VII.  Pragmatic Reading

Influence and Identification

It has been shown that the actual influence of cinematic models on human behavior can be quite complex.  Propensity to imitation is influenced by factors such as the perceived similarity between viewer and performer as well as perceived consequences.  Imitation of transgressive conduct may be influenced by perceived authority.  Modeled behavior – especially mobilized around primal arousal or emotion – can briefly alter general conduct tendencies but is unlikely to result in either direct identification or imitation.  Studies of film violence do not necessarily suggest direct imitation (Note 1).  Consequently, complex observational learning phenomena are likely to operate even in relatively simple film texts.  Simplistic theories of viewer identification (according to gender or function) overlook the critical elements of perceived similarity and perceived consequences.  Clearly, the reading of a particular text is likely to be negotiated according to momentary responses and narrative contingencies.  The extent to which viewers respond favorably to a particular text or character may depend on this interplay of factors.  As Clover (Note 2) has observed, mass film audiences – including males – respond positively to the character of “Ripley” as a strong female hero in the Hollywood “Alien” series.   Knowledge of observational learning suggests that the foregrounding of mortal threat with powerful contingencies of escape and survival are more likely to account for this response than the gender of either the character or the spectator.  Some viewers may root for “Ripley” despite her gender, others because of it.  The basic point is that when both gender and basic survival are foregrounded, the specific focus of viewer sympathy cannot necessarily be assumed to be gender based.

Notes:  Pragmatic Reading

1. See Dave Grossman, On Killing:  The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  Boston:  Little, Brown, 1996, pp. 306 – 332 for a consideration of the effects of vicarious role modeling and conditioning provided by violent films.
2. Clover, op. cit., p. 46.