The “Wedding Banquet”: Challenging Gender Stereotypes Essay Example
The “Wedding Banquet”: Challenging Gender Stereotypes Essay Example

The “Wedding Banquet”: Challenging Gender Stereotypes Essay Example

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  • Pages: 13 (3447 words)
  • Published: December 23, 2017
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Everywhere one turns in modern society, there is a pervasive, constant, and strikingly homogenized 24-hour flow of images, opinions, entertainment, news, advertisements, analysis, and other information available from the different mass media. Academics, the general public, and the media itself have tried to probe the nature of the media's idealized and remarkably similar messages and the influence this communication has had on society and culture.

One of these areas in which the mass media has played an important role in developing societal conceptions has been gender and John Berger and Susan J. Douglas are two scholars who have examined the idealized messages regarding this topic that the media has promoted. In his 1972 television documentary, "Ways of Seeing," Berger analyzed the different portrayals or representations, as he called them, of men and women in the European tradition of nude paintings and discusse


d how this tradition has influenced modern gender expectations and representations by other media.

Douglas, meanwhile, published in 1994, Where the Girls Are, an analysis and feminist critique of the gender representations and the idealized rules for acceptable behavior by men and women, which she refers to as "codes of masculinity/femininity," that the American media have promoted since after World War II. Yet, while the depictions of gender that Berger and Douglas study and describe are overwhelmingly dominant and widespread, there does exist a small but significant part of the media that does not portray gender in accord with these highly standardized popular notions.

The independent film "The Wedding Banquet," directed by Ang Lee, branches from the mainstream with non-traditional characters, themes, and even cinematography to challenge the popular and stereotypical gender representations and codes that th

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rest of the media has ingrained into the social consciouness. Through a story about a gay Taiwanese immigrant who remains closeted from his parents who desire him to marry, gender issues are tackled that range from the different ways men and women are expected to act to the types of relationships between the sexes that exist and are appropriate.

In "Ways of Seeing," John Berger describes current portrayals and expectations of men and women in the media and traces these ideas to the European tradition of nude painting. First, he asserts that men and women are judged socially in different ways. Men are evaluated in a social setting based on the potential for power, regardless of whether it is political, financial, medical, or otherwise, that they give the appearance of having.

Women, however, are judged not by their abilities or other means of power, but by their appearance, which indicates the attitude they have to themselves and thus the manner in which they want to be treated by men. Berger summarizes this by saying, "Men act and women appear" (47). The reason for these differences where women prepare themselves for scrutiny of their physical characteristics and objectification can be followed back to, at least in part, the tradition of the European nude painting.

Starting in Medieval times, artwork in this line focused on presenting the Adam and Eve "forbidden fruit" story from Genesis where the two become aware of and ashamed of their nakedness and where God makes woman subservient to man. At first, Adam and Eve were both shown ashamed of their nakedness. Following some modifications to this image and style that occurred in the Renaissance and

later, the nude eventually became, almost universally, a depiction of a naked woman meant to satisfy the fantasies of the male spectator-owner.

Although the woman did not have any clothes on, her image in the nude painting did not show her true self and her subjectivity, but rather presented her as an object to be consumed. This gap between the true reality of the woman's nature and the actual depiction that is given based on the artist's perception of the woman as an object is what Berger calls a "way of seeing" or a "representation. A representation entails an active process that creates meaning based on an interpretation of reality by the viewer; it is not a copy of reality but is differs from what the reality actually is. Over time, the representation of women as objects became situated in European culture and led to the acceptance that we have today of objectifying women. Berger explains: "This unequal relationship [between men and women as portrayed in the European nude painting] is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women.

They [women] do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity" (63). The concept of a representation is not just limited to female representation, but extends to men, other notions regarding gender, and even outside gender where there is a portrayal or perception of a person or object that does not capture its true nature, subjectivity, and/or reality.

