A critical analysis of cultural transgression in the film industry and how the industry shapes reception practices (MED3010)


A critical analysis of cultural transgression in the film industry and how the industry shapes reception practices (MED3010)

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In the view of O’Neill and Seal (2012), transgression pertains going beyond the limits or boundaries that are normative in a particular societal context. Transgression, in most societies, is seen as abject and thusly a taboo. In light of this definition, cultural transgression means traversing the boundaries set within culture. This can be achieved through various avenues one of them being through film. O’Neill and Seal (2012) see the role of transgression not only are liberating but also as consequential in the manner of redefining what is normative. Film, for example both reflects what is in the society and to an extent defines what should be in the society. Calefato (2010) notes film, in the fashion lens, defines women as supposing to “be-looked-at” and men as supposing to “look-at”. Similarly, transgression can be through refraction in which case the original culture is shifted in a new direction while retaining meaning in the local societal context (Kikuchi, 2007). This essay intends to critically analyse the film industry highlighting how it has achieved cultural transgression, especially in the modern movie production, and the way the industry shapes reception practices as well as how it has achieved refraction of cultural practices.

Reflection theory

In an analysis of cultural transgression, the major theme of study by researches has been to establish the connection between culture and social life. There have been various theories that try and explain this. However, this essay focuses on the reflection theory which explains the relationship between culture and the social world using the metaphor of the mirror. According to Griswol (2008), in regard to the reflection theory, the assumption that forms basis of ideas on culture is simply that of culture being a mirror view of social realism. Chandler and Munday (2011) note that notion of representation ought to reflect ‘the way things are’ and thusly the reflection theory is about depicting the way things are in the everyday reality. An imperative point of note from Chandler and Munday (2011) is that on a phenomenological sense, people are more drawn towards seeing their reflections in the media and familiar experiences. However, of great concern in the reflection theory is exactly to what extent the media (instruments of reflection) express realism and which realism is given more focus.

Reflection theory and the film industry

The reflection theory has enough basis on which is found including common sense. According to Griswol (2008), most people, for example, believe that what is seen in the television is an expression of what is happening in the social world. Similarly some believe that the social world is a reflection of what is happening on the television This ideology of the reflection theory can be extrapolated to the medium that is film, in which case, the activities in a film can be taken as a reflection of realism and on the contrary, reality can be taken as a reflection of what happens in the films.

Undeniably, film mirrors the cultural context in which it was created. As Craig, Greene and Douglas (2005) point out; every film that is released in the market is a highly complicated product that carries a wealth of cultural meanings and connotations. In this sense, films are indirectly created by culture. Framed otherwise, films reflect the views of the writers expressly or impliedly and the actors’ and directors’ perspectives and interpretations of a script are founded on the customs, beliefs, values and moral codes in which they stem from (Craig, Greene and Douglas, 2005). In addition, despite culture being depicted in films wholesomely, the integration of culture and film is also linked to film genres. For example, the horror films acting as allegories of the events that happened in 9/11 in America (Ndalianis, 2014).

Frankenstein, for example, a movie about the conception of a monster ‘Frankenstein’, is a classical representation of prevalent culture in the 21st century. Victor, a character in the film, out of his passion for science ends up conceiving a creature called ‘Frankenstein’ (Frankenstein, 2014). What starts as a simple creation ends up being an object of destruction as the creature suffers loneliness and bitterness. In a similar way, despite the lack of creatures like Frankenstein in real life scenarios, Picart and Browning (2012) notes that we are all creators, makers and cultural collaborators of monsters in our own way. In addition to this, monster allusion is prevalent in political discourses under which invasion between nations in the modern world and economy-draining activities come to light. The same conclusions can be drawn from the film ‘Dracula Untold’ where the desire to conquer drives a young warrior beyond the limit to doing the unthinkable – drinking blood (Dracula Untold, 2014). This reflects the modern society’s capitalists whose hunger for power and wealth drives them beyond the social norms (Picart and Browning, 2012).

