5. “Putting women back into their place”
An analysis of filmic discourses can’t help facing the way through which different stereotypes are used, built, presented, challenged, re-affirmed and so on within popular movies.
It can be said that, to different extents, all the films utilize stereotypes to make sense of the story they tell: in fact, we can always find implicit cultural references taken for granted both by the authors and the spectators which carry on the function of connecting these two opposite sides. At the lowest degree of complexity we can think about narrative artifices such as ellipsis and shot-reverse shot, used to provide rhythm and based on a tacit agree between the director and its audience (which is once again historically determined by decades of use, and thus reception, of these techniques).
But the most interesting stereotypes are the ones concerning the film as a cultural product, a coherent and finished object in itself and at the same time an articulation of a wider discourse.
Among the most powerful ideological representations in class system societies lays the gender one: the construction of “femaleness” as a social role and thus the set of interactions which women are supposed to be in. It is possible to analyse the characteristics and the evolution of this kind of dominant discourse looking at different high successful feature films shot in different times.
In 1982 Tootsie was a huge commercial exploit: it told the story of a good but ill-fated New York actor (Dustin Hoffman) who reaches success only by pretending to be an elderly woman, the star of a popular soap-opera. Complications come in when he falls in love with her co-star (Jessica Lange), who doesn’t know his secret and think to him as her best (female) friend. In this movie various contradictory elements come together, but it can be argued that a coherent moral spreads in the end. In fact, Tootsie (this is the nickname given to the protagonist by the director of the soap) acts in a nonconformist way: “she” successfully fights against sexual advances, make herself respected by the men of the cast (above all the director and the male protagonist), rebels to scripts she considers senseless and sick and substitutes them with vibrant “female power” speeches. This way she gets admiration from the women of the cast, and manages to increase the soap audience too. But all of this is far away from a progressive representation of the women’s social role: after all, Tootsie is still a man, and the message one can extract from the film is that man is better than woman even when he plays a female role. This very conservative moral is accompanied by the representation of real women as insecure and in need for a strong point of reference: Tootsie becomes this for her co-star, but only because in reality she is a man and so has got a stronger personality. Moreover, there is a quite clear message regarding work enterprise and economics in general: it’s a man the one who brings new ideas and therefore leads a product to success, that is to say makes big money. All of these themes are inserted in a wider cultural context (what Foucault names “extradiscursive dependency” 11 ), the first Reagan era, in which conservative models are taking their revenge on the Sixties and Seventies achievements of political movements, including the feminist one. The central frame of the dominant patriarchal discourse seems to be “to put women back into their place”.
Six years later, in 1988, the yuppies model, based on individualism, social climbing and the “law of the strongest (or smartest)” is declined in a female variation in the film Working Girl, the story of a secretary who wants to become a manager and succeeds by defeating her own (female) boss, with the help (and love) of a man (Harrison Ford). Here woman is portrayed as successful when she conforms herself to the dominant patriarchal values and in order to get where she wants she’s disposed to an alliance with the other sex and a fight against a member of her own one. Once again, there’s no independence because without the support (and guide) of a man nothing could have been achieved: this way the whole film can be seen as a classic “Cinderella” story, with an apparently more determined protagonist. But in the late eighties yuppie-centred discourse was already in a declining phase, and probably this is the reason why in the end the protagonist appears to be just a number among the others.
In early nineties this displacement of values comes to a peak: without a credible “enemy” to fight anymore (USSR and communism, threat to the very core of the Western way of life) a central element which a whole idea of a society was based on gets out of focus. Classic hierarchies and untouchable dogmas seem to be shaken, and some films carry the duty to portray a challenge to the old values. Thelma & Louise (1991) tells the attempt to get out of pre-ordered social positions through the metaphor of the journey and the display of female solidarity. But once again contradictions are present, spies of struggling ideological positions: the oppression of patriarchy is shown in a funny way (Thelma’s husband is involved in cartoon-style gags) which prevent to take it as a serious enemy; a man’s help is fundamental to carry on the utopia of liberation (money from Thelma’s boyfriend); Louise gets caught in a guy’s hoax - he uses his sex-appeal to steal her money, and also “has fun” with her (man beats woman in cleverness, woman is more sentimental and thus more ingenuous); the detective who’s looking for the couple after they committed a murder is a classical paternal figure, who invites the two friends to trust him for their own sake and is portrayed as sincerely preoccupied about their fate. In the end, the very possibility of an escape is denied, the only alternative to the social structure is death. All of these conservative elements are within a progressive-considered film: actually it touches the theme of rape, showing animal-like men’s attitude. This contradiction can be seen as a result of the formerly discussed displacement of values and the consequent struggle between opposite ones to prevail, but it can also be a signal of the hypocrisy of the male-dominated movie industry, which tries to use this cultural transition to re-affirm its hegemonic representations by providing the audience with conservative messages under the surface of a liberal parabola.
