How Film History Feeds Lies About Our Behaviours
“Women and children first!” right? This is what we’ve always been told and what we’ve always seen in films. Film History has quickly fed us with stories where gender behaviours repeat themselves over and over again: men are heroes and women are… something else.
To a point where it’s started to become a norm and a belief: real men are heroes. To be a man you need to protect your family and put your loved ones lives first.
The only problem is that there is a discrepancy between the stories we screen and the world we live in. And sure, fictions are made for escapism and relief, but when conformism becomes potent to the point where Female Journeys are simply erased from mainstream storytelling, and the only way to have a Heroine is to make her behave like a man, it gets complicated to tell kids, ourselves and our brains that this is just fiction.
The documentary The Mask You Live In makes an excellent case at showing how men are socially and culturally pressured to develop ‘heroic’ behaviour and discard emotional ones, but fiction can do that too.
Swedish Filmmaker Ruben Ostlund made a splash in 2014 with his fourth feature film Force Majeure, which happened to be my favorite film that year (among the films I’ve seen, not the full production of films that I unfortunately don’t have access to.)
Ostlund was interested about this discrepancy between what we are told, and how we truly behave as men and women. In an interview with The Seventh Art that you can watch in its entirety below, the filmmaker talks about his research on act of heroism during catastrophes and how Film History feeds a narrative that has become the social norm, when it really isn’t:
“If you look at Film History, the most reproduced portrait of a woman is a sex object and when it comes to man, it’s the hero. And if you look at statistics and what happens in real life, for example I read an investigation about ferry catastrophes, if you look from Titanic to Estonia, the percentage of survivors are men in a certain age and the one who dies are women and kids.
So the expectations on the man is that he should stand up for his family when there’s a sudden threat, but the thing is the man actually has the ability of acting egoistically when it’s needed.
And this is the ability you need if you’re going to survive in a crisis situation, but we are so found of the hero examples and that of people acting heroically, when someone doesn’t, we think it’s an exception from the rules, but actually, 99% of people who survive have to act egoistically.
So there’s something about the reproduced culture, and the reproduced cinema that doesn’t fit with reality. And that’s actually when I get most interested in a topic, when I can see wait, something is wrong here.“
So would have Jake saved Rose in real-life Titanic? Probably not. Not because he is a mean person, but because his instinct would probably have told him ‘save your ass‘ and not ‘go die so you can look heroic‘, and it makes sense. When nobody sees you, your actions tend to align differently.
The point here is a point of hope. There’s a gazillion stories that have not been told yet, because we’ve been so used to watching certain behaviours and patterns on screen, we believe that’s the truth.
And I can say from current experience that trying to tell different stories, where men and women are not behaving like we’ve been accustomed to and that don’t follow the “Hero’s Journey” is hard. It’s much easier to repeat a pattern that makes bucks than to try show another angle. Your brain tells you so, and money makers too.
But my belief is that a film like Force Majeure, although watched by a smaller number of people, is essential and holds the potential to create deep ripple effects. It made a change in me, that’s certain, and sparkled debates and conversations with friends that we might never have had.
And that’s the power of film, and that’s what you want to use it for. So even though the mountain is higher, the temperature is colder, and the risk of avalanche and death stronger, if your drive is to tell stories that matter (as opposed to make it), remember that what we’re told we are as men and women is often a cultural lie, and there’s a full horizon of storytelling possibilities that await us. We just need to find how to unlock them.