Your textbook authors describe ideology as a system of belief, value, and opinions. But then they complicate this simple definition, showing how ideology
- is usually not transparent; it is cloaked or coded in some way
- is often presented, and understood, as common sense – something unquestioningly natural and universal
- is a matter of emotions, rather than logic and debate
- is implicated in the arrangements of power in society
- is usually expressed via symbols and narrative
- is transmitted through media, including film
The last two items in the list above are the most relevant for a film class. That is, ideology is transmitted through film by employing symbols and narrative.
There are six main areas of ideological transmission in Hollywood films:
Race. In films, this usually comes in the form of white supremacy. White people are made to look attractive and normative, as the “default” race that represents all others, and other racial groups are belittled and marginalized. Non-white racial groups are often depicted as stereotyped exotic “others” or demonized as inhuman and unnatural (See “Orientalism”).
Gender. Patriarchal constructions of gender – e.g. men belong in the workplace and in politics, and women belong in the home and should remain unconcerned about politics – are made to seem natural and universal. Moreover, men are usually the active characters in film, whereas women are often passive. Men desire women, women are desired; if women desire men, they are depicted as threatening and destructive, and are usually punished for it.
Sexual Orientation. Heterosexual people are presented as normal and normative – that is, as the social ideal – whereas homosexual people are shown to be unnatural and perverted. When this leads to the majority (heterosexuals) repressing and oppressing the minority (homosexuals), it is called heterosexism.
Disability. Those without disability are portrayed as full human beings, whereas those with disability appear as abnormal freaks, as monstrous or exotic. Sometimes those with disability are portrayed as “victims” rather than as monsters, but this patronizing portrayal usually dis-empowers and dehumanizes those with disability. (We will not be doing much with this category of ideology in this course, unless you consider Danny’s “shining” in The Shining, Karen Carpenter’s anorexia in Superstar, or Cobb’s inability to construct dreams in Inception, as disabilities).
Class. This refers to the ways social groups maintain dominance through wealth and the political power that comes with it. In the United States, capitalism, business, and work are all related to ideologies of class. So too is class conflict: the struggle of those who have little against those who have more than enough.
Nationalism. According to this ideology, the United States is exceptional because of its democratic system, which supposedly gives it the responsibility to intervene in those places in the world that, according to the United States, are not democracies. (War propaganda, like we saw in Citizen Kane and Casablanca, falls under this category of ideology).
These last two categories are not dealt with directly by your textbook authors, though both are mentioned indirectly throughout the chapter – and throughout the book, particularly in the second half.
Most films transmit ideology in one of the six main areas listed above. Some films, like Far From Heaven, deal with more than one of these areas, show conflict and inter-relation between different ideologies, and challenge rather than just transmit (directly or indirectly) ideological positions.
I will use the rest of this post to show HOW and WHY this is done. I will focus on ideologies of gender, sexual orientation, and race.
Gender and Ideology
I’ll begin with gender ideology in the film – more specifically, I’ll focus on male supremacy. It is clear fairly early on in the film that it is set in the 1950s (in Hartford, Connecticut), and that Cathy is a fairly typical housewife of that era. That is, she knows her place, and takes seriously her role as supportive wife and dedicated mother. However, this role is gender-based and almost completely defined by the men in her life. It is her job to bring dinner to her husband at the office; it is not her job to work in an office, because her gender (or “nature) has supposedly made her unequipped to deal with life outside the home.
When it comes to her children, Cathy has more responsibility in raising her daughter than her son. Cathy must educate and train her daughter in the ways of her gender, as defined by a male-dominated American culture of the 1950s.
Around 4:32 in the film, we see Cathy sitting at her make-up table and mirror, with her daughter Janice, sitting on the bed, reflected in the mirror. Janice says: “Mother, when you were a little girl you looked like me, right? So when I grow up does that mean I’ll look like you?”
Cathy responds: “Is that what you want? To be pretty like me?” Janice answers: “Yes, I hope I look exactly as pretty as you.”
Cathy has modeled for her daughter that a woman must look pretty. She must be a pleasing sight for her husband, and for his friends and business associates. She has to “put her face on,” and keep it on, no matter what. If she is sad, or even emotionally devastated, she must not let anyone see under the mask she wears.
That’s because she is “Mrs. Magnatech,” and has to conform to the perfect pose in the advertisement that hangs, framed, on her wall – even if (especially if) it is fake. In the melodramas by Douglas Sirk, on which Haynes’s models his film, mirrors usually represent imitation or falsity. That is the case in this scene, where Cathy “puts her face on.” But it is not falsity that she projects consciously: she’s been trained to be this way, to be seen rather than heard.
Ironically, in the big party scene, when a drunk Frank cruelly remarks that Cathy’s good looks are all “smoke and mirrors,” he is reflecting the reality of Cathy’s situation. He says, “You should see her without her face on,” that is, without her make up. Frank shows a horrified expression on his face, as if she were a monster. But if she is a monster, it was Frank and other men that made her so – they are the reason she is fake. They require her to be fake. That is her only job.