Finally, in a recent movie we find what looks like a new image of “girl power”: Blue Crush (2002) is the story of three female friends whose passion is surf, and in particular of one of them who will achieve a historic victory in an important surf-contest. Here we are in front of the representation of leading female characters (who anyway share a typically male value such as competition) in one of the most dangerous and male-dominated sports in the world, while the guys are portrayed as arrogant and only interested in fights. But the protagonist falls in love with a football player: because of him she argues with one of her friends – a masculine character, thus intended to be jealous of her fellow’s love affair - and then looks for his help when she is down (“what do I have to do?”). Moreover, he makes her experience a luxurious lifestyle which she alone could never afford with her job as a maid. Once again we find a male figure described as a precious helping hand and as a mean to achieve social climbing. The message seems to be that even a strong and independent girl can get caught into the spirals of love and thus put herself into a man’s arms, and that female solidarity can be broken by the influence of a man. In the end, the friend accepts the protagonist’s lover: things go back to normality when a male figure is allowed to make its way into an all-female microcosm.
These shifts and continuities in the architecture of the discourse on gender show the dynamic and at the same time conservative nature of dominant discourses. The nodal point12 around which women’s representation is built remains the same: women can’t be completely independent and in order to achieve their goals need a man’s help. But while in the first film there is more emphasis on the re-affirmation of man’s supremacy - probably as a conservative answer to the feminist movements of the Seventies - and in the second on woman’s acceptance of male upper-class values such as competition and social climbing - which reach their peak in the Reagan era -, the other two apparently look like depictions of female empowerment (the escape from the imposed routine, the challenge to men on their own field). The historical contexts follow each other, new elements find their places and old ones try to resist the change dissembling themselves under fresh shapes.

6. The hidden dimension
Trying to put texts back into their context finally leads to approach the wider symbolic container films are part of: culture. “The signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” 13 is one of the possible definitions of culture, suitable for a sociological-oriented analysis concerned with manifest cultural practices and production. Being part of this system, feature films participate in the process of signification through which social meanings are produced, distributed and received. As formerly remarked, their potential influence is of a noticeable kind being based on an interaction of different codes and languages. The symbolic power of the image is often considered one of a higher degree among the others: in fact, it is in no sense restricted to the conscious level and cannot easily be expressed in words (differing from the linguistic sign). The impact of this particular language is of course immediate and potent, even if (and sometime because of) precise meaning remains vague or abstract.
But this capacity to convey meanings is only “virtual” until those meanings are received and elaborated by concrete subjects, who in order to perform this ability must have a social competence of latching onto the given messages, decoding and understanding them – not necessarily in the way the authors had in mind. This process of sense-making is acquired through everyday experiences in the society and its culture (or rather, cultures) and thus the parameters within which interpretations are made are influenced by the interpreter’s social position and the related cultural patterns he develops: values, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of self and the others.
Culture can be considered an hidden dimension working in every interstice of the social world: the more it is invisible, and therefore the more we consider a product, a way of life or an assumption as natural and we take it for granted, the greater its influence is.
Within the process of signification a complex interplay takes place: institutions trying to build and impose a “vision of the world” or of particular issues, visuality carrying out multiple, overlapped and sometimes contrasting meanings, changing conditions of production and circulation of the cultural objects (eventually leading some products through a “career” in which they are re-discovered and charged with formerly-unthought purports) and audiences playing a more or less active role are the actors of this interplay14 . It may be useful to take one of this element and try to investigate how it works. “Institutions” are in the instance we are dealing with movie majors, of course, the subjects of the “studios” system of production which has been ruling the world film industry since the Second World War. But in a more general sense we can put under these term other subjects which, being in a dominant position in the social structure, can and actually do influence the majors, both directly and indirectly, such as political, economic, religious institutions.

