The plot thickens on film


'Marriage plot' still a cultural staple

BLUFFTON, Ohio—As a scholar of 19th-century women’s literature, Dr. Cheri Larsen Hoeckley knows that marriage plays a central role in many classic novels. But the pressure to get married that can be found in those books also lives on in modern movies and culture, the Westmont College professor says.

Novels of the 19th century “are in many ways the origin of a notion that we still live with,” Larsen Hoeckley said March 31 at Bluffton University’s annual Women’s Studies Forum. “And that notion is the assumption that no matter who you are, or what you’re doing right now in your late teens, you’re going to be married at some point.”

The expectation of marriage in many ways stems from classic literature, the professor of English said. Books by Victorian authors such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters stress that marriage is the most important goal of a young woman’s life, and their plots focus on marriage and the complications that hinder it.

This concept, which Larsen Hoeckley calls “the marriage plot,” dominates today’s films as much as it dominated those novels. “Movies now do the cultural work novels used to do,” she told the audience.

Romance movies of the past 10 years, for instance, tend to operate under the same plot structure: Two adults meet and fall in love, but complications keep them from living happily ever after. But eventually the conflict is resolved, their paths cross again and one or both of them ends up a better person. And more often than not, they get married at the end, she said.

These movies leave us with stereotypes, about men as well as women—that marriage is the mark of adulthood, marriage is something women think about all the time and marriage is an ending, or the completion of a life goal everyone has.

Larsen Hoeckley warned that even though they’re just movies, they can have real-life consequences that mold our perception of love and marriage. “Can we say it’s just a movie when we learn things from watching these movies a lot?” she asked.

“They’re part of our cultural discourse,” she noted. “It becomes part of the way we think about who we are.”

One way Larsen Hoeckley suggests we can challenge these gender norms is through the Bechdel Test. The experiment asks three things: Does the movie have at least two named women in it, do those women talk to each other and, if they do talk to each other, do they talk about anything other than men?

If a movie cannot pass all three questions, it fails the Bechdel Test and presents a worldview that is limiting to both men and women, she said. “It’s actually very hard for a whole lot of films to pass the Bechdel Test,” she added.

But even movies that do pass it, such as Disney’s blockbuster “Frozen,” can still present a narrative that succumbs to gender expectations, such as the idea that women can only be princesses or that they should be impossibly fit and attractive.

While the marriage plot presents a limited and artificial worldview, Larsen Hoeckley said, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should avoid it. Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” for instance, features a married couple who demonstrate the power of teamwork and family, with marriage not an end goal but rather a tool that allows them to combat evil.

She also identified other examples from Pixar that challenge the marriage plot. “Up” asks viewers to think about what drives a marriage (adventure, in this case); “Wall-E” bends gender expectations by making Wall-E domestic and sensitive, while making Eve the leader and action hero.

“There’s not a reason to avoid the marriage plot; there’s just reason to think about it,” she said. “The long heritage of these perceptions about gender doesn’t make them right.”

“If more of us work on living together as men and women, we’ll find ourselves living in community with more deeply satisfying relationships than we could ever experience if we focused on one narrow plot for our lives.”

Larsen Hoeckley earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of California-Berkeley in 1997—the same year she joined the faculty at Westmont, in Santa Barbara, Calif.