Do films influence society or does society influence films?Do films influence society or does society influence films?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The question you've asked is relevant to recent debates about the so-called "New Historicism" in literary criticism.  I strongly suspect that there are also "new historicist" approaches to the study of film as well, although this is not an issue I have explored.

In any case, new historicist literary theorists argue that the relationships between art and life are inevitably reciprocal.  Ne whistoricists argue that old forms of historicist criticism tended to emphasize life's influence on art (for example, society's influence on a play) and thus tended to de-emphasize art's influence on life (for example, a play's influence on society). Older forms of historicism, they allege, also tended to conceive of "life" or "society" in terms that were far too simplistic and monloithic.

Thus, they regularly attack a famous little book by E. M. W. Tillyard titled The Elizabethan World Picture. Practically every single word of this title is open to new historicist objections. Thus, the word "The" implies that there was only one way in which the Elizabethans looked at the world.  The word "Elizabethan" focuses attention on the ruling class and the most powerful people living at the time, rather than on the poor, the supposedly powerless, the marginal, the persecuted, minorites, etc.

A rich historical account of any society, new historicists would suggest, is not merely an account of that society's aristocracy or its most powerful members.  Finally the singluar phrase "World Picture" is open to the same kinds of objections as the word "The": it is too static, too simplistic, too much invested in ideas of uniformity and orthodoxy.

No society, new historicists would claim, has simply one "world picture."  Instead, societies are sites of conflict among various kinds of competing world pictures.  Society is thus highly dynamic, constantly changing and evolving, constantly presenting continual "negotiations" between different constituent elements.

All of this is relevant to your question in several ways, especially in the view that any "society" is really a complex mixture of different constituent "societies" or sub-groupings and that the relations among these sub-groupings are constantly in flux and in negotiation.  Thus, it is not so much that society influences film or that film influences society, but rather that complex parts of society influence films and vice versa.


mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The seems like the age-old question of "Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?"  The answer to which influences which is probably as reciprocal as the answer to the old question is.  Films do influence society, and society does affect film.

Films that deal with socio-political questions, for instance, certainly have an impact upon society. Some of the movies of the gangsters and people of the Roaring Twenties certainly glamorized facets of this era. Some of the movies of the 1950s and 1960s, contain subthemes of more liberal thinking towards certain ethnic groups.  For instance, 1947's film Gentleman's Agreement which stars Gregory Peck as a journalist who disguises himself as a Jew, exposes the anti-Semitism of certain areas in America at the time.  Certainly, 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? starring Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Houghton, Hepburn's niece, was groundbreaking for its positive representation of interracial marriage.

When it comes to style and music, the film industry virtually dictates what the people in real life will follow.  One movie, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) sets the mode for women with styles much like those that Faye Dunaway wore as Bonnie Parker.  Many a person has had his/her hair cut in the style of a movie star. Musicals, too, have a profound affect upon trends in music, often making certain composers extremely popular.  Henri Mancini's music was very popular in the 1960s.  Such themes for The Pink Panther, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany'sThe Peter Gunn television show were prevalent through the nightclubs and restaurants of the country. 

Certain phrases uttered by famous actors or interesting characters in film become buzz words and catch phrases in American culture, for instance.  Such phrases as "Here's Looking at You Kid" from 1942's Casablanca is yet known today.  "What we got here--is failure to communicate" from 1967's Cool Hand Luke became a popular catch phrase. The 1984's The Terminator's "I'll be back" and 1991's Hasta la vista, baby! are also familiar.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, considering that the film industry is a business, society would absolutely have to influence films, because the film industry needs people to pay money to see films for entertainment.

On the other hand, I am reminded of the little Christian song sung in Sunday School with these lyrics:

Be careful little eyes what you see.

Be careful little eyes what you see

because the Father up above

is looking down in love,

so be careful little eyes what you see.

(Then the song repeats with "ears what you hear," "tongue what you say," "hands what you do.")  This speaks volumes about how movies, especially ones with values detrimental to our young people, can corrupt children and society.  If you see something enough, you will tend to think that "everyone is doing it."  If you hear something enough, you will consider saying it yourself.  This is how movies influence society.  Therefore, one must always be aware of movies that have an agenda contrary to your own in the values department.

However, this doesn't always work in a negative way.  Just think of how a movie such as To Kill a Mockingbird or It's a Wonderful Life or Life is Beautiful or The Passion of the Christ or Schindler's List or The Sound of Music or Star Wars has influenced society!  (Well, I suppose a few of them could be debated as to whether the influence was positive or negative.  Ha!)

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There will be no direct answer to this question.  I think that if there is an answer, it will lie in greater discussion to it.  I certainly think that films and social reality do feed off one another.  Films have a tremendous impact to carve out how individuals can feel about a particular topic.  For example, no discussion about the Holocaust can be considered complete without discussing some aspect of Spielberg's Schindler's List. Yet, filmmakers and producers understand that the patronage of the film industry comes out of recognizing what people want to see.  This is the reason for focus groups and test markets for films.  In the end, it becomes one of those situations where films and society feed off one another in that both recognize the need for the other.  There is no clear delineation to mark off where society impacts films and where films impact society.  I think that it is more interesting to be able to examine films that cause social discussion or to examine how social discussion has given rise to film.  In this particular case, I think that there is more value and more of relevancy in discussing the relationship between films and society.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly for films to become successful and mainstream there is a need to give the public what they want, and in this respect film has to imitate or represent the desire of the viewing public. However, when we look at the key players in the film industry we see that there are actually a few conglomerates who deliver what they deem as profitable and what the public 'ought' to enjoy next. Nowadays we find that a genre/style is 'done to death' in order to squeeze out the last vestiges of financial interest to keep the big conglomerates earning. Here speak I of vampires, wizards and 'reality' mockumentaries. It is hard to discern wher the circle of 'this is what the audience wants' ends, and the circle of 'this is what we will give the audience because it will make money' begins.

