how this interplay is continued, long after cancellation of the program, by the fans of NX who have taken the text, incorporated it into practice and use it to shape their experiential realities.



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