7. Political screens
The identification of an “enemy” has always been a powerful mean in order to strengthen the cohesion and re-affirm the dominant values of a given social entity.
In a series of Hollywood blockbusters of the Seventies and the Eighties Middle Eastern characters served as symbols of greed, primitive behaviour and violence. In film such as The wind and the lion (1975), Black Sunday (1977), Rollover (1981) and The little drummer girl (1984) the Orient was viewed as underdeveloped, inferior and the source of chaos, violence and corruption.
While Hollywood demonised the Arabs it also responded to the aggressive international politics of the Reagan and Bush administrations by producing a series of films about invasion and rescue - Iron Eagle (1986), The Delta Force (1986), Death before Dishonour (1987), Navy SEALS (1990) – that implicitly argued the need for strong US presence overseas. Blockbusters like the formerly quoted Top Gun, First Blood (1982) and Commando (1985) dramatised the heroic ideals of empire and the aggressive heroes of these narratives functioned as personifications of a national will and warrior spirit encoded by the foreign policy rhetoric of the Reagan period15 .
The enemies (Arabs and Russians) were trapped within the frame of popular culture, becoming a concentration of pure malevolence reminiscent of the villains in James Bond films. In more recent times we can see this happen again in films like Pearl Harbor (2001), in which the Japanese are depicted as completely de-humanised, cynic monsters, always acting in a gloomy and cold setting which strikingly contrasts with the sunshine and brightness permeating the scenes of American soldiers and civilians before the attack, or Behind Enemy Lines (2001), where the Serbs are psychopathic butchers, and Black Hawk Down (2002), with the Somals portrayed as faceless shadows. The return of this kind of representations corresponds to the beginning of Bush jr. administration, characterised by a Reagan-style rhetoric of good vs. evil (with the “Axis of evil” replacing the “Evil empire”) serving to justify a permanent warfare. In this kind of films there are very basic elements such as defeat, combat, revenge, rescue, victory and comradeship, intended to be universally accepted values. These movies are devices used by the controllers of the mass culture industry to “keep it simple”, that is to say to eliminate any possible doubt about the justness of our cause and the moral (and thus material) superiority of our side. Their political-ideological function is quite clear.
Other feature films, instead, hide their message under the harmless appearance of pure entertainment. Dirty Dancing (1987) is the story of a young girl’s love initiation. Baby (this is her nickname) spends a holiday with her family in a luxurious estate in the mountains during the summer of 1963, and there she falls in love with Johnny, a guy from the dance-entertainment staff: their relationship will be hampered, but in the end they’ll reunite. The historical context is set in the first sequence, when Baby’s narrating voice says “it was before President Kennedy was shot, before Beatles came”: so the whole story is intended to be a flashback, but this is the only time we hear the protagonist’s narrating voice, which make possible to think that its unique function was to set historical context and make clear that it did matter for her. In fact, Baby is a liberal, idealist character: she studies economy of underdeveloped countries, takes care about Vietnam’s monks who burn themselves in sign of protest and wants to join the Peace Corps. “She’s going to change the world” says her dad, who’s a liberal too, very proud of her. She sees Johnny the first time spying by a semi-closed door, a way to represent the distance separating their social status and the nature of “forbidden desire” embodied by the dancer. In the same scene Max, the old owner of the estate, sets the rules for the staff: the waiters, who are all college guys, have to take care of the young female guests; the dancers, working-class guys, shall not touch them. Through Max’s speech class borders are established: the high educated bourgeois-wannabes are taught to start and make their way into the world of the rich, the workers are warned not to try. Feeling bored, one evening Baby goes for a walk. She takes a “staff only” path and in this scene we can see two main colours, the black of the night and the red of a container. Black is also Johnny’s clothes colour when he dances to entertain the guest, and red is her co-dancer Penny’s one. Baby is indeed always dressed in white or light colours. The symbolism of these chromatic choices is quite clear: Baby’s white stands for her idealistic ingenuity and purity, while black points to mystery and decadence and red is the colour of sexuality. This is what Baby gets when she’s introduced by Johnny’s cousin to the dancing staff’s afterwork party: it’s the first time she sees the “dirty dancing” and she’s initially scared of it. Like in conservative working class films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983) dancing (a physical activity, the only kind in which lower class members are shown having a chance to excel – see also sport movies like Rocky II) is used as a metaphor for the transcendence of everyday routine16 , but differently from those movies in Dirty Dancing it is not just a surrogate for lacking professional and personal gratification. Here dancing is also a job. In this sense Dirty Dancing adds an element of complexity as it hives off this activity into two opposite parts: the social acceptable version, thanks to which the working class can make a living by pleasing the bourgeoisie, and the non-polite, scabrous one, the “real” one from the workers’ point of view. This can be read as the necessary separation that capitalism imposes to the lower class’ members in order to survive: respect for decency, submission to authority, repression of one’s natural impulses. The film keeps showing usual clichés about working class people: animalistic sex (strongly alluded in the dancing scenes and evoked by the prevalence of the red colour), machismo and violence (Johnny beats a waiter who insulted Baby).