Particularly in regard to gender, however, many such representations exist in society that have been pushed forth by the mass media; these will be discussed later in an

analysis of the prevalent gender representations challenged in the "Wedding Banquet. " In her introduction to Where the Girls Are, Douglas asserts that the American mass media in the second half of the 20th century has portrayed gender, and especially women, in highly opposing fashions and that it has therefore had contradictory effects on female gender representations and social perceptions.

On the one hand, women have been treated in the media since the 1940's and 1950's as vacuous, lacking all seriousness, and not making any substantial or noteworthy contributions to society; they have been made into objects whose sole worth lies in their physical charms and who are cheerfully content to remain subordinate to men while confined to the home in their roles as housewives. Yet, with the rise of feminism and the women's liberation movement in the 1960's, feminists began to be shown as maniacal, "unnatural" women who hated men, were unattractive, and on the fringes of society.

While this latter representation is less common today than it was in the 1960's or 1970's, there still exists an ambivalence in portrayals of women where the depiction of a more tempered feminism has still not become as mainstream as the other, more extreme media depictions. Douglas argues that the roots of today's dichotomy of media representations of women began truly penetrating into the social consciousness in the late 1940's.

Although she acknowledges that contradictory notions of femininity existed since earlier than World War II, she claims that the advancing media technology that emerged in that period with the likes of TV as well as changes in advertising and marketing techniques served to intensify these opposing expectations for women

in an unprecedented way. With newer and rapidly expanding media technologies such as TV and radio, the media was both present in more places and able to reach a much larger audience than before.

Additionally, the newer techniques the media employed for marketing heightened the divergent roles women were expected to fulfill by taking advantage of the rebellious period in American culture, and youth's attempt to be "cool" and distance themselves from the conformity that had been a hallmark of their parents' era in the 1950's. Motivating the media's gender representations were economic factors. The media sought to maximize its advertising profits that were based on the type and number of their viewers by appealing to the broadest possible audience or the "lowest common denominator. This was done by idealizing, homogenizing, and simplifying representations that would aid its advertisers while remaining acceptable and desirable to the greatest number of people in the audience. Douglas explains that, "The mass media produced a teen girl popular culture of songs, movies, TV shows, and magazines that cultivated in us a highly self-conscious sense of importance, difference, and even rebellion... because those attitudes on our part meant profits for them" (14).

These advertising techniques to target youth further intensified and expanded the contradictory expectations for women in the social psyche and its gender conceptions. Today, men are starting to be more targeted by the mass media as well in a way that makes them more self-conscious about their appearance, as the media representations of women have contributed to an acceptance of female objectification. Advertisements for men's products such as Rogaine or hair transplants for hair loss, male cosmetics, physical fitness machines

such as Soloflex and muscle-building protein shakes and energy snack bars contribute to this emerging trend.

On the whole, the mass media, including Hollywood movies, popular magazines, TV shows, the Internet, radio, and newspapers, display fairly idealized, simplified, and homogenized representations of gender that have the broadest commercial appeal and that are often far less complex and diverse than those in real life. These representations of men and women that shape the conceptualizations of gender have led to, in Douglas' words, "an endless struggle for gender self-definition" (17).

Gaining control over the "codes of masculinity/femininity," as she alternatively phrases it, requires challenging the socially acceptable traits, behaviors, values, and other features associated with a particular gender that the media promotes. This questioning of the constructed presentations of idealized reality that most supposedly want is essential if the hopes of reshaping gender representations and codes to reflect the complicated realities of American life are to be realized.

The "Wedding Banquet" is an independent film that challenges many of these popular stereotypes. In the movie, Wai-Tung, a 30-something Taiwanese immigrant to the US who is gay but is still closeted to his parents, has his life disrupted when they begin pressuring him to wed and even try to set up an arranged marriage for him. While this is happening, we see Wai-Tung in his real estate business trying to deal with Wei-Wei, a recently arrived Chinese immigrant who is a tenant in his apartment building, and is concerned about being deported because she lacks a proper visa.

