Beautiful Scapegoats

I’m writing a new chapter about the Ang Lee film ‘The Ice Storm’, and its function as a tragedy. The film is an adaptation of a novel, but with quite a different aesthetic. Here is a brief extract of my paper, for your consideration:

 

The Ice Storm traces the dramatic events of a single winter’s weekend in the lives of a few Connecticut suburbanites, in particular the Hood family and their neighbours the Williamses. It is 1973, and the spirit of sexual adventure arrives in these suburbs with the advent of the ‘key party’, at which the men put their keys into a bowl, and their wives in turn pick out keys assigning them a sexual partner for the night. On the night of the key party, an extraordinary snowstorm sweeps through the town, wreaking environmental havoc that parallels the built-up social chaos reaching its climax at the key party.

The novel written by Rick Moody was published in 1994, and the film by director Ang Lee was released in 1997, with Moody’s involvement as consultant.

Moody has written about his experience of the film adaptation, and made this comment:

“When I saw the final cut… the story before me was so removed from my own imagining that it was no longer necessary to think of it as my own.”

While he praised Lee’s film highly, Moody considered the film a very separate, and different, work to his own novel. One of the key differences Moody noticed was an aesthetic difference between his imagined characters and the actors who played those roles in the film:

“What I took away… was how beautiful everyone in the movie was. Of course, this had nothing to do with the book. The characters in the book looked like real people. They had bad skin, multiple canker sores, glasses. They were puffy, they didn’t exercise enough. These actors, on the other hand, were beautiful… Sometimes I was irritated by all this beauty, since it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my vision…”

In this chapter I go on to argue that the story is a Girardian tragedy, with its inevitable scapegoats. But in the film, these potential victims are no longer ugly, but beautiful. A scapegoat, in myth, is often marked as ‘different’; often ugly or deformed. Can movie-land, with its population of uniformly beautiful people, give us suitable scapegoats?

Read 3 comments

  1. Interesting post, Carly. I think beauty can act as a stereotype of persecution in just the same way Oedipus’s clubfoot marks him out as a victim. Your final question made me think of Girard’s analysis of a South African Venda myth about the god Python and his two wives, wherein novelty and youthful attractiveness designate the scapegoat.

    The action in the myth begins when a man, who is secretly the god python, takes a second wife. Only the first wife is supposed to know he is a god, but her new rival wife soon discovers the original couple’s secret. At this point, a drought descends on the land and Python, frightened away by the discovery of his real identity, hides at the bottom of the country’s last lake. Through divination, the village elders learn that the god desires the company of his second wife. The young woman enters the lake holding a ritual beer offering, while the village looks on. After she disappears into the lake, the rain begins to fall and the drought ends.

    In Girard’s reading the younger wife is a scapegoat, whose ritual death restores social order by ending the country’s drought. The theme of rivalry appears in the relationship between the first and second wife, which is strained by their shared, but contested object: the god-husband. Arguing for this reading, Girard observes: “To their husbands, second wives are usually more attractive than first wives…. [...] Our myth sounds like a malevolent fantasizing of mimetic rivalry, triggered by a husband’s preference for a younger wife” (Girard and Myth, Goslan, p. 156-57). In this analysis, the beauty of youth inspires the disruptive jealousy of the older wife. The tensions arising from the two wives’ rivalry find their resolution in the scapegoating of the younger woman.

    In youth is beauty. The exceptionality of the beautiful–who transform established configurations of desire by unintentionally usurping the group’s mimetic attention away from its usual objects–fulfills the third stereotype of persecution outlined by Girard in The Scapegoat: “the victims are chosen not for the crimes they are accused of but for the victim’s signs that they bear, for everything that suggest their guilty relationship with the crisis” (24).

    Though hardly responsible for their own beauty, many young victims are accused of malevolently inciting social disorder. Their appearance is supposed to illustrate “their guilty relationship to the crisis.” In The Ice Storm by Ang Lee opts–as many films do–to represent this reality of persecution by designating its victims with striking beauty (,see The Hunger Games). As in the Venda myth, youthful attractiveness galvanizes collective interest, accusations, and resentment around the soon-to-be victim, whose beauty seems, at least partly, to cause the jealousy propelling the community’s descent into chaos.

  2. To the final question: Yes – but they won’t sell as well so why would they make them (outside of artistic merit which we’ve seen deliberately done before for sure [the caricature double of the seductive ugly person - think the Girls episode where the Doctor must possess her etc])

  3. Thanks Benjamin and Craig.
    Benjamin, I agree that the novelty of beauty can mark a potential victim, as it does in another novel & film I study, ‘The Virgin Suicides’. What I see as different here is that everyone in the cast is beautiful. Youth and beauty are not novel in a artificial society in which everyone is young and beautiful.
    But perhaps in Ang Lee’s film, everyone is a potential victim in relationship to us, the viewers, the ordinary people. Interesting. I’ll enjoy pursuing that. Thankyou!

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