Movies and Conduct: A Payne Fund Study

Chapter 9: Emotional Detachment

Herbert Blumer

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OPPOSED to the condition of emotional possession stands an opposite state which may be called emotional detachment. In emotional possession one is, so to speak, at the mercy of the picture; in emotional detachment one immunizes himself to its grip. Consequently emotional detachment becomes a method of control over one's reactions. One who approaches the picture in this latter state discounts its character and resists its emotional appeal; whereas in emotional possession one has surrendered himself to the movement of the theme and to the appeal of the scenes.

As we have seen, emotional possession prevails when the individual comes to identify himself closely with the picture and so to lose himself in it. A few further instances of this aspect of emotional possession are being given to serve as a background to the treatment of emotional detachment.

Male, 20, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—A scene of agony which I don't seem to be able to forget is from "Moby Dick," in which Lionel Barrymore starred. In one of the scenes, Barrymore's leg is amputated, and his face is shown during the operation. I think I suffered as much as he did. I remember that I dug my nails into my hands until they almost bled. I am very impressionable, and I felt as if I was experiencing the same pain that Lionel Barrymore was supposed to be enduring. I went through the same experience in the "Flying Fleet" when a group of men were marooned on a raft and dying of hunger and thirst. My throat became dry and I almost felt as if I could stand it no longer unless I had a drink.


Male, 20, white, college sophomore.— Scenes of agony always made me shudder and want to shut my eyes. Scenes of bloodletting especially made me feel weak all over. I usually shut my eye to such scenes. When I did watch them, however, the effect on me was almost as bad as that on the victim. I recall one scene where a rein had hot irons plunged into his eyes. I shut mine, of course, but even then I felt that my own eyesight was in danger.

Female, 21, white, college junior. — War pictures have played on my emotions; I distinctly recall seeing "Wings" last year. It was so realistic that I completely forgot that I was seeing only a picture, and I myself went through every experience in the picture. I became so oblivious of my surroundings that I shouted out in a time of distress, and I finally became so hysterical that my escort took me out. The rest of the day I was in a hysterical condition and that night I dreamt about airplanes and war; it took me several days to recover my equilibrium and now I hesitate before I consent to see pictures of such a caliber.

Male, 19, white, college sophomore. —Pictures of war, where Americans are in action, or better, marching along, with the theater organ playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever," always inspire me with a strong feeling of loyalty and pride towards my country. Scenes of that nature make my pulse race and I seem to have a queer shivering feeling of joy, much the same as I experienced when the news of Lindbergh's successful flight reached America. My throat tightens and tears almost come to my eyes, and I want to talk about it with someone. After I see one of the pictures I have described, I walk down the street with my shoulders squared and a smile on my face, and I like to take off my hat and let the breeze blow my hair about.

As opposed to the kind of experience revealed in these accounts, emotional detachment is marked by preserving distance, by maintaining a certain critical and reflective attitude. The individual either does not identify himself with the characters of the picture or else keeps this identification under control. The character of this experience

( 131) is stated somewhat abstractly in the following remarks written by a college student about his earlier contact with motion pictures

Male, 19, white, college sophomore.—When I became a senior in high school movies began to have an entirely new significance for me. They became sources of mere entertainment. I frequently went to them in the company of a few friends, not to see the show at all, but to pass the time away, and to be in the company of my friends. It was a totally different experience from my previous movie contacts, for when I was younger it had always been necessary to identify myself with the characters and the story. It was my inability to do this that had caused my subsequent loss of interest, and now I found myself able to enjoy a picture while maintaining a detached attitude toward it.

Emotional detachment is attained by building up certain attitudes which serve to fortify the individual against captivation by the picture. The attitudes which usually yield this emotional detachment are cynicism, scorn, analysis, indifference, superiority, or sophistication. The last two seem to be most common. They do not mean necessarily that interest is lost in the type of picture to which they are directed, but merely that the emotional or sentimental features are subject to a judgment which lessens their appeal.

The attitude of discounting a picture seems to arise from any one of three sources: first, through instruction, or the gaining of knowledge or experience which makes one feel somewhat superior to the kind of behavior depicted in the film; second, through response to the attitudes of one's group when such attitudes depreciate a certain type of picture or belittle a certain naïve reaction to a picture; or third, disillusionment which causes one to question the reality of what is being displayed. Some brief attention will be given to each of these three sources of emotional detachment.

