wholepeace

Cultural Normalization and “Manchester by the Sea”

In PeaceAble, Uncategorized on January 30, 2017 at 11:48 am

Aspects of the norm in any culture are expressed and reinforced in small, subtle and pervasive acts of acceptance.  There are innumerable ways in which our cultural norms are transmitted, with public media an important part of the whole.  My intent here is to use a personal critique of the Oscar-nominated film “Manchester by the Sea” to illustrate how we are led into unconscious acceptance and reinforcement of cultural norms.

First, let me say that media do not, for the most part, create norms or cause cultural change.  The media, including the artists who work in the media, reflect more than create subjective reality.  Films are created at least in part with an intent to make money.  They will only do that if they appeal to a significant part of the available audience.  The best way to ensure that is to reflect the feelings, attitudes, ideas, and perceptions the audience already holds.  Films that challenge our perceptions may achieve critical success, but rarely achieve box-office success.

Also, it is entirely possible for a film to be artistically successful but culturally problematic.  When that happens, it is useful to point out both the artistic quality and the cultural problems.  Failure to do that, in my opinion, reinforces the expressed norms and inhibits cultural change.

“Manchester by the Sea” is in many ways a very well made film.  There is some remarkable acting, though I did not find Casey Affleck’s performance equal to the over-the-top hype that so many reviewers seem intent on propagating.  It’s a solid performance, but hardly revolutionary.  And the film is not without its flaws.  I was especially disappointed in the script over all.  Despite some nice moments of dialogue and character interaction, the story is slow to get started, keeps wandering off into side stories that are never adequately resolved or clearly connected to the main thrust of the narrative.  And the resolution at the end of the film seems hurried and not well developed.  The final decisions of everyone involved seem nearly a deus ex machina rather than a clear consequence of the characters’ earlier choices.

But the larger objection I make to the film is not about the quality of the production.  In fact, the quality of the production actually exacerbates the problem I have with it; for the higher the quality of the art, the easier it is for us to overlook the cultural issues it raises and the problematic norms it reinforces.

The film’s characters, who are faithfully and authentically portrayed, represent a privileged masculine norm that goes unrecognized and unquestioned.  The men are uncommunicative, shallow and misogynistic.  The female characters are all treated badly, either directly abused, or ignored and dismissed, or left hanging in unfinished side stories.  The 15 year-old boy, Patrick, is sleeping with one girl and plotting to sleep with another; and his uncle blithely and without comment agrees to keep everything a secret so that the girls’ parents don’t find out about the sex and the girls don’t find out about each other.  Patrick’s mother is presented as unfit to raise him because she is portrayed as a frightened, somewhat dim-witted and hysterical woman under the sway of a “Christian” fanatic in a side story that is unnecessary, stereotypical, and unexplained.  Lee Chandler blows off his ex-wife’s attempt to come to terms with the past in a particularly cruel way and the whole thing is just passed over, providing no closure and no attempt at understanding.  Several smaller female characters are introduced for a moment to offer criticisms or critiques or some small incident, but their contributions are either ignored or trivialized.

And the men don’t fare much better from this version of what it means to be a guy.  Lee’s brother apparently never told Lee just how close to death he was, nor asked his permission to assign him as guardian for Patrick, nor provided any clue as to how that could be managed.  Given Lee’s emotional state and the conditions of his life, those failures are cruel to both Lee and Patrick; and have the potential for absolute disaster.  While that is part of what creates the core conflict in the film, it is never addressed honestly for what it is.  Lee and Patrick communicate mostly through grunts and shrugs, although Patrick often seems the closest to an adult in the room; and most of the really consequential communication Lee has with his brother’s friends and associates seems to take place off-screen, while the on-screen exchanges are fraught with unspoken emotions.  This, we are to accept, is how these men communicate.  And that’s true, but the possibility that that might just be the real problem here is never explored and nothing about it ever changes.

I bring all this up not because I want anyone to not see the film.  As I have said, it is over all a well-made film, with much about it that is worth seeing.  And the characters, however flawed, are portrayed honestly by talented actors.  I am really talking here about culture and how norms are established and reinforced.

Day by day, we all encounter situations where we are presented with examples of cultural norms in action.  We see advertisements all around us for cosmetics for women and power tools for men.  We see magazine articles that propose to tell men and women separately what the other really wants and how to “win” them.  We click on a FB link because we are teased by a sexy body or a provocative headline.  A co-worker tells us a joke involving a dumb blonde woman or a grotesque caricature of a “Mexican.”  And we hear people “man-splaining” and “white-splaining” and “straight-splaining” why things are as they are.  And if we do not, whenever possible and safe to do so, point out the cultural norms inherent in those things, or fail to say why they are a problem, then the normalcy of them is reinforced.  Every time we fail to question the logic in the ads, every time we buy the magazine and read the articles without response, every time we click on the link or smile politely at the joke or fail to see things as they really are, the norms are reinforced.

I know that movies are fiction.  I know that they are portraying real things.  And I know that we are all capable of convincing ourselves that we have the maturity, the insight, and the self-awareness to consume these things without being corrupted by them.  But cultural norms aren’t fixed by our opinions of our own virtues.  If there are things about the culture that you feel need to change; if you believe that women, non-whites, people of other nationalities or religions or ethnicities, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised need to be included, given equality of representation and opportunity, and given a chance for economic equity; then the culture will need to change.  And cultures are most permanently changed by the small, everyday reactions we have to the constant onslaught of normative messages.

Do you think that our culture is too violent, too warlike, too quick to attack and too slow to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems?  Then look for the violence in your own life, in your entertainments, in your myths and heroes.  Acknowledge that it is there and question its place in your life and in the culture.  And look for the opportunities you are given to choose the peaceable route.

Do you think our culture makes second-class citizens of our women?  Look in your own life for the small things you do or fail to do that are consistent with that.  Recognize how your own life has reinforced those things in you.  Know that you are not immune, and that changing the culture requires constant checking in with ourselves to see how we are falling prey to norms we claim to disdain.

Do you want to support equal and fair treatment of non-whites, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ+ community?  Take note of your own internal reactions.  Do feel you afraid, even slightly, in encountering the other?  Can you acknowledge that the racism or xenophobia or homophobia of the culture that has raised you has affected you, that you are not completely free of its influences?  Can you recognize and own those times when you have behaved badly, perhaps without intent or awareness, but badly all the same?

And did you go to see a film like “Manchester by the Sea” and not at least make note of the fact that what you just saw was filled with misogyny and male privilege and a cultural perspective that is exactly what we need to change?  And did you say anything?

Art is one of the most powerful purveyors of cultural norms.  Film has a way of drawing us into the reality it seeks to portray.  Indeed, the suspension of disbelief, the acceptance of the terms a film sets for itself is central to its success.  But after the viewing, take the time to talk about more than just whether Casey Affleck is the best thing since Brando, or who might get the Oscar nod, or how interesting and beautiful the cinematography was.  Talk about what the film has to say about all of us as human beings, and what it has to say about what is normal in our culture.  Then ask yourself what you want to do about it.

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