The majority of people I have talked to have at some time or another read The Catcher in the Rye, a tale of the famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield. I, like many others, was required to read this novel in ninth grade. If you haven’t read the book, it basically just goes through Holden’s struggles with school, family, life, etc. If you have read it, you probably remember the myriad of symbols everywhere. What do the ducks represent? What does the red hat represent? What does this color represent? What does that extra comma in that sentence represent? Is the entire novel just an allegory? What does Holden himself symbolize? The list of questions involving metaphors and symbols goes on. And in almost every class there is that one kid who thinks they are so revolutionary in asking “what if it’s just random and doesn’t symbolize anything at all?” And the other students laugh, viewing their fellow student as inferior because they don’t understand the rich symbolic value of each moment in the novel, but they probably are thinking the same thing at least a little bit. And the teacher lightly explains that while that is an option, there is too much proof to show it was random. And we continue talking about the symbolism in the novel.
You could probably insert almost any novel from high school into the “rich in symbolism” category. How does this relate to women in film and television? Well, it brings me back to my first post about over-analysis of female characters. In novels such as Catcher in the Rye objects such as the ducks or the red hunting hat are talked about in such detail because they represent something other than what they appear to be, and this representation allows for discussion. Because this object is highlighted, it is important and therefore needs to be broken down in meticulous detail.
This forced analysis of symbolism happens with characters to. Art, especially performance art such as theater or cinema holds a mirror up to reality. Because of this, to an extent characters are representations of real people. But do what extent do these characters actually symbolize something or someone?
I’m going to talk about the HBO television series Girls for just a quick moment (I know, when talking about females in television who hasn’t brought up the show). But people love the show because they feel it accurately represents reality. At the same time, critics of the show argue that it is not an accurate representation because there is not enough diversity in the characters. This argument goes back and forth and both sides make good points, but I want to ask the question that may seem hypocritical to the nature of art, which is, why does it have to represent something?
Of course this goes back to that kid in my ninth grade class room. But by analyzing a character based on their representation of reality, aren’t we just assuming that they have to be a representation? Do the writers create these characters thinking they need to represent a part of society? By this forced representation, we are limiting the possibility of really well developed characters. This of course applies to both female and male characters. The ones that are really intriguing to me are the ones where I first think “Wow, she’s just like that person I know….except she does this, and thinks this way….so she’s really not like that person at all except for those initial qualities I recognized and associated with.” If this character had to represent something in society, they would be criticized because it would be an inaccurate representation. To me this character is stronger because they do not represent something I already know. They are a completely new creation and do not exist just to comment on part of society. They exist as a character in a story.
This all is of course slightly hypocritical to what I have been saying about female characters in the past few blog posts. I have brought up talking about females characters as representatives of actual people as opposed to taking away this forced comparison. While there is a paradox in that you can’t really do both at the same time, it is an interesting perspective to take characters out of the realm of representation of real life. Of course, there are many characters created with the intention of representation, but analyzing such characters with this in mind may not be the best way to discuss characters who are not used as a symbol, but rather as a separate entity created just for the purpose of whatever story they are in. This is a valuable perspective to understand when viewing characters. Do characters have to represent reality?