Applying Personality Theories to Television Characters

It has been a tradition for a long time to theorize on identification, and in this essay, I would like to describe those theories that directly relate to the screen. First I would like to show the way that this identification process is used and becomes and important part of telling the film story. In the same way, you can see this identification process on television. Just remember all the soap operas on TV that try to stress identification and involvement with the characters. I would like to analyze thoroughly the process involved in this. For example, why would even think of identifying with television characters? Why do you identify with one person, and another one does not touch your feelings? Is it possible to identify with many characters simultaneously? Let us look at what identification is all about.

We know that there have been quite a few debates and discussions on spectator identification in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The main idea that underlies this theories and discussions was the application of the repertoire of Freudian motifs psychiatric way of interpreting Hollywood products that was often spoken about as the “dream factory”.

Now to see how all this theories reflected in the television characters identification, I would like to give a proper definition of identification. According to Ellis, “identification is the experience of being able to put oneself so deeply into a character – feel oneself to be so like the character- that one can feel the same emotions and experience the same events as the character is supposed to be feeling and experiencing. Also what Ellis has to say about this is interesting in this context”.

Identification of the movies considers 2 different tendencies. First, it is that fantasy, or dreaming start off the multiple contradictory tendencies in one’s personality. In addition, there is an addictive identification of the image of a person perceived as other. Actually, the spectator does not therefore ‘identify’ with the hero or heroine: an identification that would, if put in its conventional sense, involve socially constructed males identifying with male heroes, and socially constructed females identifying with women heroines.

This way the identification is not simple association of male of female spectators with male or female positions. We can see that in terminator movies, the terminator is the only one reason of male identification, is that so? Do we not have identification with Sarah Conner? I think that viewers are more likely to identify with both characters. So the theory of psychoanalytic film says that assumption of spectator identifying with one character is shifting to a more complex identification with the complete narrative. The narrative provides the spectator with multiple and shifting points of identification. Ellis concludes that identification is therefore multiple and fractured, a sense of seeing the constituent parts of the spectator’s own psyche paraded before her or him.

Thus so far we know that the single identification that Metz and the other theorists described is not enough, that it is possible and most likely that the spectator will identify with more than one character. Now it is necessary to see why people want to identify with certain characters. Stacey (in Hollows & Jancovich. 1995), who wanted to study the audience and its relationship to moviestars, has done an interesting study in this field. She studied women’s responses to Hollywood stars of the ’40s and ’50s. The respondents revealed a variety of different types of identification.

Although the study also has several weak points, one of the strengths of the work is that it offers a sense of the distinctions between different types of identification, and in the process it illustrates audiences’ identifications as active practice rather than passive acceptance. In this context it can also be explained why women will not always identify with the woman in the narrative or why a middle class boy will sometimes rather identify with the upper-class boy than a boy of his own class in a story. Remember that Mulvey said that women in Hollywood cinema are very often shown on the screen as mere objects, therefore women will also identify with the male hero when his actions in a given situation, for example, inspires women. Other evidence on how people react or use identification with characters on screen is given in the next section.

So far we have seen that people -for different reasons- want to and will identify with persons they see in the movies. On the small screen, on the other hand certain programs give even better possibilities to identify with. Soaps, for example, are for a large part about identification and involvement with the characters. It is therefore not so surprising that a lot of research has been carried out on why and how people identify with soap characters.

The reason why soap operas allow this degree of involvement is obvious: psychologyno other genre allows the same sustained contact with characters as soaps. It is this long-term involvement, which enables viewers to establish a sense of intimacy with certain characters which may be wholly lacking in their day-to-day lives. The degree of involvement will vary from viewer to viewer of course. Livingstone (Livingstone 1990, has done an interesting study of what the consequences of this are. 66 regular viewers of Coronation Street responded to a questionnaire about a selective narrative, which had unfolded over several months. The questionnaire included attitude statements with indications of agreement and disagreement. The responses were subjected to cluster analysis, producing four clusters as follows: cynics, negotiated cynics, negotiated romantics and romantics.

Livingstone found that it was not sociological or demographic factors that influenced the interpretation, but psychological factors. The most important factor was identification. The issue whether the viewers identified with (or saw themselves similar to) any of the characters was shown to be important in how viewers interpreted the narrative. Also very interesting was that whether characters were evaluated positively or negatively was strongly related to identification. Likewise, the point of perspective-taking/sympathy, the extent to which viewers perceived the narrative sympathetically from a particular character’s point of view, was positively correlated to identification and evaluation judgments. Recognition denotes the extent to which characters were perceived by viewers as being like people they knew in everyday life and played some part in influencing viewers’ interpretations in this study. This, however, was not as significant a factor as the previous three factors.

Kilborn (Kilborn 1992, 79) argues that this identification will be the strongest, that viewers feel especially close to characters when the latter are going through times of stress, drama or crisis. The degree of involvement is such that one might even suggest that viewers -in the grip of such feelings- are undergoing a form of catharsis. He claims that viewers even can derive therapeutic benefit from this form of emotional indulgence.

First, I have tried to establish the right theoretical background. Lacan’s concept of the ‘manque à être’, the want to be is crucial in this context. Spectators want to ‘gain an identity’. Cinema can give the spectator images of wholeness and completion, and therefore make the spectator forget his lack for a moment. To create a state of wholeness for the spectator cinema uses three processes: identification, voyeurism and fetishism. Identification is the most important one.

Then I have noted that identification is an active practice rather than a passive acceptance. Women might for example identify with the male hero if his actions in a given situation inspire her. In addition, identification theory has seen a move away from the assumption that the spectator only identifies with a single narrative figure, and towards the claim that he or she engages in a more complex identification with the overall narrative.

On television, certain kinds of programs facilitate identification and involvement. Livingstone found out that identification with the characters is the crucial factor to explain how people differ in their understanding of the narrative in soap operas. Although the process of identification is used both in cinema and on television, there are certain differences. Cinema involves identity-loss; when a viewer watches television, on the other hand he keeps his own identity. Identification with a soap character gives the viewer the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. This provides practice for everyday social roles.


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