Why film studies?

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

Residents of St. Augustine, FL, line up to see Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper. The movie was filmed on location in the Florida Everglades and there are also shots of the Spanish-built fort on St. Augustine’s bay front. Distant Drums was billed as “steel-fisted drama wrought from the soul and sinew of mighty men.” Image from the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

What can we learn from watching movies?

What do Hollywood films tell us about ourselves? How early do we become aware of the social expectations that are on us? What role do films and other forms of popular culture have in making us aware of what is expected of us as men and women (and any other way you want to identify yourself—racially, ethnically, by religion, by sexuality, by subgroup, etc.)?

Spend a little time watching TV shows and movies aimed at children. Some ideas about conforming to society’s expectations are reinforced–often the basic roles of males and females. However, some things are showing up in this programming that might affect how a child views things; in the film ParaNorman, one of teenagers seems like a stereotypical guy–he lifts weights and works compulsively on his van. Yet, the buff motorhead turns out to have a boyfriend. A kid’s movie normalizes homosexuality while also destroying some of the stereotypes associated with gay men. The mention of the boy’s homosexual relationship is only that–a mention, but, some parents were upset by the character and the idea that the film “promotes” homosexuality. (Nancy French’s Review and Jeff Quinn’s response to a negative review of the film present two reactions to the gay character in the film; the commentary from readers is interesting.)

How seriously should we take pop culture? Does it really have that much power over us?

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 to transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Douglass Kellner, in “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” gives an overview of why there are courses like this one at universities across the country. He writes, “Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil.” He gives a lot of credit to the media in shaping us. How much of who you are is shaped by the media images around you? How much comes from other sources: family, school, peers, religious institutions, etc.? Are the parents who were upset by ParaNorman justified in their fears that film would somehow undermine the values they are trying to impart to their children?

Kellner says it is necessary for us to learn to look at the media with a critical eye. How much of your information about others comes from first-hand research? How much comes from other sources? If you’ve never been to the Middle East and only have Hollywood images to go by, you would expect to find terrorists, women covered head-to-toe, open-air markets, mummies, sheiks, camels, pyramids, oil, etc. Depending on which country you go to, you would find things are nothing like what we see in our movies about the Middle East–deserts don’t make up the whole of the region; in many countries, women have jobs and are educated, etc. Jack Shaheen’s article “Reel Bad Arabs” lays out in smaller form the basic argument of his book with the same title. We’ll read Shaheen’s article later in the semester, but one of his biggest points is that Hollywood’s images of Arabs and Muslims have been largely negative since the beginning of the American film industry and that these images help justify anti-Arab sentiment and Islamaphobia in America.

Brining it closer to home … how do you feel about the way your “group” is portrayed on screen? For example, I grew up in the South. When I see Southerners on screen, we are usually portrayed as ignorant, racist, backwoods fellas with three teeth in our heads who carry shot-guns and say things like, “Yee-haw!,” “I’m busier than a two-tailed cat in a room full of rockers,” and “Git ’er done!” Some of those stereotypes might be more true than others, but I rarely run across people here who fit all of them.

Lynn Weber’s “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” provides some historical context for the study of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Among the things she expects us to examine is structures of power and authenticity of voice.

Cultural critics like Weber force us to ask questions about authority and authenticity—who gets to speak for whom and why? She gives the examples of how straight middle-class whites are held up as the “norm” in both feminist and masculinity studies. While the women’s movement of the late ’60s and ’70s fought for equality, many within the larger group felt voiceless—women of color, lesbians, the disabled, etc. In a similar manner, men’s studies usually revolve around the experiences of straight white middle-class (and sometimes working class) men. Men of color are often ignored as are non-heterosexual men.

Considering this problem of smaller, underrepresented groups in the larger society, we might ask how can they make their stories known and their voices heard? How can they get the larger group to care about the issues they face? Why should any of us listen to the voices of groups outside our own?

Each semester that I teach this course, many students suggest that America is a fully equal society where everyone is treated the same. While many things have improved since the photo below was taken in 1963, all kinds of “–isms” still exist in America. Women still earn less than men in many occupations; nearly half the reported hate crimes in the U.S. during 2011 were racially motivated and another 20 percent were based on sexual orientation.

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman's cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman’s cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Over the next few months, we’ll explore how the images we see on screen help reinforce concepts about race, class, gender, and sexuality in American society.

Next week we will talk about the beginnings of cinema and the film Hugo.

Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture” and Lynn Weber, “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality” are the sources referred to in this post. Both are in Multicultural Film: An Anthology, edited by Kathryn Karrh Cashin and Lauren C. Martilli, and published by Pearson; copyright 2013.


8 comments on “Why film studies?

  1. AriaLynx says:

    The Justin Jedlica video was eww creepy for me to watch. I’ll never understand why people always turn to the easier answers such as plastic surgery when exercising intensively could’ve given him much the same result. I think we can learn a lot of media, pop culture, movies. It just depends how we look at things. A thoughtful person can always glean insights from anything they watch.

    • thefilmprof says:

      I wonder if body image issues were as prevalent before mass media? Each culture has had ideal images of the human body, but I don’t think as many people went to extremes to attain the ideal.

      • AriaLynx says:

        I think body issues weren’t as prevalent because there wasn’t as much exposure to them before mass media. There’s always people that like to push the envelope & over time things got more extreme because all the milder forms of body alterations had already been done.

        • thefilmprof says:

          Body image issues over history seems like it would be interesting to study. I’m sure there have always been people who are uncomfortable with their bodies or who seek to be a living version of the idealized form.

  2. adamlaredo says:

    The section you wrote about how media might shape your view of the Middle East reminds me of a discussion in a communications class I took way back in 1994. We were talking about how America is a huge exporter of culture, which made (and makes) us a bit unique. The professor then asked the two foreign students in class – a Chinese male and a Japanese female – what they were surprised about when they came to America, what they thought America might be like because of movies, TV, music, etc. The Chinese man said he was afraid to get off the airplane, because he might get shot. He expected gunfire and explosions everywhere. The Japanese woman said, “I am sorry, but I thought you would all be pretty.” The class roared with laughter. Media shapes perception in ways we don’t usually, consciously think about. Good luck with your class.

    • thefilmprof says:

      When I’ve been outside the U.S., I’ve always been both amused and saddened by the impressions people have of Americans based on the media images they consume. I was in Ireland in the early 90s and people kept asking me if Americans really are as violent as our movies. “Do all of you have guns like John Wayne?”

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