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Broadening Representations of the Humanities in Film - Arrival

Humanities graduates get a bad reputation in this time of increased attention being placed on STEM fields that will surely drive our technologically-advancing economy. Mainstream U.S. films have been a contributing factor to this poor image in representing humanities graduates as aloof and/or struggling writers that are haunted by addiction and manic spurts of genius or inspirational educators that set the bar unrealistically high for actual teachers. Titles such as Stuck in Love and The Dead Poets Society circulate these narratives of humanities graduates, perpetuating a single image of what these graduates can actually do in society. Arrival was released in 2016 with great critical acclaim, and one of the most interesting aspects of the sci-fi epic comes in the form of a humanities vs sciences debate between the two leads – Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly – a physicist. Banks makes it clear early in the film that they need to focus on learning to communicate with the titular arrivals before working out the physics of their space-travel, placing the linguist in a position of privilege, but does this narrative manage to correct the one-sided image of the humanities, or does it fall short of shedding a positive light on a field that has been traditionally relegated to narrow, stereotypical representations?

  • Though I get what you're trying to say, your argument is based on the flawed premise that "English majors" (or, more accurately, "scholars," since the term "major" typically disappears from self-identification after undergraduate study) and "Linguistics majors" are one in the same, despite being entirely separate fields with completely different subject matters and methodological approaches to such. Though it is not uncommon for Literary Studies and Linguistics do occasionally borrow ideas and practices from one another -- as was common in the Russian, Czech, and French schools of Structuralism in the early to mid twentieth century -- the disciplines themselves remain distinct. I had initially considered suggesting that this could be fixed simply by replacing the word "English" with "Linguistics," but the stereotyped image of English majors -- "struggling writers that are haunted by addiction and manic spurts of genius" as you've put it -- is not so accurate a description of the general societal impression of Linguistics majors. Honestly, I'm not sure if there even is such a thing as a mainstream personality stereotype of Linguistics students and scholars, aside from the occasional internet memes made by the majors themselves ( Perhaps a more accurate fix would be to replace "English" with the broader category of general "Humanities," since (as you've observed) the film's central question boils down to "Humanities vs Sciences." That said, being such a broad umbrella term for a vast array of disciplines -- from English to Economic, Geography to Gender Studies, History to Linguistics, etc, etc -- it might be difficult to represent that entire scholarly demographic with any one or two (or ten) stereotypical images. I'm just not sure what can really be done with this. Sorry. – ProtoCanon 7 years ago
  • I understand the issues you bring up, and the phrasing was probably not the best. The subject is definitely a bit too broad for a focused study, but I was hoping to get some insight through notes to narrow it a bit. I realize that English studies and linguistic studies are separate fields, but I've personally seen the stereotype of those in the humanities who study language in some way being incorrectly lumped together under the umbrella of "English." This may be a personal experience that does not translate well for others, so turning our attention to the humanities in general may be a slightly more beneficial direction to take this topic. Having said this, I do believe that there is a trend in mainstream U.S. popular culture to view those in the humanities as the stereotypical "struggling artists" without taking into account the intricacies of the humanities such as linguistic studies, technical writing, etc. Thank you for the note; I believe you provided some very important clarifications to my initial topic. – Aaron 7 years ago
  • Thank you *so much* for this topic. In an increasingly STEM-driven world, I sometimes feel as though everything I am passionate about is irrelevant. Sometimes I want to say to people, "You do understand you couldn't pursue STEM careers if you couldn't read, don't you?" And you're right, films don't help anything. I don't think I've seen a humanities-based film since Mona Lisa Smile, and that was what, 2003? Anyway...the topic should probably be narrowed down, but you have the seeds of something that will spark a great discussion. – Stephanie M. 7 years ago