A strong emphasis is put on the role of bourgeois philantropism in taking care of the poorer: Penny is helped both by Baby and his father, and Johnny thanks Baby for having made him discover the kind of person who he wants to be. As in the movies about women formerly analysed success was achieved only with the help of a nice guy, here there is no autonomy for the working class on the way to solve their problems and achieve a better future: their chances depend on the good will of some rich liberal. “People treat me like nothing because I’m nothing” says Johnny, a statement that again re-echoes Saturday Night Fever: “You’re nowhere on your way to no place” John Travolta is told by the upper-class lady who will make him get out of his dead end life. In Dirty Dancing the message has been internalised by the working class boy. His only way out is the rich girl’s love, who ends up being a guide for him because of her ideals. Actually she denies class differences when she tells him to talk to his boss and explain his ideas (“He’s just a person like everyone else”). Johnny, on the other side, is not looking for rebellion but for social approval, since he wants benevolence from baby’s father, whom he admires for what he did with Penny. This depicts conservative beliefs about working class’ sense of frustration and its secret admiration for bourgeoisie’s higher capacities. Therefore, the capitalistic myth of individual mobilization (instead of collective struggle) is pointed out as the right way for the working class people to achieve their goals. The attack on the unions in a speech between Johnny and Baby is another clue in this sense.
The theme of family is also portrayed: Baby’s rebellion against his father’s orders not to see Johnny anymore doesn’t go so far to make her leave with him, and indeed she re-affirms her love for her dad and for the family’s unity, while her mother and sister, so far very frivolous characters, reveal themselves to be participants in Baby’s pain. Even the father will admit his error. Thus, unity of the family is not put in discussion in the end and its value is depicted as a superior one. The significance of this is to be related with the temporal setting, 1963, and Baby’s liberal attitude: traditional values win not only over love and passion but also over social changes and political beliefs.
Regarding male/female relationships, as already noticed the film portrays a good dose of machismo: but interestedly, it is Baby, the “innocent” girl, who does the first step going to Johnny’s room and asking him to dance with her. Penny, instead, who is portrayed since the beginning as sexually aggressive, is revealed to be ingenuous as she trusts the cynical waiter Robbie, and ends up crying on Baby’s shoulder. It can be intended as a denial of female sexual stereotypes (the script author is a woman), nevertheless replaced with stereotypes on women’s frailty.
In the end, Johnny comes back and has his revenge on the dance floor. He is then followed by his fellow dancers as a leader: individual action pays back. In one of the last images, the group of dancers who is stepping forward towards the stage appears trapped within two wings of sitting elegant guests: is there no escape from the place society has set for you anyway?

8. The social spectacle
The attempt made in this study was to apply different perspectives to one of the most fascinating and pervasive forms of popular culture. Many others can be used: the material offered by the cinema to work on is endless. Its complexity is probably beyond the grasp of words: nevertheless it is impossible to give up the deed, as language participate in the elaboration of our concepts and the cinema is a kind of language which includes many other different types. Trying to synthetize the experience of cinema, which is properly a total one in its capacity of fully involving the spectator, is as hard as precisely describing a dream, because “movies have reality in which narrative develops anything from outer space to an inner dream-world17 ”. But it is worth, since reflecting on it is reflecting on one of the most important ways society celebrates the ritual of its spectacle.


