Spectator - culture - character
Marker, Jeffrey W.
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Psychological models of spectatorship have made invaluable contributions to our understanding of how meaning is constructed in the cinema, but they most often assume an ahistorical, “ideal” spectator and do not take social or cultural factors into account. This approach ignores both the diversity among film spectators and the sociocultural basis of much onscreen representation. This dissertation addresses that gap in spectator theory. To consider all the effects of sociocultural phenomena on our engagement with cinema, however, is an undertaking that requires multiple volumes of work. My specific goal in this work is to contribute to that larger project by addressing one of the aspects of film viewing in which the spectator’s social and cultural experiences are particularly significant: the engagement with character. I begin with an established model of character engagement that is based in cognitive psychology, Murray Smith’s structure of sympathy, and expand that theory to include the sociocultural structures that impact the development of sympathy for character. Chapter one analyzes the ways particular film narratives manipulate and/or provoke certain cultural schemas and not others, and consequently elicit specific responses to character based on those schemas. Chapter two then shifts emphasis to how the spectator’s sociocultural experiences may lead her to resist the narration and to construct character in ways that reflect her sociocultural ideology more than the ideology of the film as it is explicitly presented. The third and fourth chapters focus on sociocultural structures that have particular significance for the spectator’s construction of character. Chapter three defines stereotypes as mental structures that store conceptions of social out-groups, discusses the ways stereotypes are initiated during film viewing, and theorizes the various effects stereotypes have on character engagement. Chapter four then concentrates on culture hero schemas as structures that store the shared representations and values of cultural in-groups, thus providing many of the criteria by which we evaluate characters. Throughout, I theorize culture as a psychological phenomenon while trying to avoid essentializing cultural differences or attempting to predict behavior, and I draw on empirical spectators extensively for the foundations of my analyses.