More than two decades after its release, I doubt that there are few in the movie-watching public who haven’t heard of Schindler’s List (1993), that now-famous film directed by Steven Spielberg that confronted audiences with what was marketed as the Holocaust in cinematic form. In the film, Oskar Schindler is a Nazi businessman whose already tenuous allegiance to the Third Reich weakens as his compassion and humanization of the Jews around him grows. The plot line revolves around the story of Schindler’s efforts to save as many Jews from death as possible, a feat accomplished when Schindler compiles a list of Jews whose survival (as his employees) he links to the health of his business.
Despite its general acclaim, one of the more public critiques of the film came from writer David Mamet, who called it “emotional pornography.” Mamet used this term to describe the process by which well-intentioned viewers watch visually grotesque cinematic renditions of an atrocity, proceed to associate themselves with the good guy, and subsequently come away from such films convinced that they have not only witnessed “real” horrors, but that they would never act as the bad guys did. Rather than working to avoid any such future tragedies (as Spielberg claimed was his goal in making the film), Mamet and others argued that such sentiments actually function to create their possibility insomuch as they convince the public at large that they are incapable of such things – that these events are, in short, the products of singularly evil people living in times long past.
A similar claim was lodged against the more recent film The Help (2011), which, while intended to be a critique of institutional racism, was also loaded with potentially racist imagery insomuch as the plot does not satisfactorily resolve until relatively helpless blacks are saved from the racism that they experience by a strong, just, and righteous white woman. Both Schindler’s List and The Help share this common feature of a protagonist who “rises above” his/her potential identity as an oppressor and proceeds to save the downtrodden. This character arc is a recurring element of the very process Mamet describes: less powerful characters are simple accessories who drive along a plot line that otherwise centers on the goings-on of an already privileged person (whose “universal appeal” does not need to be justified). Even the poster for the movie centers the white woman as the main character — note that she is the only one staring at the camera straight on.
While Mamet’s comments sparked quite a lot of controversy (and he remains a controversial character in his own right), I think that his observation pushes those of us interested in the construction of identity to consider the normalcy of this thing that he calls “emotional pornography.” Arguably, many people strategically construct their self-portrayals in ways that they find advantageous to their present social position, the relative value of which is often measured by its adherence to certain cultural narratives that hinge on positive portrayals of privilege. And to some extent, we find quite a lot of emotional satisfaction in those moments where such things are on display, just as we tend to recoil in their absence.
On this topic of the absence of privilege, consider, for instance, how vehemently some members of the public responded to the portrayal of an interracial family on a Cheerio’s commercial. Alternately, think of the manner in which a recent Jeopardy champion (an Asian man) was lambasted by Jeopardy watchers for everything from “disrespecting the game” to simply being “too smug,” all for doing things that his white counterparts had done without criticism.
So rather than think that this thing called “emotional pornography” is a unique phenomenon, perhaps we might consider how many identity claims and categories are attractive precisely because they reinforce a specific vision of the world, and thus provide the emotional reinforcements of which Mamet speaks. Social categorization is a constant exercise in naming and renaming certain things according to categories that are, usually, fairly conservative – that reinforce the status quo as a normal and natural affair. This does not, of course, downplay the significance of Mamet’s critique, nor undercut the weight of its possible impact. What it does mean, though, is that there is nary an arena of life where we’re not subjected to, or participating in, some form of “emotional pornography.”