1. See G. Turner, Film as Social Practice (Introduction), Routledge, London, 1993.
2. F. de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Duckworth, London, 2000, p. 68.
3. S. Hervey, Semiotic Perspectives, Allen & Unwin, London, 1982, p. 133.
4. R. Barthes, Mythologies, Cape, London, 1972, p.117.
5. See A. Lavers, Roland Barthes – Structuralism and After, Methuen & Co., London, 1982, pp. 103 flg.
6. See G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paperback, London, 1983.
7. S. Hervey, Semiotic Perspectives, quot., p. 141.
8. See A. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, Einaudi, Torino, 1975, engl. tran. Selection from the prison notebooks, Paperback, London, 1990.
9. M. Foucault, Politics and the study of discourse, in G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (edited by), The Foucault effect, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 59.
10. N. Chomsky, Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies, CBC, Toronto, 1989, pp. 98-137.
11. M. Foucault, Politics and the study of discourse, quot., p. 58.
12. See Norman Fairclough, Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (Language in Social Life), London, Paperback, 1995.
13.Raymond Williams, Culture, Fontana Paperbacks, 1981, p. 13.
14. See Stuart Hall, Looking and subjectivity (Introduction), in Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (edited by), Visual culture: the reader, SAGE, London, 2002, pp. 309-314.
15. See Stephen Prince Celluloid heroes and smart bombs: Hollywood at war in the Middle East, Praeger, Westport, 1993.
16. See M. Ryan – D. Kellner, Camera PoliticaThe Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 112.
17.A. Tudor, Image and Influence – Studies in the Sociology of Film, Allen & Unwin, London, 1974, p. 113.


Barthes, R. Mythologies, Cape, London, 1972
Chomsky, N. Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies, CBC, Toronto, 1989
De Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics, Duckworth, London, 2000
Fairclough, N. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (Language in Social Life), London, Paperback, 1995
Foucault, M. Politics and the study of discourse, in G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (edited by), The Foucault effect, The University of Chicago Press, 1991
Gramsci, A. Quaderni del carcere, Einaudi, Torino, 1975 [engl. tran. Selection from the prison notebooks, Paperback, London, 1990]
Hall, S. Looking and subjectivity, in Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (edited by), Visual culture: the reader, SAGE, London, 2002
Hervey, S. Semiotic Perspectives, Allen & Unwin, London, 1982
Lavers, A. Roland Barthes – Structuralism and After, Methuen & Co., London, 1982
Orwell, G. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paperback, London, 1983
Prince, S. Celluloid heroes and smart bombs: Hollywood at war in the Middle East, Praeger, Westport, 1993
Ryan, M – Kellner, D. Camera PoliticaThe Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Indiana University Press, 1988
Tudor, A. Image and Influence – Studies in the Sociology of Film, Allen & Unwin, London, 1974
Turner, G. Film as Social Practice, Routledge, London, 1993
Williams, R. Culture, Fontana Paperbacks, 1981


Behind Enemy Lines by John Moore (USA 2001)
Black Hawk Down by Ridley Scott (USA 2001)
Black Sunday by John Frankenheimer (USA 1977)
Blue Crush by John Stockwell (USA 2002)
Commando by Mark L. Lester (USA 1985)
Death Before Dishonour by Terry Leonard (USA 1987)
Delta Force, The by Menahem Golan (USA 1986)
Dirty Dancing by Emile Ardolino (USA 1987)
First Blood by Ted Kotcheff (USA 1982)
Flashdance by Adrian Lyne (USA 1983)
Iron Eagle by Sidney J. Furie (USA/Canada 1986)
L.A. Confidential by Curtis Hanson (USA 1997)
Little Drummer Girl, The by George Roy Hill (USA 1984)
Navy SEALS by Lewis Teague (USA 1990)
Pearl Harbor by Michael Bay (USA 2001)
Recruit, The by Roger Donaldson (USA 2002)
Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino (USA 1992)
Rocky II by Sylvester Stallone (USA 1979)
Rollover by Alan J. Pakula (USA 1981)
Saturday Night Fever by John Badham (USA 1977)
Thelma & Louise
by Ridley Scott (USA 1991)
Tootsie by Sydney Pollack (USA 1982)
Top Gun by Tony Scott (USA 1986)
Training Day by Antoine Fuqua (USA 2001)
Wind and the Lion, The by John Milius (USA 1975)
Working Girl by Mike Nichols (USA 1988)

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