SOME NOTES ON REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN HOLLYWOOD SINCE REAGANISM
1. The mainstream American cinema is a complex medium, which is an integral part of a cultural system owned and operated by a handful of conglomerates. I will hereafter refer to this medium as Hollywood. Moreover, I will be looking at a gender analysis. I think gender as a more homogeneous category is clearly more influential than a White-nonwhite racial classification, hence the focus of my inquiry on representation of women in Hollywood cinema.
We identify with the loved one, with his joys and misfortunes, experiencing feelings that are properly his. We project ourselves onto him, that is, we identify him with ourselves, cherishing him, what is more, with all the love that we carry within ourselves. His photos, his trinkets, his handkerchiefs, his house, are all infused with his presence. Inanimate objects are impregnated with his soul and force us to love them. (pp. 89, 90)
An empirical example of the thesis of projection-identification is the genre phenomenon (e.g., horror film, war film, and westerns). In seeing a horror film, for instance, a typical audience, for example, a 22-year-old White woman participates in a two-dimensional projection of images that give her the illusion of three dimensions. The characters in the film, which typically are slashed and killed, are young and attractive White men and women. This audience member can identify with these characters. She can also project his dark side or personal attributes onto the characters as they interact within the diegesis of the film. Moreover, the film is also projecting some of these attributes for her. In other words, the horror movie is controlling her imagination. She is able to suspend her disbelief and live through a crisis of murder and mayhem. By the time the film has ended, she is relieved to be alive and thrilled as a result. She feels artificially empowered, because emotionally she feels she has survived a life-threatening crisis. However, when the reality of life outside of the theater permeates her paradigm, once again, she feels ordinary. This can cause a predicament known as cognitive dissonance (Festinger 2007). According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.
Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.
Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).
Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.
I posit this cognitive dissonance situation creates an impetus for her to return to the theater to see yet another horror film and duplicate the experience of survival, hence, the success of the genre in creating loyal consumers of fear-thrill projection-identification. 6. To what extent does the audience of cinema project and identify with the characters and stories of films? Does culture play a role in determining the strength of projection-identification? Before one could answer these questions, one should define culture. In trying to define culture one is faced with a vast array of thoughts and ideas. Although definitions across multiple disciplines could cause confusion, for the purpose of this inquiry definitions offered by some anthropologists would suffice. Edgar Schein (1992) described culture as “a pattern of shared assumptions.” Geert Hofstede (1984) defined it as “the collective mental programming of the people in an environment” (p. 22).Gerbner defines culture as, “essentially stories and messages that create images that govern our conception of life and our behavior.” Given that we live in a media saturated culture, representation of women in movie roles that have definite diminished powers will have potential negative effects. In a screen culture where most young women are reduced to “sexual objects,” and elderly female characters are more likely to be cast as comic characters, to be treated with disrespect and to be portrayed as stubborn, eccentric and foolish, the notion of projection and identification can only serve patriarchy, and not feminism.
11. This narrative involves Laurie, a 20-year-old college student from an affluent (over-privileged) family. During a discussion about feminist films where as a class the professor and the students were deconstructing some “pseudo-feminist” films such as Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990) and Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991), Laurie had claimed—with a natural sense of entitlement—that “Pretty Woman is in fact, a feminist film.” She had stated that because she likes the film and since she is a “free” woman and quite self-confident about whom she is and what she can do about her life, as a feminist, she could tell if Pretty Woman was a “lie.”
12. A few weeks later, as a midterm exam, the professor assigned a number of films for the entire class to watch and write a reflective essay on their experience. The assigned films were the following:
· Norma Rae (Ritt, 1979): based on a true story about a young woman fighting to unionize a Southern textile mill. Rather than indulging in the usual individualized heroics, the protagonist, Norma Rae (played by Sally Fields) creatively rallies her fellow workers for collective action.
· Silkwood (Nichols, 1983): a film that presents a woman (played by Meryl Streep) as a bona fide leader. What is more, the movie shows Black and White workers overcoming racial barriers and working together.
· A Matter of Sex (Grant, 1984): A made-for-television film that realistically deals with women’s rights.
· Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990); a Hollywood patriarchal product that portrays women as subservient to men, though shrewdly masquerading as a feminist film by showing the prostitute (played by Julia Roberts) as the protagonist, hence the title.
13. Social scientists have been studying the influence of media on people. One study in particular has brought about strong empirical evidence that media are the primary influence in shaping children’s sense of sex roles and future aspirations (Katz, 1983). Laurie’s views on gender roles had been shaped by the heavy media influence, hence her initially strong belief in the patriarchal portrayal of women. The authoritative images had occupied and oppressed her mind from childhood. What happened to Laurie after the midterm assignment?
14. During the discussion about the students’ reflections there were many interesting inputs from various students. However, Laurie’s words were powerful and absorbing. She was dressed in her brand name designer clothes, but her demeanor was absolutely different than in the previous weeks. In an emotional and yet rationally articulate manner, Laurie walked the talk. She admitted that by seeing these “other” films there was so much that has been erased, or kept under the rug in her society. She proclaimed, “Her bubble had been burst.” In engagement with some of the other women in the class, namely African American and Asian students with whom she previously had not engaged, there existed a new shift of consciousness.
15. One can construe that as a discoverer of a field of mutuality and a collective transformation, Laurie was seeing her reality differently, and the “other” women were seeing Laurie differently. Teaching cinema in this manner had created a framework that enabled these individuals to engage with each other on a playing field that came close to being “level” for all. This was indeed an experience where the self and other had merged and the synthesis was discovery of new dimensions of their respective “realities.”
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