She, of course, challenges all this later in the film. Raymond Deagan has “enlightened” her about other possibilities for women. At the end of the film, she is facing divorce, with no assets and no job. But the last few scenes of the film show a newly-assertive Cathy, one who is ready to face her problems and live a life that is more authentic and, eventually, it is hoped, more rewarding.
Sexual Orientation and Ideology
Frank clearly benefits from Cathy’s subservience as a woman, and her role as the perfect housewife. When he berates her, yells at her in public, makes snide remarks about her to his male friends, and even when he hits her, Frank shows himself to be a man of his time, which is a male chauvinist.
But just as Cathy is forced to play act to satisfy the gender requirements of her society, so too is Frank. The heterosexual masculine role that he is expected to play is just as much of a straight-jacket for him as Cathy’s gender role is for her. It is a role that the gay Frank finds it very difficult to perform – both in its social and sexual aspects.
A good part of the gender conflict for Frank is that, while the heterosexual male role is for him a lie, it is far preferable to playing the role of a gay man in 1950s America.
We get a glimpse of this fate when Cathy goes to the art gallery and meets Mona Lauder’s uncle Maurice. Maurice is an effeminate, effete man, with a faux British accent and a snobby attitude. This is the homosexual, as defined by the media of the 1950s. (We were already clued into Maurice’s sexual orientation earlier in the film when Cathy’s friend El describes Mona’s uncle as “light on his feet,” a euphemism for homosexual).
Frank naturally thinks this is his fate should he accept his homosexuality. He would rather die. In fact, according to the media of the time, this would be his fate if he did accept his homosexuality. Until the 1960s, when Hollywood was still under the sway of the Hays Code, if an openly gay person was introduced in a film, he or she would have to be dead by the end of it. To show a happy gay person on film was to show homosexuality in a positive light, which was not allowed at the time.
That said, the psychiatrist who treats Frank – who tries to cure Frank of his homosexuality – clearly states that homosexuality is not a sin; it is a sickness. This is an improvement on attitudes seen before the 1950s, when homosexuality was thought to be a sin. But, as most acknowledge now, homosexuality can’t be “cured,” nor is it thought to be a sickness, as psychiatrists thought then. The attitude of the medical profession in the 1950s was an improvement over previous attitudes, but it still defined homosexuals as less than healthy, as “abnormal.”
The life of a gay person in 1950s America, as reflected in the film, was not much fun. In this, Haynes, the gay director, is quite realistic. It was a furtive life, in which the gay person “cruised” for sex wherever and whenever he or she could, and faced any number of obstacles and dangers. We see this at the beginning of the film, when Frank gets picked up by the police for “loitering,” which is a legal euphemism for gay cruising in public parks or bathrooms.
Then Frank discovers some gay men at a movie house, and follows them to a gay bar. If Frank had approached one or the other of the gay men at the theater, he might have been mistaken, and might have been murdered for his pains. This happened regularly; murderous homophobes were almost always acquitted when they claimed to be defending themselves from a “queer” come-on. (Mise-en-scène alert: the movie house that Frank goes to is playing The Three Faces of Eve, which is about a schizophrenic woman. Eve, like Frank, plays at being the kind of person – and must wear the masks – that society has prescribed for her.)
Then Frank follows the men to a gay bar. This was much safer than the movie house, but it had its own dangers. Police raids on gay bars were common, as were undercover “stings” and blackmail.
Frank, like Cathy, is forced by his society to live a lie. Part of this lie was to pretend at a kind of masculinity which was foreign to him. This is illustrated by his interactions with his son. Just as it is Cathy’s job to socialize her daughter in her prescribed female gender role, it is Frank’s job to show his son David how to be a man. That is, Frank has to lie.
Frank has evidently been successful in his lies, because David says the right things, and likes the right things – that is, his interests are plainly those of a heterosexual boy. He calls his father “Pop” and says “aw, shucks.” He likes football, trains and cars. Before Frank finally breaks down in front of his family, after realizing that he is in love with a man, David tells his dad that, like a good little man, he has been waxing the car. “It’s gonna look swell!” David says. Very soon after David learns that his perfect middle-class home is little more than illusion, when his father, casting aside his heterosexual mask for the love of a man, moves out.
Though not a real “man” as defined by his society, Frank still has what is called “male privilege.” He can still lord it over women. And, going one rung of oppression down, Frank can lord it over black people as well, since he is white and they only black. In 1950s America, a black person was not 3/5 of a white person (as originally defined by the U.S. Constitution), but he or she wasn’t quite 5/5 either.
Race and Ideology
The film deals mostly with racial ideology, in the form of white supremacy. Raymond Deagan violates many of the tenets of white supremacy. He dared to get a college education (business degree), even though the best he can do with his degree is open a nursery. He had the effrontery to educate himself and be articulate about painting and poetry, rather than pretend to be illiterate. And, worst of all, he committed the deadly faux pas of showing romantic interest in a white woman.