Wei-Wei is an artist who is struggling to survive on her own in her new land and tries to come on to Wai-Tung when

he comes to collect rent money despite knowing that he is gay. After Wai-Tung mentions Wei-Wei's situation to Simon, his physical therapist boyfriend with whom he has been in a relationship for five years, Simon suggests a way to help Wei-Wei get her Green Card and simultaneously appease Wai-Tung's parents would be to hold a sham wedding. The rest of the movie is about how this wedding hoax is attempted.

Things go comically awry with Simon pretending to be Wai-Tung's "landlord" during the parents' visit, and with Wei-Wei falling in love with Wai-Tung during the time leading up to the wedding. On their wedding night, Wei-Wei forces herself on Wai-Tung and becomes pregnant, and this news tests Wai-Tung's relationsihp with Simon. Ultimately, Wai-Tung tells the truth about Simon to his mother; although she decides to keep the information from the father because he is in poor health, comes to find out about it on his own anyway.

The movie ends with Wai-Tung's parents returning to Taiwan having accepted that their son is gay, with Wei-Wei deciding to continue with her pregnancy, and with Simon reconciling with Wai-Tung and agreeing to be another father and part of the family for the baby. The director of the film is the renowned Ang Lee, famous for his nuanced storytelling style that frequently showcases less mainstream themes and more balanced, realistic, three-dimensional characters.

All of the major characters in the movie contradict in at least some ways common stereotypes of gender, as do the movie's themes and cinematography. Specifically, the common media representations of homosexuality and gay men in particular, gender codes or societal expectations for men as compared to for women,

and gender relationships are all tackled in this movie. Wai-Tung's parents are used to convey many of the common media representations of gender to which the movie provides alternatives.

Although these characters are not American, the Taiwanese representations of gender they portray are very similar in many ways to American depictions. This is true despite the former being more strongly influenced by the culture's family-centeredness and emphasis on a close extended family while American ones are more strongly influenced by the culture's emphasis on individuality and self-reliance. The father is a retired, former high-ranking military official while the mother is a housewife.

The representation of the husband-wife relationship these characters give is one where the wife is subordinate to the husband. For example, the father sits at the head of the dinner table; at the wedding, it is the father only and not the mother who addressing a formal speech thanking the guests for their attendance. The gender codes that are promoted involve women being expected to serve men literally; they are expected to cook and serve the family, as evidenced by the father getting testy with the mother when she returns from shopping and she has not prepared dinner in time for Wai-Tung.

Furthermore, when the mother asks the father what he thinks of Wei-Wei after the two initially meet her, his reply of approval that, "She'll make lots of babies" is a reflection of the traditional expectations for women as baby-factories for men. Also, as does the traditional American gender code, the Chinese gender code carries an expectation that everyone gets married and has children and that it is abnormal not to do these things.

This is

communicated by the information at the very start of the movie that the father is restless that his son is still unmarried, and by the father's pressure on his son to produce a grandchild to carry on the family name. The parents also support the double standard in the gender codes that it is acceptable for men to be promiscuous and "fool around" with girlfriends while women are expected to be chaste. The mother demonstrates this when Wai-Tung tells her that he is gay and her stunned response is to ask him about his girlfriends he had in college that she knew he was intimate with.

By mentioning this, she is acknowledging that male and heterosexual promiscuity is acceptable since she knew about his girlfriends but did not object to his being intimate with them. Yet, the movie's representations of women are far from being so one-dimensional as to portray them as merely housewives satisfied with being subservient to men. Many of these alternative representations of women that are given are put forth through Wei-Wei's character. Wei-Wei is strong, independent, lively, outspoken, and a talented artist.

She has the courage to try to survive alone in a foreign land where she knows no one. Also, to compound her problems, she gets pregnant and, without knowing whether she would have anyone else's support if she continued with her pregnancy, decides to keep her baby. She is brazen enough to continually try to seduce Wai-tung despite knowing he is gay and is a worse cook than a man, Simon. Despite these traditionally "male" traits, Wei-Wei is not a caricature of the man-hating feminist.

Her spunk and fidelity to her sense

of morality that makes her choose not to have an abortion help make her a likeable character. In a candid, heartfelt conversation at the end of the movie with Wai-Tung's mother, Wei-Wei further asserts the idea of female independence instead of the traditional notion and media representation of women's lives being centered exclusively around their husband and children. When the mother asks Wei-Wei if husbands and children were still the most important things in their lives, she replies that they were not as important as having a career.