Following are two accounts which indicate the change in

( 132) attitude brought about by instruction by one's parents. In these instances the individual comes to adopt a different perspective on certain forms of motion pictures; his new interpretation gives him a control over the emotional appeal of the pictures. The first of these accounts is of a girl who writes of some of her earlier experiences with motion pictures.

Female, 20, white, college junior.—However, I received one of the greatest disappointments of my young life, I believe, when I went to a movie that ended sadly. I cannot remember what it was, but it surely revolutionized my ideas. I had always believed that no matter how badly things seemed, everything would turn out happily in the end. Some people had a long period of difficulties, and others were more fortunate, but both at some time would finally obtain their desires and would "live happily ever after." I used to call that belief my philosophy (I liked the word), and comforted my playmates at every opportunity by telling them they just hadn't reached the turning point yet. I had quite a group of followers who were the same friends with whom I went to the movies. I could always refer to the movies to confirm my beliefs until that fatal day. They asked for explanations and I couldn't give any. I was almost heartbroken and finally went to mother and told her all about it. She didn't laugh. I often wondered why. She talked to me for a long time and told me I must not take movies too seriously. They only showed a few experiences of lives of imaginary people, both pleasant and unpleasant. She told me I could pity people who must live as some did who were represented in the movies and at the same time by contrast appreciate my own opportunities. It was during this talk too that she impressed upon my mind that to obtain money was not the main aim in life, another idea I had gathered from movies. There were two parallel points she stressed, happiness for myself and happiness for others. I shall always remember that talk.

The other account, which is similar in nature, is of a college boy. It is in the form of a brief description of one of his earlier attitudes.

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Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—It was very common for me to be in extreme sympathy with sad scenes and this mood often continued after the show was over. It was through this serious and sympathetic attitude that my parents soon realized that I was receiving a bad impression from the movies and that I was worrying too much. Rather than see me perturbed by these post-movie moods they impressed upon me the untruth and unreality of the movie and thus corrected my former impressions. This change took place at the age of ten.

As one may imagine from the two instances which have been given, an individual by increased knowledge of a certain area of life may be in a position to markedly discount pictures dealing with such a field. An instance of this is in the following account written by a college girl with reference to so-called propaganda pictures:

Female, 19, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—Where I have knowledge of the situation, as for instance that of the Russian Revolution, I resent the sentimental distortion of the facts for the furthering of the plot, the caricature of the types of characters and their actions. With that as a basis I try to prevent myself from accepting situations and countries as presented in the movies, as a basis for opinions. And one of the greatest faults I have to find with them lies in this fact—what a strong force they are for molding the minds of the majority in the hands of a group of propagandists.

She also spoke of her suspicion of pictures of gay luxury which formerly had caused her feelings of dissatisfaction with her own mode of life

A few years back the gay luxuriousness and wantonness of the lives of the daughters of the rich made a strong appeal and led to a vague dissatisfaction with the present and shaped my ideal for the future. Now, however, it is with evident skepticism, a trifle amusement and disdain, and occasionally a little sympathy or understanding with the better type of plot and actor, that I watch these shadow caricatures.

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Another instance of this detachment is given in the account of a college girl. Her reëvaluation of mystery plays gives her an immunity to the emotional hold of such pictures.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore. —Breath-taping mystery plays provided not a little recreation, especially when a whole crowd of girls went together. I would be delighted to watch the effect the play had on my neighbors—the squeals of delight from one girl, the labored breathing of another who had let herself go and was living the rôle of the heroine. I delighted in the knowledge that I sat aloof, a "looker-on." No worries or fear for me of course, it would all come out all right! Hadn't I discovered that all along?

Of the same nature is the following experience written by a college boy. His gaining of a certain kind of knowledge leads him to interpret differently a type of picture which formerly made a great appeal to him.

Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—During my early high school life I developed a liking for the love scenes. I could not seem to get my fill of love pictures. This desire lasted through my first year of college. I suppose the existence of this period was analagous to a desire for association with the opposite sex. During my second year in college I became aware of the fact that the love scenes were more or less unreal. The natural is always better than the artificial. I saw that love didn't work like movie love. Then I wanted pictures devoid of this passion, being replaced by experiences of true life. My desire for the latter form was increased by a love experience of my own, giving me a new conception of love, leading me to have disgust for the vulgarity I had often seen displayed on the screen.

