Why we should all hug and recognize Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis
(On the therapeutic effects of complex characters)
Charles Taylor tells us in his Politics of Recognition (1994) that we all need some sweet love and acknowledgement. No, but really. Like really really, in the sense that recognition is a universal primal human need, and that without it people can become very psychologically unhealthy. Everybody has some kind of (sometimes secret) inner life, a stream of thoughts and feelings and identities that, while not readily tangible to the rest of the world, are certainly very real for the person who carries them. Humans are social creatures, and whether it’s in literature, politics or everyday communication, we need something that represents us, calls out to us and says hey, I recognize you – I recognize your existence!
When I first read Taylor’s essay about two years ago, something clicked for me. I realized that I loved film and literature partially because the various people it gave me to relate to validated my experiences, which felt great. I also realized that, while film was great in this aspect, the mainstream industry still lacked plenty in terms of the scope of complex and nuanced representations offered, and could do much more for many people.
Which is where Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis come in. McDormand is really good both in Fargo (1996) and in Olive Kitteridge (2014), playing a pleasantly no-nonsense police officer in the former, and a loving but complicated older woman in the latter¹. Willis himself had two diverse roles as a troubled child psychologist in the Sixth Sense (1999) and an understanding police captain in Moonrise Kingdom (2012). I have no doubt someone (I know I did!) watched those movies and thought to themselves, ‘hey, that’s me sometimes!’, even though these kinds of personalities have not been brought forward before. Which can be incredibly therapeutic! By realizing each time that we are not alone in the quirks, thoughts and experiences we have, we realize new opportunities for understanding and relating to each other.
Whether or not McDormand and Willis have this goal – even if only partially – in mind when acting is unclear, and perhaps also beside the point. When John McClane squints, cracks a goofy smile and utters an over the top line, a man on a couch in Nebraska is validated in his self-deprecating yet confident and respectful interpretation of masculinity. When Marge Gunderson confronts a serial killer before returning home to watching nicely mundane nature documentaries with her husband, she creates room in Hollywood for representing the personalities of women that usually don’t get any representation there. They bring us to life, all the while respecting any nuance we might have, and in doing so recognize us. For which I think Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis at the very least deserve some recognition back.
¹Please go watch Olive Kitteridge. It’s great!