Friday, July 15, 2011

Male Hegemony within “Secret Life of the American Teenager”

ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” portrays different couple dynamics in an effort to attempt realistic depictions of life in high school, with a focus upon sexual intercourse and pregnancy.  However, none of the couples depicted have taken such a center-stage role as Ben and Adrian Boykevich have in season four, episode five: “Hole in the Wall”. The character of Ben Boykevich displays normative white masculine hegemonic tendencies and the abuse of power that this particular hegemony achieves. By establishing dominance over women and members of low socio-economic class, Ben is able to achieve hegemonic goals of class division and oppression. Ben also uses his hegemonic power as a white male to create stereotypical feminine roles for the women around him: either the glorified unobtainable white female, or the unstable sexualized ethnic female.

James Lull defines hegemony as “[t]he power or dominance that one social group holds over others. This can refer to the “asymmetrical interdependence” of political-economic-cultural relations between and among nation-states or differences between and among social classes within a nation. Hegemony is “dominance and subordination in the field of relations structured by power. But hegemony is more than social power itself; it is a method for gaining and maintaining power. (Lull, 61)” Within the episode “Hole in the Wall”, Ben Boykevich represents the hegemony of the upper class, affluent, white male. Ben defines differences between himself and characters of lower social classes and establishes dominance by oppressing these characters.

Such dominance over those of lower socioeconomic background can be viewed during an interaction with his wife:

“You are so selfish do you know that? I never even wanted to marry you, never even wanted to have sex with you in the first place. Every bit of pain we’ve both had has been because of you, because of you! I can’t take it any more. I know I’m supposed to be the man and not cry but I don’t care. Loosing that baby it killed something in me Adrian. It killed my belief that something good could come of the bad thing we did; it was a bad thing cheating on Amy and Ricky. We deserved to loose that baby. At least I did anyway. Because Amy loved me, and I threw it all away for one night with you, and I still feel guilty about that. I’m always going to feel guilty about that.”

Here Ben starts the construction of the hegemonic power he is party to and believes in: the white upper class. He flaunts this hegemonic entity, and uses it to abuse individuals who comprise lower class status (especially those of ethnic minority). Ben blames all of his problems on Adrian (who is Hispanic and comes from a lower socioeconomic background), comparing her with Amy (who is white and of an upper-middle class socioeconomic background). He states “Amy loved me, and I threw it all away for one night with you” placing Adrian into the role of the forbidden, sexualized, ethnic female. He goes so far in his preference of someone closer to his own elite status, that he even creates the notion that he lost his baby as punishment for straying away from this economic group. Ben feels guilty, not about abusing his wife after the loss of their child, but of cheating on someone who fits into his hegemonic group.

Ben’s flagrant abuse of lower socioeconomic groups does not end with Adrian. Ben continues in his elitist hegemonic rampage when he confronts Amy, the girl that he deemed worthy of loving:

Ben: What happened to us Amy? I really loved you, and John.
Amy: And I loved you, but Ben it was never going to work. You just couldn’t see it.
Ben: But it will never work with Ricky either, he’s not good enough for you Amy. Sooner or later he is going to hurt you that’s who he is.
Amy: That’s who he was.

In this dialogue Ben again flaunts his preference for matches between those of the same social class. He asserts that Ricky (again a character from a very low socio-economic group) is not good enough for the white, wealthy, and well-adjusted Amy. He asserts that he loved Amy, as well as her son, never mentioning any love for his wife, or Amy’s love towards Ricky. This depicts the class divide that Ben keeps at all times in his consciousness.

This type of positive thinking held by Amy goes to demonstrate one of the two types of female roles constructed by Ben within the episode: the glorified unobtainable white female. Ben states earlier in the episode after seeing Amy enter “Who knew my freshmen year would be the best year of my life” reminiscing back to the time when he was romantically involved with a worthy recipient. To demonstrate the vast difference between the two female roles within the show we can look at how they both deal with similar situations:

Ben: Where is mister bear?
Adrian: Who?
Ben: My bear, my mother gave that to me, that is the only thing I have left of her. Where is my bear?
Adrian: I guess it’s with the other stuff at the church.
Ben: You are so selfish do you know that?                         

Here Adrian is portrayed as callous, ignorant, and selfish; all incredibly negative depictions. These characteristics further perpetuate the negative ideas associated with the unstable sexual ethnic female. In contrast, we can see the dynamic between Amy and Ben:

Ben (to Amy): I hate to bother you, but is the nursery still open.
Amy: Do you want your things back?
Ben: There is one thing I want back.
(Amy pulls out bear): Mister Bear?
 Ben: How did you know?
Amy: You told me about him. Your mom gave him to you. I knew it was a mistake he ended up in the box with the other stuff.

This conversation goes very differently then the first. From the outset, Ben is incredibly polite to Amy using the phrases “I hate to bother you”. This measure of respect is utterly devoid when talking to the minority figure of Adrian. Amy within this dialogue also shows that she is socially aware (knowing exactly what Ben wants, and the back story behind what he desires) and intuitive (knowing it was a mistake the bear ended up given away). It is quite clear that Ben grants Amy respect and glorification, while Adrian is grossly stereotyped as a hardened, ignorant, Hispanic woman.

Comparatively, the only time that Adrian is shown gaining any approval from Ben is when she fulfills a normative female role:

Adrian: Morning husband, want me to make you some breakfast?
Adrian: I’m going to go for a walk every morning and get myself together.
Ben: I’m happy to hear you say that.

However, this idea of a Hispanic minority obtaining a normal place within the society of “The Secret Life of the American Teen” seems to upset the balance far too greatly, and for the remainder of the episode Adrian spirals out of control. This type of character usage is similar to the fate described by Pozner: “When included in any prolonged way, women of color are used to stroke classic racial stereotypes…More common is the hypersensitive “sista with attitude” whom everyone hates.” (Pozner, 98)  The last scene is the episode is the epitome of Pozner’s trope: a teary eyed Adrian sits, rocking in a fetal position and listening to “angry girl music”; while the camera pans out, the audience is privy to the sight of dozens of holes punched into the nursery walls surrounding Adrian, followed by a close up of her bandaged hand. This scene is successful in completely constructing Adrian as the hyper sensitive “sista with an attitude”, bringing full circle the hegemonic conventions, initially instilled in the audience by Ben.

So what can be gained from the episode “Hole in the Wall” of “Secret Life of the American Teenage?” It certainly is not positive and healthy ways to maintain relationships in high school. The male hegemonic character of Ben Boykevich is allowed to have an elitist view on matches within socioeconomic class structure. Ben’s character is also never chided for verbally abusing his wife or for having blatant feelings towards another woman. Minorities and those of low economic standings are depicted to be “not worthy” of the wealthier characters in the show, and the female protagonist of a Hispanic ethnicity is portrayed as unstable, violent, and socially inept to an alarming point.

-Sarah Jablonski

Works Cited List-

Hampton, Brenda, prod. ""Hole in the Wall"" The Secret Life of the American Teenager. ABC Family. 11 July 2011. Television

Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Text-reader. By Gail Dines and Jean McMahon. Humez. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 2003. Print.

Pozner, Jennifer L. ""The Unreal World"" Ms. Magazine Fall 2004: 96-99. Web.