The mother is also used to promote the non-traditional idea of female independence here as she acknowledges to Wei-Wei that older women are sometimes envious of younger women who are, "independent, well-educated, with [their] own life. You [younger women] don't depend on men. You do as you please. " The strong heterosexism of popular culture that has been promoted by the media is another gender issue the movie challenges, particularly through the characters of Wai-Tung and Simon.

Heterosexism can be defined as, "describing an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community" (Definitions). Media representations of gender frequently reflect heterosexism by the omission of representations of gay people. The "Wedding Banquet," on the other hand, is a story that has two gay characters whose relationship and physical intimacy is shown and not hidden.

In addition, heterosexism would usually prevent the media from portraying any representation of homosexuality that is positive even if it did acknowledge the existence of gays and lesbians. But, the movie portrays a happy, successful, gay couple: Wai-Tung lives in Manhattan in a nice home, has a solid real

estate business that is growing, and has a stable relationship with a partner who he is very much in love with. Contrary to the stereotype aided by the media that gay people are strange, promiscous, and perverse, Wai-Tung and Simon are shown as warm, caring people with human feelings who have a committed five-year relationship.

Wai-Tung's kindness is evident through the way he helps Wei-Wei by accepting a painting from her as rent money when he learns of her desperate financial situation, and by the concern for his father he displays by rushing to the hospital upon learning that he had had a heart attack. In addition, since the media normally portrays homosexuality as deviant, the implication is that problems faced by gays and lesbians are brought upon themselves by their choosing the "gay lifestyle. " The movie contradicts both the notion that sexual orientation is open to choice and that gay people's problems are a result of their "deviance. When Wai-Tung's mother asks him after he reveals his orientation whether Simon "led him astray," Wai-Tung replies that no one led him anywhere but that he was born the way he was. Also, he tells her that if it were not for the pressure he faced by his parents to have a heterosexual marriage, he would consider himself very happy in his life and with his relationship with Simon. This suggests that the problems gays face are more a result of society's lack of understanding and acceptance than anything innately wrong with them.

Besides the characters and themes, the movie's cinematography also challenges media and societal conceptions of issues relating to gender. A common media representation of

relationships between men and women is that it is always one of underlying sexual tension and potential romance and cannot just stay at a level of friendship. Much of the movie's humor derives from taking advantage of this common social expectation that all relationships between men and women contain this potentially romantic aspect while relationships between people of the same gender only present possibilities of friendship.

The movie plays on situations where a heterosexual man typically would be turned on by a woman, but which make Wai-tung uncomfortable, and therefore make the scene humorous. This happens when Wei-Wei tries to come onto Wai-tung when he visits her apartment to collect rent; it is comedic to see Wai-Tung squirm. Also, when Wei-Wei and Wai-tung are at City Hall to get married, they pause awkwardly for the ceremonial kiss after taking their wedding oaths and Wai-tung hurriedly kisses Wei-Wei on the cheeks; this contrasts with the previous couple before them that was married who did not stop kissing even after they were officially married.

Moreover, the awkwardness of Simon and Wai-Tung being together as friends is made humorous because they try to hide their true relationship. The movie's cinematography also differs from common media representations in its lack of female objectification. Contrasted with typical media images and scenes, there is a significant deficiency in scenes having panning of women as objects, and the usage of camera angles framing women's legs and looking up at women from below that also promote this. Thus, the film, "Wedding Banquet," portrays alternatives to the common gender representations and codes promoted by most of the mass media.

This unusal treatment of gender provides for a

more realistic and insightful view into the lives of the movie's characters. The mass media will continue to show gender in a way that serves, first and foremost, its financial interests; however, over time, as Douglas noted, there has been and will continue to be an evolution in the gender representations that are produced. Step by step, people such as Ang Lee contribute to this process by using their work to more accurately and fairly shape society's expectations with respect to gender.

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