a christian perspective on the world today

Identity at the Oscars

Who are you—really?

Are you a member of a community, a social grouping, a family first and foremost? Maybe you see yourself as the summation of your character traits—an ISFP? An ENFJ? Or possibly you are defined by your desires, the drives that direct your decisions. Most of us might want to hedge our bets and say a little of each. However, not all these definitions of identity sit well together. In fact, the struggle for which takes precedence has produced the comedy and conflict at the heat of this year’s most celebrated films.

The 94th Academy Awards may be better remembered for its live action displays than its attempts to reward on-screen efforts. However, a significant proportion of its top rating titles centre their drama on how we go about defining ourselves. It’s not surprising when you consider the real-life issues that have been fighting for our attention. National struggles in the Ukraine, widespread debates over sexuality and demands to choose everything from gender to ethnicity all have identity at their cores.

Tim Keller, the former lead pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, says the West sees the right to self-define as integral to a healthy life:

“Modern people have taken a perfectly great idea, and that is democratic political self-determination, and we have elevated it to an ultimate spiritual reality and the very meaning of life. I have to be me, I have to live my own way, I have to live as I decide is right or wrong, and if I don’t have the freedom to live as I want, my life is meaningless.”

The cinemas have historically been a place for road-testing such philosophies. So, it should come as no surprise that the award for Best Picture was given to a story about a young woman who finds her meaning for life through the process of deciding who she is.


CODA is the story of Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults. Her father, mother and older brother all live in the silent world of the hearing impaired. Teenage Ruby works in the family fishing business, providing a social bridge for her parents for everything from catch prices to doctor’s appointments. As a high school student, she is also struggling with normal desires to fit in. However, these are exacerbated by a widespread mockery of her family’s disabilities, and a rejection of her as an individual. So, when an opportunity to develop her singing hobby promises both a boyfriend and the chance at a college education, Ruby is set on a collision course with family priorities.

Ruby is on a journey to define her identity. Will she be a dutiful child, tempering her ambitions so that they don’t hamper the success of the Rossi’s fledgling business? Will she be a successful student, keeping her commitments to teachers at the expense of her family responsibilities? Will she be a singer, set free to express herself in a world of sound that her parents cannot appreciate? Her struggle is made more difficult by a mother and father who clearly know who they are—and their identity threatens to overwhelm hers. When Ruby and her brother get into an argument, her father castigates both for forgetting their essential unity. “You wanna fight?” he signs. “Go fight those [expletive]. Our family sticks together.”

Ruby’s internal struggles resonate with audiences because we live in an age where our roles are regularly in conflict. Previously unchallenged national, ethnic and family identities are now threatened by the rising power of individualism. CODA appeals to Western audiences, though, because it suggests that these competing concerns can be resolved in a loving environment. Ruby chooses to respect her parents’ needs and stay with the family business. Her parents, on the other hand, cannot abide her sacrificing her music and so encourage her to leave home to pursue it. The sub-text is that true love will set someone free to find their own identity. But it’s not that hard to see how the opposite might be true. What if Ruby was on her way to making an unwise, even destructive decision? Wouldn’t true love require her parents to deny her self-definition? It’s also questionable that competing identities can be so easily rationalised.

Other Academy Award winners present an altogether different outcome to a similar storyline. In The Power Of The Dog, Phil Burbank cannot reconcile an identity defined by his past with his new relationship as a brother-in-law. In West Side Story, lovers Tony and Maria sing the anthem “Somewhere” in which they express their hope that, “there’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us”. As the story unfurls, though, it becomes clear that their competing identities as Polish and Puerto Rican, Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill residents, Shark and Jet affiliates are not so easily resolved. In fact, following in the footsteps of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story doesn’t have a fairytale ending.

If conflict and loss are the more likely outcomes to competing identities it begs the question, where should we look to find our primary identities? The ones to which we give most weight? Psychologist and Cambridge research professor Brian Little suggests that when we pare away the traits we share in common with others, the truly uncommon characteristics remain. These are “free traits” that are produced by our heart’s core project, the ones that best define us:

“What is it that makes us different? It’s the ‘doings’ that we have in our life. We enact a script in order to advance a core project in our lives. Don’t ask people what ‘type’ you are, ask them what are your core projects in your life?”

Little’s research reflects a principle taught by Jesus in the first century AD. In warning His disciples about false teachers, He expressed the fundamental truth that our true identities are revealed by the actions they initiate:

“Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them” (Matthew 7:16).

James, the brother of Jesus, picks up on the idea that our actions best define us when he criticises people who identify as Christians but lack the heart-motivation to act on their beliefs. As he says, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)

It is ironic that in a society where members long to be defined by their deepest desires, the very identity that emerges might condemn them. Here, however, another celebrated film might help us. This year’s The Secrets of Dumbledore has been taken by some to be a celebration of the hero’s (and the villain’s) homosexuality. However, it’s worth noting that Dumbledore doesn’t allow that heart desire to rule him. Rather, he rejects his motivating desire in favour of doing what is right. And so it seems that it is not just our true identity that produces our actions. It also works in reverse. Our choices can open up for us a new identity altogether.

The Power of the Dog

Nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of Best Director, The Power of the Dog is a psychological thriller set in 1925 in the American West. The film is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Savage and helmed by New Zealand director Jane Campion. Two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are running a successful cattle ranch. Phil is a hard man satisfied with their hard life. However quietly spoken George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow the charismatic Phil doesn’t approve of. What follows is a series of manipulations designed to drive George’s new wife and her son Peter off the property.

Phil Burbank is a man whose identity is defined by a past that colours every toast he makes and tale he tells. He is fixated on a man called Bronco Henry who was responsible for teaching him everything he knows about the West. The more we learn about Phil’s fascination with his mentor, though, the more uncomfortable we become. Phil despises anyone who doesn’t live up to Bronco’s memory, particularly young Peter. However, there is hope in the film’s title. The Power of the Dog takes its name from a reference in Psalm 22 where King David appeals to God to save him from even the most mean-spirited enemies.

West Side Story

Nominated for seven academy awards and winner of Best Supporting Actress, West Side Story is Steven Spielberg’s loving re-make of the award-winning Broadway show and 1961 film classic. The musical tells the story of star-crossed lovers Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) who come from different sides of struggle street. Maria is Puerto Rican and lives with her brother, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks street gang. Tony lives in the basement of a friendly shop owner and is the co-founder of the Jets street gang. When the Sharks and the Jets go to war, Maria and Tony’s love story is caught in the middle.

If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because the show, created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents takes its inspiration from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. The story assembles a raft of identity issues. Gang leader, Rif, takes his identity from the geography his thugs control. “Lieutenant,” he tells a police officer, “what’s a gang without turf?” Whereas rival Bernardo draws his identity from ethnicity and family. He tells his sister, “Find one of your own kind—stick to your own kind!” There is a sense of inevitability about the racist clashes that follow—“You know, I wake up to everything I know getting wrecked or being taken over by people I don’t like, who don’t like me”—but it should not be so for at least one subsection of this lower-class community. Maria wears a cross around her neck, reflecting her religious South American culture. And one thing Christ pioneered in this world was creating a community where every outsider is welcome.

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney.

Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation


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