Empathy is Not the Purpose of Film; Worship is (Part 1)
Updated: Dec 29, 2018
The common view of film critics and filmmakers is wrong: the primary purpose of film is not empathy. It’s worship.
Do you ever ask yourself what the purpose of movies are? Probably not, unless you’re a filmmaker or film critic. That’s because the average person doesn’t need to ask themselves that question since, well, they just enjoy the movies and leave it at that. But we filmmakers and film critics have based our lives on making and talking about movies. So we want to believe that there is a deeper meaning to our work beyond just “entertainment”—I.E., amusing people while they wait to die.
For filmmakers and critics, the leading theory is that the primary purpose of film is to create empathy. In the words of the great film critic, Roger Ebert: “The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people … And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.”
This is how Owen Gleiberman put it in his recent article for Variety:
But what all great movies are about, on some level, is empathy. They have been, and still are, the supreme vehicle for putting ourselves in the shoes of people who aren’t us. To watch a great movie is to reduce that difference — between the people on screen, whoever they might be, and the people in the audience — to nothing. That, in a nutshell, is the miracle of movies. These days, it’s become all too easy to talk about “black films” or “women’s films” or “gay films” or films for wizened retirees from Miami. But the glory of cinema is that no movie is for any one person at the expense of anyone else. They are all for everyone. They’re not just about crossing boundaries — they’re about melting them down.
The view is that when we make a film, our job is to honestly tell our stories and showcase the stories of others so that we can help the audience to empathize with and see the humanity of their fellow humans.
In this view, the highest form of cinema is a movie like Fruitvale Station, which puts you in the shoes of a young black man who suffers from racial injustice and lets you experience that pain as if you were him and his family. It's certainly a more important kind of movie than Ryan Coogler's other, more famous film, Black Panther, which seeks primarily to entertain.
The trouble is, I’ve personally always found this explanation terribly unsatisfying. It simply has never reflected my experience of why I watch films and the reasons why I make films. At first, I only had only a gut feeling that this was wrong. But after years of writing about films and making them, I now realize better why the idea that empathy is the main purpose of film is problematic.
1. People don’t go to movies to empathize with others.
2. Empathy doesn’t make you a better person.
First is the simplest: people don’t go to see movies to empathize with others.
This point is obvious if you reflect on it for any length of time. People go to see movies to see stories that reflect themselves. People like movies with protagonists they identify with, who they share personalities with, who they share life experiences with and hopes and dreams with. People are much more likely to see movies with ones that reflect their own race, sex, religion, etc. Female audiences typically make up 40% of a superhero movie's box office but were 52% of Wonder Woman's box office. African-American audiences typically make up 15% of a movie's total box office but were 37% of the box office for Black Panther. Christian audiences obviously made up the vast majority of viewers of the Christian film I Can Only Imagine. Asian audiences usually make up 6% of moviegoing audiences but were 40% of viewers for Crazy Rich Asians.
Moreover, people to to see movies that show experiences they want to have. Empathy is merely feeling what someone else is experiencing. Yet it’s clear that people like going to see some experiences and don't like going to see others. As I wrote in my last blog post, people like experiencing movies about romantic love, being a hero, or achieving their dreams. But they’re less interested in experiencing boredom, chronic stress, or seemingly meaningless suffering. (Hence why the top movies at the box office are always superhero or adventure films and people routinely ignore angsty arthouse dramas.) People are not simply looking for any experience, they're looking for particular experiences. Empathy is therefore simply too broad a term.
But are audiences the best judge of what a movie is for? Many people argue no. Empathy may not be what people most want, but it might be what people need. And empathy makes you a better person, right?
Well, no. Empathy does not make you a better person. At least not by itself.
This confuses us to hear because we conflate empathy with kindness and goodness. But they are not the same thing. Remember, empathy simply means feeling what someone else feels. It does not tell you whether the other person is right to feel those feelings. Movies like Fruitvale Station might help us feel racial injustice, but movies like Death Wish can make us feel glee about vigilante vengeance. The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation is infamous because it showed us the history of America from the perspective of white supremacists. It certainly helped you feel how southern racists felt, but what they were feeling was... well... racism. It was so effective that it actually inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
Empathy can actually make us more cruel people. In one chilling study, participants were told they were studying the effects of pain on performance on two subjects.
"Half of the subjects read an essay in which one of the students described herself as being in distress ('I’ve never been this low on funds and it really scares me'); the others read an essay in which she was mellow ('I’ve never been this low on funds, but it doesn’t really bother me'). The subjects were then told that they were going to help out in a study of pain and performance, wherein they would get to choose how much hot sauce the student’s competitor would have to consume. Keep in mind that this competitor didn’t do anything wrong; he or she had nothing to do with the student’s anxiety about money. Nonetheless, the subjects chose to give more hot sauce to this other person when the student was described as distressed. Their empathy drove aggression, even when it made no moral sense."
In other words, feeling sorry for the one person made them more cruel to the other person. Furthermore, the people who tested as higher in empathy were more likely to be cruel to that other subject. This is also true in other experiments where the researchers described to participants the horrible things terrorists or child abusers did and asked what the punishment should be. Once again, the more empathetic the person, the harsher the punishment they wanted.
You see this all the time in movies. Movies routinely make us feel empathy for the hero and then cheer for the hero to hurt other people. It could be making us care about Bryan Mills and his daughter, Kim, in Taken, so we cheer when Bryan slaughters his way through her kidnappers. It could be 9-5, which makes us feel bad for the lovable secretaries working under a sexist boss so that we cheer when they get revenge on him. It could be The Italian Job or Ocean's 8 which make you relate to the heroes so you cheer for them to steal from innocent people... for no good reason really. In all of these cases, empathy causes us to grieve the suffering of one and cheer or ignore the suffering of others.
None of this is to say I'm against empathy. On the contrary. Empathy makes deep intimacy possible and makes us capable of sharing beautiful experiences with each other. And for film lovers it makes it possible for us to inhabit the stories of the characters onscreen. My point is that film critics and indie filmmakers tend to overstate the importance of empathy--in life and in movies--as the most important thing, rather than the second most important thing.
So what is the most important thing in movies, if not empathy? The answer is worship.
But we'll save that for next time.
Edited to include the quote from Owen Gleiberman, who published his article right after I wrote this post, but is a perfect example of what I was talking about.