Dyer’s “Utopia Entertainment”


Richard Dyer’s classic article “Utopia Entertainment” argues that media products are consumed by audiences with clear pleasures.

The idea of entertainment as Utopia Entertainment, or expressing ideals of how human life might be organized and lived, is implicit in the most common assumption about entertainment: that it provides escape from the reality of everyday existence.

His essay, which explores this theory, is centred around the musical. This genre was popularized during the Great Depression because it simplified the complicated problems and offered utopian solutions to the audience. Dyer points out that entertainment doesn’t present “models for utopian worlds”, but how Utopia Entertainment feels. Musicals are a genre that is based on emotion. The primary convention of musicals is the inclusion (song, dance) of performance. This allows for an intensification of feelings: songs and musical numbers increase the emotion felt during the scene and intensify the moment.

Its central thrust is utopia. Two of the most common descriptions of entertainment are ‘escape’ or ‘wish fulfillment’. Entertainment is a way to see a better world or something that we long for more than our daily lives. Alternatives, dreams, and hopes are what Utopia Entertainment is all about. They offer the possibility of something better, or at least the hope that it may become a reality.

Dyer identifies three reasons reality can motivate audiences to consume media.

  • Social tension
  • Inadequacy
  • Absence

Media consumption offers audiences utopian solutions. These utopian sensibilities can be expressed in many ways, but the world of singing or dancing is often the most important. This world is distinct from the “real world” which displays the social tensions, inadequacies, and absences of the present time. Backstage musicals such as 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933 have song and dance that are performed within the film’s narrative. Films are set in a’real-world’ setting that acknowledges the Great Depression’s impact and places them clearly within the tensions of the period. Contradictory performances express extraordinary wealth, excitement, and notions of community. The lyrics reflect Utopia Entertainment sensibilities. (See below for further discussion on “We’re in the Money ” from Golddiggers of 1983).

The following table is from Dyer’s article. It explains Dyer’s schematic explanation of why entertainment works. It is important to note that by separating the reasons audiences access entertainment from the utopian solutions it offers, it shows how “it responds” to the real needs of society.

Dyer’s diagrammatic approach to the genre is evident in this clip from Golddiggers of 1933. This performance is part of a narrative that constantly refers to the economic situation. It also represents a departure form the’real’ world in order to show a Utopia Entertainment solution for the audience. Ginger Rogers sings with the performers:

  • We are in the money, and we’re in it;
  • We have a lot to offer!
  • We’re in it for the money, and the sky is bright.
  • You are done, Old Man Depression.

The audience is not only a spectator to the spectacle but also participates in the message. Inclusion pronouns are used repeatedly to show a desire to establish a relationship with the audience. This reaffirms the audience’s trust in entertainment that is responsive to “the real need” of society. The audience is made to feel part of the message by the intimate nature of the message and the creation of an inclusive community. Dyer says that entertainment doesn’t present “models for utopian worlds”, but how utopia feels. This scene celebrates the end of Depression to give the illusion of escapism.

The text also displays utopian sensibilities. The mise-en scene is full of symbols of wealth and abundance. This contrasts with the established’real’ world. To place the scene in utopia and create an exciting spectacle of energy, excitement and fun, these elements are exaggerated. The collective performance of the dance is Dyer’s idea of community, as opposed to fragmented reality. A large chorus creates visually striking shapes and forms by working together. Thomas Schatz claimed that musical films were able to offer audiences “utopian visions” of well-ordered communities during the Depression. Like in Golddiggers of 33, the Utopian space of performance allows the genre to express its Utopia Entertainment sensibilities through choreography, which is a form of well-ordered community activity.

Dyer’s theory helps to understand how audiences can enjoy Utopia Entertainment representations of social tensions, inadequacies, and absences. This argument is reinforced by the uses and gratification paradigm, which views audiences as active agents in their search to find media that meets their needs. This theory can be used to explore the relationship between the music genre and audiences.