The year 2018 has been a year that rocked both our greater culture and our individual self-conceptions as consumers of and contributors to that very culture. Accountability is the mainstay, and self-reflection has become a daily requisite for even the most privileged. I think it is time to ask whether we want the media we consume to be held accountable, too, and to inquire as to what we might want that accountability to look like.
In particular, I believe that what film — including the prestige films that enrapture and entrap critics in their own hermetic world — lacks is a fundamental basis in social theory. Although the term “theory” may connote elitism, convolution and the ivory tower of academia, film has an unrealized potential to visualize and universalize the futures we talk, think and dream about.
Theory, particularly that which is rooted in issues of gender, race and sexuality, makes a fundamental effort to trace the inner contours of our lives and our relationships to other individuals. Since this kind of theory attempts to track and deconstruct actual phenomena, it is continually cross-checked with lived experience to determine its validity. The conversations in theory today, whether they be about sexual harassment, consent or the very meaning of gender, deconstruct systems of power by reconceptualizing them. They imagine a future that is more equitable and fair, even if it is abstract and theoretical. Film allows us to see what that future may tangibly feel and look like by presenting a world where that theory is lived and practiced. It is critical for seeing ourselves as we want to be.
I don’t mean to say that one must intentionally incorporate a particular author or thesis in order for one’s film to reach a particular threshold of profundity. After all, theory as lived experience is transmitted through conversation and discussion, particularly among marginalized groups. What makes a film particularly profound is its incorporation of theory as its driving force, as its very basis. And such a film doesn’t need to be abstract or experimental for it to do so.
One film in particular that I’m thinking about is Todd Haynes’ 2015 film “Carol,” which portrays two happily queer women pursuing a relationship together in 1950s New York. Haynes is one of the leading directors of the New Queer Cinema movement, which has incorporated fundamental facets of queer theory into accessible, customary filmography. The narrative of “Carol” and the depiction of its two leading ladies is no exception, as it integrates the assertions of queer theorists as its centralizing force. For example, in “One is Not a Born a Woman,” lesbian feminist Monique Wittig argues that society’s foundation of the false male-female dichotomy is necessarily based in heterosexuality, and “a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society.”
Wittig’s argument — and social constructionism in general — serves as a thoroughfare through the film. “Carol” allows the women’s romance to take center stage, and the presence of men only serves to emphasize Carol and Therese’s chemistry and their complete lack of interest whatsoever in the affairs of men. In order to be their true selves, both Carol and Therese must reject the socially and culturally based roles of mother and wife that their male partners impose on them. In order to love truly and fully, they refuse engenderment and embrace a somewhat marginal — or at least alternative — existence.
In “Carol,” Haynes provides an alternative conception of life for women in the 1950s, one where men are not only unnecessary, but wholly irrelevant. The duality and presumed complementation of man versus woman (both Carol and Therese present feminine, even as Carol is very assertive) is neither hinted at nor referenced. Rather, it is entirely ignored and thereby subverted. There is no counterpoint to their femininity, and that femininity contains no hint of deference or docility. “Carol” is theory at its most aesthetic, its most visualized.
Crucially, theory is more than commentary or a trite line. It is more than looking for “strong female characters,” and analyzing a director’s “work as a whole” is also needlessly deferential. A “feminist” or “liberal” theory is not one that should be “tried on for size” or applied as a theme to make the work sufficiently edgy and potentially revered by the Academy. If a director upholds harmful ideologies in some works but has “strong female characters” in others, the latter does not balance out the former. Female violence portrayed in an excessively gaudy, stylistic way makes female action almost ironic, especially when overlaid the background oppression of women . If anything, this usage portrays a view of theory as kitsch, as something used to shock and stylize with no real, tangible worth. This is offensive to communities that have a real stake in these reconceptions, that rely on them as a matter of personhood. There are so many examples that it becomes difficult to count, but I believe that “feminist” directors like Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and (more recently) Luca Guadagnino are needlessly venerated.
As we reflect on the year that’s been and inquire about what’s to come, I think it’s time we ask what we really want out of the films we consume. What I ask for is not necessarily greater representation, but enhanced, nuanced knowledge of theory. The latter does not inevitably require the former (case in point: Todd Haynes), and the former does not always implicate the latter (case in point: Desiree Akhavan’s “The Bisexual”), but if social theory is needed, perhaps it is those who wish to live the theory that can recreate it most effectively. How will the media hold itself — and the viewer — responsible in a way that reflects this current cultural shift in emphasizing individual accountability? The question is not simply whom we want to see on screen, but what.
Alizeh Sheikh is a Trinity sophomore and Recess interviews and reviews editor.
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