Apparently the chief source of emotional detachment lies in the effort to respond to the attitude of one's group. If one's companions or associates look askance at a certain kind of picture, make depreciating remarks about it, ridicule its character and term one's interest in it as childish,

( 135) one's attitude is likely to change by adopting the attitude of the group towards the picture. One tends to withdraw oneself from its hold. It is apparent that through this sort of experience one comes to change and outlive one's former interest in a certain kind of picture. Thus, the upper-grade schoolboy or the young high-school boy may come to regard Western pictures and serials as distinctively juvenile; the college girl hearing remarks of ridicule made about the silliness or absurdity of love pictures may assume an attitude of sophistication towards them; and the growing delinquent boy in hearing his older companions refer to gangster pictures as "kid-stuff " becomes somewhat detached and "hard boiled" about them. Group conversation tends to define and set the individual's attitude. Of course, this may work both ways. The conversation may operate to stimulate one's responsiveness to a certain kind of picture; but also, as we have suggested, it may work to so revise an individual's attitude that he no longer experiences emotional thrill from a given kind of picture.

It is of interest also to notice how one's attitude may change as a result of disillusionment about the reality of a picture, or about its presentation. It very frequently happens that some knowledge concerning the technique of production, such as the use of artificial backgrounds, tricks of the camera, the "shooting" of consecutive scenes at different times, will come as a surprise to a youthful movie-goer and cause him to depreciate a picture. Again, information about the private lives of motion picture stars and their relations to one another may strip pictures of much of their glamor. Something of this disillusionment with the subsequent change in attitude is suggested by the following account:

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Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—The first film plot which ever made an impression on me was "Reaching for the Moon," which starred Douglas Fairbanks. This film had the usual exciting Douglas Fairbanks episodes, but it ended with the disclosure that they had all been a dream. Hitherto I had watched movies with an absorbing interest and entered unreservedly into the life portrayed, but after that I began to think about the reality of them, and began to question their validity. At first I was afraid that it all might be a dream again, and then I just began to think about the true life relationships. I began to compare the movies with life as I knew it. I began to be skeptical about many phases of movies. For the first time I realized that the effects presented were gained by technique and not by actual daring. I became curious about, and interested in, the methods by which various scenes were produced and I found out about "doubles" and artificial scenery and queer photography.

As a result of the impersonal attitude I began to have toward the movies, I felt sorry for the men who had to play the villain's part, while before I had sincerely hated them. My ambition to be a motion-picture actress was chilled considerably when I discovered that the action was not filmed consecutively. One of the charms of that profession, as I had formerly conceived it, was the living of those exciting and lovely stories which always turned out so well if one were the hero or the heroine. Having to separate the scenes would spoil it all.

Usually, the development of emotional detachment in the case of those who have been previously subject to emotional possession moves from a state of naïveté to one of sophistication. The transition, in general, is gradual. It is possible to trace it very nicely in the change in interest on the part of children with respect to "thrillers." The same kind of transition is exhibited in the change of attitude on the part of young men and women towards love pictures, and in the change of interest in crime pictures in the case of older delinquents. We may illustrate the process in the case of the interest of children in serial and Wild West pictures.

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A study was made by the writer of the motion-picture interests of a class of fourth-grade children, a class of sixth-grade children, and a class of eighth-grade children in a public grade school in Chicago. Through the questioning of the children and from short accounts written by them it was possible to get a very interesting picture of the change in attitude towards serial pictures.

The fourth-graders showed in the most undisguised fashion a great interest in serial pictures, particularly in the case of one entitled "The King of the Congo" which was being shown at the time in the neighborhood theater. The fourthgraders were very communicative, spoke with pronounced interest and enthusiasm about the picture, and unanimously admitted that they liked it because it was "spooky," exciting, and mysterious. This expression of enthusiasm for the picture was spontaneous, with no accompanying signs of self-consciousness.

A very different type of behavior was shown by the sixth-graders. Here the children were very reluctant to talk about the picture. When drawn out, many of them admitted liking the serial yet they seemed to feel ashamed at the admission. A number declared that the picture and serials in general were "childish"; it was very interesting to notice that quite a few who declared that they liked the serial sought to explain their liking on the basis of its educational value, since the picture showed many wild animals. In general, the sixth-graders sought to convince the investigator of their disdain for what they considered childish things. Their conduct and attitude, however, was distinctly one of affected sophistication. These children were caught between two sets of forces; on the one hand, without doubt most of them continued to enjoy serial pictures; on the other hand, they were aware of the attitude of the older

( 138) boys and girls that such pictures were childish. Their self-consciousness and inconsistency in attitude reflected quite clearly the presence of this conflict.