In most instances, movies open the door to a harsh reality that nobody wants to face and this is the point at which critics come in and dismiss the effectiveness of movies in mirroring the society. Williams and Zenger (2007) points out that every movie is a true depiction of realism and the only times the deviations occur are when the reality is being shaped by movies. An analysis of the infamous Australian-produced film, ‘Wake in Fright’ shows that the film represents much of the Australian culture. What happens in the film from the sharp contrasting of British and American accents – showing weakened relations, disparity and dominance of the British culture – to the sex scene at the end of the movie – where a woman is treated in a disgraceful manner, are all classical representations of the rural Australian cultures and specifically at Broken Hills (Wake in Fright, 1971; McDonald, 2010).

Biased Reflectionism in the film industry

Although, as established in the cases above, movies mirror the society, the extent to which the reflection theory applies is under constant critique from scholars. In its definition, Chandler and Munday (2011) argue that the extent to which movies explain the society is limited and also the bias in terms of the dominant culture is always an issue. This means that even though movies reflect the society, they do so by picking on dominance cultural values (no necessarily the present ones) and isolating the ‘abnormal cultural values’ or ‘weak cultural values’ (Bordwell and Thompson, 2012). The movie industry, especially the American movie industry has been criticized for cultural colonialism where foreign movies are frustrated in the American Market while American movies are spread worldwide (Turow, 2013). Essentially, not all culture ends up being mirrored in the movies.

Deviation from reflectionism to active creation in the film industry

The justification that movies reflect what happens in the society is a hard nut to crack. Movies, like other media are meant to serve a particular purpose. Mostly, movies are used for entertainment by the young population. On imperative point that Thompson and Bordwell (2014) discuss in his writing on reflectionism is that no one can be sure why another person is watching a movie. This can be attributed to the fact that besides entertainment, someone could be passing and idle hour or simply determining what the fuss about a movie is all about. In this case, pointing out that people watch film because it mirrors them as Chandler and Munday (2011) did could be erroneous. Moreover, the turn-out for a movie cannot be assumed to represent the number that likes the movie. Some people will go and watch a film not because they like it but because they are following the masses. Vandevelde et al. (2013), for example notes that attendance to the Hindi films has not always been solely composed of Indians and despite them being the large audience, Belgians and Dutch are an audience though they barely relate with the cultures depicted in the films.

Another proliferating ideology about film is that because it is a popular art, it represents the ideas held by masses or the contemporary culture of a particular time. However, according to Thompson and Bordwell (2014), this argument becomes circular because there is no way of establishing that millions that live in the society share the anxieties and states of mind depicted by film. As explained by Parrill (2011), some films simply do not represent views of everybody or of the society but could be interesting regardless. For example Thelma and Louise failure to capture the trend in the masses as attributing to the director’s lack of understanding of the society. Just like Thompson and Bordwell (2014) continue to note, even if a movie is successful in the market, the success does not expressly means that the movie offers insight into the inner life of a person.

In addition, establishing an explicit relationship between the films that are produced and the real-life scenarios has been impossible for supporters of reflectionism. The actual situation is that movies often assume spurious and far-fetched relationships that fallaciously connect film and reality. As Thompson and Bordwell (2014) point out, it is paramount that film producers give a direct relation of their works to the situations that are happening. Else, the notion of passive reflections of the level and anxieties and fears of the general masses can be done away with. Consequently, film makers and individuals that advocate for reflectionism should adopt the concept of active creation; admit that their plots are based on what movie-lovers want and that they are simply tailored to connect in particular ways to certain scenarios in the society.

A classical demonstration of active creation is the infamous film ‘The Hunger Games’. ‘The Hunger games’ is an American-produced fiction movie that demonstrates how the obsession of reality television of masses can create and avenue where moral degradation comes up as normal. In the film, teenagers, labeled “tributes” are forced to fight to death and the resultant reality show entertains masses (The Hunger Games, 2012). Despite alluding to the situations in the contemporary American society, the film does to implicitly depict the culture of the Americans. According to Vassiliadis (2011), what the directors did is that on a bid to address an imminent issue in the society, they came up with a concept of a movie that pleases the masses and created it with issues imminent in the American society, that is, entertainment and its connect with moral degradation. This is what Thompson and Bordwell (2014) refer to as ‘active creation’ and which holds a better explanation to culture and film than ‘passive representation’.

