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How Comfortable Are We: Representing the “Other” in Mainstream Films

jlebouvier's picture

So far in this class we have discussed the different ways in which we decipher gender, among many other topics. We constantly talk about the gender binaries we encounter in real life and online, how people generally do not fit cleanly into one idea of gender, and how this binary has been extended to the animal kingdom. I would like take these discussions and extend them into the representation of people in recent popular films. I am specifically looking at TRON: Legacy and Avatar.

            In these two films, computer-generated imagery is used to depict humanoid creatures. My question is why do we feel the need to humanize these characters when we possess such advanced computer imaging technology? If you look at the graphics of CGI movies from even five years ago, they seem like children’s drawings. We have the capability of representing anything imaginable, yet we stick to forms similar to humans.

            If you look at Clu (or codified likeness unit) in TRON, he is the exact physical replication of Kevin Flynn. The artists used younger pictures of the actor Jeff Bridges to create the form of Clu. If you look in the screen shots attached you can see the two forms of Jeff Bridges (Clu and Kevin Flynn). The audience is shown the CGI version of Bridges first, and then later shown Bridges as an older Kevin Flynn. I didn’t even realize that Clu was created with CGI until someone told me. I thought they just had really good makeup artists. The settings were very easily distinguishable as reality and the virtual world, but the characters were not. I suppose the human likeness is important in this sense, as Flynn created Clu to be someone to continue building the TRON world in his absence. He wanted to create a perfect world, eliminating the imperfections he saw around him. This doesn’t explain why the main characters are made in the image of man though.

Flynn saw that the world was imperfect from the actions of man. So, why would he create another world with virtual humans? Why wouldn’t he choose a totally different form if humans are destined to be destructive? This is the issue I have with Avatar.

The Na’vi people are blue, have tails, and pointy ears. They are generally peaceful and don’t destroy their surrounding environment. In my opinion they were made with the idea of Native American Indians in mind. They are given human features (minus the aforementioned details) and similar clothing to Native American tribes. Their weapon of choice is even a bow and arrow. The movie is a commentary on colonization and the role of the US, so why not just make the movie about the Earth? Why go through the trouble of creating a new world when the characters created are basically the ones on Earth?

There are two reasons that I can come up with for major films to portray all thinking and speaking characters with human likeness. The first is that we are not as creative as we would like to think. We cannot create new images shown on a mass scale that are unique. Robots and creatures all have human qualities because we are unable to look past the world in terms of ourselves. We portray things we know.

The second reason is that we are uncomfortable thinking that anything else could have the mental capacity of human beings. If you think about it, most movies that depict completely inhuman creatures have them be either non-thinking creatures or show them as evil. As humans, we like to think that we are the greatest beings, even when we are criticizing the entire race. So, in order to make ourselves comfortable, we make rational beings in movies in our own image. If the audience can see some sort of humanity then they can sympathize with the characters and see that man created that being. There is constantly a tie back to the human creators, letting us know that we are still in control.

Overall humans like to look at themselves. Whether the view may be critical, we are all narcissistic and like to theorize about our existence. I like to think of it as personal plagiarism. We take credit for things other people do, by saying the human race created something. By making fictitious characters in films from the human image we are soothing out own egos. Humans created computers that have the capability to only do what we say. What we tell them to do is spit out images that we can get out of everyday life. Even in alternate realities we make images of ourselves.


Really though, who could be as smart and awesome as humans?

(reference pictures are in the attached file)


pictures for gender and tech.docx236.92 KB


Liz McCormack's picture

created in our own image

Interesting questions.  You begin by highlighting how gender is represented in various venues.  And then ask how "beings" are represented in two particular films, in these cases the examples are a computer code and members of an alien species.  These observations lead to the question of why do we limit ourselves to human-like representations in creative works?  You offer two reasons which are plausible. The next step would be to provide some arguments and/or evidence to further support those explanations.  I wondered, is it because we are not creative enough?, or is it because audiences seek stories they can identify with and the film industry is after all a money-making venture.  What might some of the authors we've read argue as to why we create in our own image?   You discuss too power and control issues which would be interesting to follow up on.  Who's control?, the creators, the marketers, the audience?  And finally, coming full circle, do you see  gender differences in the film representations of "beings"?