In the case of the eighth-graders the conduct was again quite different. Here the expressions of disapproval, dislike, and disgust of serials were rather spontaneous and straightforward. Such remarks as these came from them: "They are usually the lower class of literature"; "They are always ending with the villain hanging by a thread or some impossible thing"; "They are too silly"; "The hero is too great and never is beaten"; "I know they are trash"; "I realize that the pictures are only made and not real"; "They are the bunk"; "Only kids see them"; "They are all right for the punks." The indignant and decidedly emphatic denials which came in subsequent questioning when the investigator consciously sought to accuse the children of affecting an attitude, showed that it was instead quite genuine. Here, then, in the case of the eighth-graders one discovers a feeling of scorn and indifference towards a kind of picture which formerly had been quite entrancing to them.

The same process of forming protective attitudes by the substitution of sophistication for previous naïveté takes place in the other two lines of interest spoken of: the change of attitude towards love pictures in the case of older adolescents and the attitudes towards crime pictures in the case of older delinquents. Here also one usually finds the intermediate steps of self-consciousness and affected cynicism or sophistication. The high-school senior girl or the college freshman girl is particularly likely to show this state of affectation. Being thrown in with groups who look with amusement and disdain on passionate love scenes and pictures, she is likely to affect the same attitude, although she still

(139) may experience much of the old thrill while witnessing such pictures. On hearing further remarks about the absurdity of such scenes and the childishness of one's emotional reaction to them, her affected sophistication may become genuine. With such an attitude she strips away the glamor of the picture and thereby reduces the possibilities of her succumbing to its emotional appeal.[1]

The transition from naïveté to sophistication is usually not only slow but frequently imperfect; in other words, the individual may witness certain pictures to whose emotional appeal he may yield, while he may remain immune to the influence of others. The former is likely to happen when witnessing scenes presented with vivid artistic mastery,

Male, 19, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—When I was in my last year of high school, my attitude towards the movies had changed and my two years at the University have made me realize that these movies are not representative of real life, but rather portrayals of the unusual, something which will sell and bring profits. Thus I go to a movie now with a sort of antagonistic mind. I know that many of the scenes are false, and probably never would happen so I enjoy them for the time being, but I forget them usually after the film has ended. I feel inclined to disbelieve that some of the screen portrayals could ever have happened. Yet in spite of all my antagonism I cannot at times resist the urge to imitate certain actions and to desire many things I see on the screen.

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In concluding these remarks it is perhaps well to point out that one who views pictures with emotional detachment may still select out of them items for purposes of imitation. While he may be immune to the emotional appeal of the picture and so perhaps scarcely likely to experience awakened desire or to indulge in day-dreaming, he may in a detached fashion still be quite ready to copy certain forms of behavior.

This discussion of emotional detachment may throw some light on the problem of controlling conduct in the face of the influence wielded by motion pictures. At present, chief reliance is being placed on censorship as a form of control. Censorship is, of course, a negative kind of control, confined to deletion and rejection of pictures, and functioning under circumstances which make very questionable its effectiveness. The more effective and so desirable form of control comes with the development of attitudes of emotional detachment. The possibility of forming such attitudes in children and adolescents through instruction and through frank discussion of motion pictures instead of categoric condemnation of them is, in the opinion of the writer, very large. A greater willingness on the part of parent and teacher to talk about pictures with children and adolescents, to interpret them in broad ways and so to build up attitudes toward them, holds promise of better results.


  1. Incidentally, this very attitude of sophistication may on occasion be fostered by certain kinds of motion pictures. This has been the experience of the writer of the following account:

Female, .21, white, college junior.—During my senior year in high school I very consciously acquired an excess of sophistication, or what to my mind at that time I termed sophistication; it consisted of dressing in a certain type of clothing, being bored with everything and everybody, dropping squelching remarks to most people and above all being smartly cynical. This was my ideal, and though I fell far short of the mark I never gave up trying for it. The ideal was, to some extent, popular with the other senior girls, and on that account I was anxious to attain it; but the sophistication of certain actresses seemed to me to be perfect, and it was largely because of this fact that I acted as I did.

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