The film industry’s influence on reception practices

Film creation involves the analysis of the film ext, the production process and the reception process. Each of these stages is important and creates a perspective of the complex nature of film. However, as Bennett and Frow (2008) points out, film reception does not just add dimension to a film, it is the reason that a film is created. The creators are concerned about the reaction and response of the audience. Reception is elicited through protests, reviews in newspapers and academic articles and fan discourses. According to Cateridge (2015), reception circles around perspectives of the end-user as opposed to those of the creators of a film. Certain film production firms, such as Hollywood, have attempted to shape their industry but a fundamental issue remains that reception can never be absolutely pre-determined (Bennett and Frow, 2008).

The whole concept of cultural refraction involves the shifting of local culture in a new direction whilst still retaining meaning and relevance to the same cultural context (Kikuchi, 2007). In this sense, people appreciate concepts that they can identify with which is majorly the basis behind the reflectionism theory. However, as evidenced by the critics of reflectionism, film is not entirely a passive reflection of the society but rather creations tailored to identify with the society. In light of this, shaping reception becomes easier because as Bennett and Frow (2008) notes, the contemporary societies have adopted a universal form of ‘vernacular modernism’. This the leverage that film maker such as Hollywood adopts to traverse cultural boundaries. A critical analysis on the reception of the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ evidences that cultural connotations in a film and cultural influences of the audience have an impact on reception. According to (Sharma, 2015), the Hindu culture finds the word ‘dog’ offensive and this could be a major reason the film was not well received by native Indians.

‘Vernacular modernism’, as opposed to what would otherwise be a universal language, does not simply achieve global understanding but also cultural penetration with retained local relevance (Wollaeger, 2008). Notably, reception is film does not fit in the description of passive consumption but more on active interpretation of the film. This is what producers in the film industry strive to achieve. For example, Hollywood, an international distributor of film, faces the challenge of striking a balance between active understanding of films and the local cultures (Wollaeger, 2008). The choice of language in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, for example, created a divide in the reception given its tailoring, despite inclusion of Hindu and English, failed to please low-class and middle-class Indians (Sharma, 2015). However the movie was a huge success in the United States. Shaping the reception of film is thus contributed to by prior understanding of cultures. Shaping reception, in the wake of proliferating ethnographies of film attributing to the growth and use of the internet, is difficult (Muller, 2005).

Lastly, as a way of shaping reception, film makers, especially Hollywood, are taking to a combination of contemporaneity and historicity (Gallagher, 2013). Essentially, this means that the receivers of the films will experience the modern film as well get the same nostalgia that comes with reminiscing historical films. Attributing to this is the fact that contemporary film practices promise the end-user a taste of the current technology as well as state-of-the-art experiences in watching the cinema (Gallagher, 2013). Similarly, explicit linkage to the past of film making comes up as a way of making the viewer proliferate the nostalgia that they carried on from previous experiences. For example, many viewers identify with films such as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and may be willing to re-live the experience (Muller, 2005).


Culture transgression is a contemporary phenomenon and it is proliferated through various practices in different industries including the film industries. Film, being an art, has found a way to go beyond the cultural boundaries that exist and even influencing culture. The reflection theory offers a clear perspective of how film mirrors what is happening in the society and thusly it is influenced and influences culture. In light of reflectionism and realism, the culture is depicted in film. However, criticism exists in this aspect and claims that film is an active creation of the society and never a passive reflection. Regardless, contemporary and historic film is proven to cut across culture and though receptions issues exist among different cultures, producers and film creators have integrated way to shape reception. Thusly, the film industry can be viewed as culturally transgressive as well as cultural conscious.


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