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I think the answer is both. Films reflect us as a society. We watch what we find interesting or entertaining and that is a reflection of us as a society. I would agree with post 7 to an extent; I am not a fan of "reality shows" either. However, sometimes I think they have become so popular because people want a little ridiculousness. It is an escape from the economy and the other depressing things going on in the real world. On a different note, we often see technology reflected in our films. For example, the touch screens on computers in science fiction movies used to be considered in the same category as flying cars. Now we have touch screen computers and tablets. Our hopes for the direction technology will take are often reflected in our films.
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is like the never-ending question of whether life imitates art, or whether art imitates life.

I would say that art is supposed to imitate life and add or take away whatever is ugly and weak and make it beautiful and strong- or uglier and weaker- than what it really is.

The beauty of art is that it knows no limits in its application. One can use art to extremes without consequences. Life? Not as much.

However, it is still debatable that life also imitates art. Unfortunately, not in the best of ways. You see how young men and women are deceiving themselves when they watch what they consider to be "reality TV"- which is ANYTHING BUT- and they emulate the actions of the drug-induced trashy role-models they see on hip shows.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

#5 is interesting in the way it actually siding with society being more influential on film than the other way round. I do agree, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. We do see that society produces the context which makes certain films popular, and thus certain topics become the focus of films. Of course, it is important to identify current events and how they impact the film industry. For example think about The Hurt Locker for one moment, and other films like it, that seek to explore the involvement of Western nations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise films such as Traffic are based on social realities such as the flow of drugs between Mexico and the US.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that society has more of an influence on film.  We can know for sure that society influences film.  We can see this in the fact that films in today's society have become more coarse and vulgar as our society has moved away from the propriety that was expected of people in the 1950s.  The values shown in films have clearly lagged behind those accepted in society, which implies that society is influencing films instead of the other way around.

Films are made for the purpose of making money.  Therefore, they have to reflect what people want.  This means they are much more likely to be affected by society than to affect it.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I would have to say that art imitates life more than the other way around.  It's not that a film can't influence life, as certainly there have been those that changed society's views in some fundamental way, or at least effectively challenged them.  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner leaps to mind. But more often, society, for better or for worse, almost dictates what films are going to contain, because the independent films that take risks with content and structure as well as cinematography are less likely to get the financial support they need to ever see the light of day, or the dark of a theater, as it were.
literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the posters who say both. Film is a reflection of what society wants. At the same time, we have seen where film influences society as well. Think about how fashion is introduced in film and how film is influenced by the society during the period of which it displays.

thewanderlust878 | Student

I think that, nowadays, it's both. There are definitely some cases where films have influenced society, and also the other way around. It almost like the old saying, "which came first, the chicken or the egg" in some cases. For example, the recent controversy over the movie "The Interview". Society and its happenings influenced the creators to make that specific movie, but after it was "released", attacks, bomb threats, and the like found their way to the US. So I think that both are possible. 

zumba96 | Student

I believe it was society first that influenced films but now it is a bit of both. Back in the old days, the film would have roles based on what the society viewed, but now if you see the film you will hear people say all the time how people should or shouldn't watch this or that and what kind of influence whether this be good or bad that it gives. 

cheezea | Student

i think society first influenced films, then films influenced society, while society is still influencing films... hmm... i think they work both ways :)

bigman13 | Student

That actually works two ways because the action and drama that happens in films people would try to do the things they see in films and do it in life and think its cool to do because of what they saw on tv. Same with games if children play games such as shooting they would somehow be influenced to go and buy a gun or something.. but i think it just depends on the person..

anny-cute | Student

The answer could be both. It just depends on the way you want to present it. If you films influence society. It is quite true. We become inspired by the context of the film, no matter in what category it lies. But the society also influences the type of film. The current issues going on would always be considered when making  a film.


This is just the basic or key idea. The way you elaborate it is up to you.

dwickliffe | Student

I was glad to see the mention of money, of reality show competition and of the independent films.  I think all of this has reflected change in the industry since its inception.

Some films will be made with the audience in mind.  The behind the scences process of testing, monitoring and gathering opinions on a particular edit of a film before it is ever finished and put out for viewing is evidence that the film industry wants to make sure (although the process is not infalible) there will be a big enough audience to finance and provide profit for the financiers of the film.

On the other hand, there are those artists (from wirtr to actor to producer to director) that will not do the movie simply because they believe there will be a huge audience but because it touches them, inspires them or otherwise is a story they feel needs to be told.  They work through their muse and hope that someone will be on the same page as them.  Money seems not to be the muse on these projects.

The " reality show" genre of tv and films is a different beast altogether because of the people involved.  Money and fame seem to be the sole motivators here and because of that I believe they stray from being an art form and begin to fall into the category of social science experiments.  Although we may be entertained by both traditional films and more documentary or reality based films, the purpose for each seems to be different even though the end (making a lot of money) may be the same.

lohcw1998 | Student

I think so too! ^^

valespinozaa | Student

i would say flim are influenced by society.