For his crimes against white superiority, Raymond is ostracized, his business ruined, his daughter attacked, his home vandalized, all of which forces him to move from his home town of Hartford.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t just white people who did these things; the black community is equally incensed, and reacts violently (Raymond tells Cathy that is was his black neighbors who threw rocks through his window). This black intolerance, however, is a product of white intolerance. Black folks know that when someone in their community rocks the boat, they could and usually did suffer from it.
Instead, in 1950s America many black people aspired to be invisible to white people. Since slavery, this was always thought to be a safe bet. The black people in the film are successful in this gambit, because even though there are plenty of black people in Far From Heaven, few of the white people seem to know they’re there. For instance, during the party scene, one of the white male guests says that there is no problem with black people in Hartford, because there are no black people in Hartford. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a black waiter right there, with other black wait staff nearby.
It’s also important to note that the vicious racial prejudice portrayed in the film occurred in the northern United States, a region that was supposedly free of racial intolerance. During race riots in Chicago during the 1960s, Martin Luther King remarked that the racial prejudice in the north was worse than that of the south, because it was less obvious. This seems true of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1957 (when and where Far From Heaven is set). White people from the north didn’t call Raymond the “n” word to his face, but they did call him – a grown man – “boy,” which is nearly the same thing. White people don’t attack Raymond physically, but when he crosses a line, his livelihood and his family are destroyed.
To a lesser degree, Cathy’s life is destroyed as well, because of her association with such a man. Recall when Cathy meets Raymond in the film. She is being interviewed by Mrs. Leacock of the Gazette and sees the glimpse of a black man in her backyard. As she was more or less programmed by her society to do, Cathy panics and considers calling the police. Black men clearly did not belong in the backyard of a white woman.
But Cathy doesn’t call the police; instead, she goes out to confront Raymond, and finds out that he is the son of her gardener, who recently died (Cathy knew nothing of it, because she is not really allowed to have personal relationships with the “help”). Mrs. Leacock sees Cathy speak kindly towards Raymond, and thus her article speaks of Cathy as someone who is “kind to negros.” This kind of liberal sentiment is acceptable for a white woman of her time, as long as it is patronizing. When it becomes something more, it’s no longer acceptable. Either subtle racism or patronizing kindness, but not friendship or – horror of horrors – romance with a black person.
There is an important exchange between Cathy and Raymond, concerning race and social roles, near the end of the film. This is where Cathy tells Raymond that it is not “plausible” for her to be friends with Raymond – even though he is the only one she can talk to, mostly because he is the most authentic person she knows. Of course, it is not her but her society who determines what is “plausible” in regards to friendships with people of another race.
Cathy apologizes to Raymond for being “reckless” in their friendship. Raymond tells her that she has nothing to apologize for. It is not a crime to look “beyond the surface, beyond the color of things.”
Cathy asks: “Do you think we ever really do? See beyond those things?” Her choice of clothing underlines her doubts. She is bundled up in a heavy coat, a head scarf, and sun-glasses. It is clearly meant as something of a disguise, to go along with the masks that white women like her must wear at all times.
Raymond, characteristically, responds with a line of poetry: “Just beyond the fall of grace behold that ever shining place.” (Good luck looking for the source of that quote; it seems that it was written by the scriptwriter particularly for this film). For Raymond, a society that sees beyond racial difference is a “shining” ideal that is still to come, if people like he and Cathy are brave enough. (Mise-en-scène alert: Cathy and Raymond are having their conversation under the movie marquee at the Ritz [where Frank noticed the gay men]. But the film being shown is no longer The Three Faces of Eve, but The Bold and the Brave. This is ironic because in this scene Cathy is not being bold or brave, but the opposite.)
Raymond then says that he does believe people can look beyond the surface of things, and that he really doesn’t have a choice. Sadly, wistfully, Cathy says “I wish I could.”
But by the end of the film, she could and can. Not caring what her neighbors might think, no longer under the thumb of her husband (who has left her), undisguised, her masks cast aside, she meets Raymond at the train station on the day of his departure for Baltimore, Though they do not say a word to one another, their love for each other is obvious. Equally obvious are the difficulties that keep their romance from becoming open and real.
With its themes of male dominance, heterosexism, and racial intolerance, It might seem that Haynes crammed too much ideology into his film. (Of course, that’s exactly why I put it on the syllabus). But that’s because it’s important to Haynes to show the inter-relationship between different cultural expressions of ideology. Cathy’s male-defined role as a housewife and mother is challenged by the homosexuality of her husband, and intimately connected to her friendship with Raymond. Frank also must deal with a culturally-defined gender role, which oppresses him; but he is able to hide his transgressive sexual orientation under the disguise of a dominating white man. As a black man, Raymond is also circumscribed by the roles he is meant to play. He is not allowed to have depth of character, to show interest in painting and poetry, to have friendships with white women. He is black, and male, and therefore (in the eyes of his society) a brute.
Haynes shines a critical light on all these ideological formations, showing them to be fake, unnatural, and governed by unequal power arrangements in society. The question is: why does Haynes do this? Why shine a spotlight on ideology in 1950s America? Probably because the inequalities and inequities that stem from that time are still with us.
We will have more opportunity to explore this question in the films that still remain on the syllabus.
University of Maryland