What's Eating Gilbert Grape- Review and Critique

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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Film review and critique.

Society’s ideological constructs and attitudes towards minority groups are created and reinforced through media imagery. Although negative associations that maintain inequities with regard to race, gender and homophobia (Conner & Bejoian, 2006) have been somewhat relieved, disability is still immersed in harmful connotations that restrict and inhibit the life of people with disabilities in our society.

Disability has appeared frequently in recent films (Byrd & Elliot, 1988), a reflection of society’s interest in the subject. These films often misrepresent disability using stereotypes. These stereotypes reinforce negative and incorrect social perceptions of, and attitudes towards, disabled people (Safran, 2000). By studying these films we can begin to reshape the wrong and negative accepted ideas of disability in society. Film analysis can show students how the medium manipulates images which continue stereotypes and cause stigma (Livingstone, 2004). “Film can be used to confront students with their prejudices” (Chellew, 2000, p.26), challenging them to accept new ways of thinking realising that disability is a result of the social attitudes and expectations placed on certain people by society (Ellis, 2003; Meekosha, 2003).

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a film by director Lasse Hallström about a young man looking after his developmentally disabled brother and his dysfunctional family in a small American town. This paper will critically examine this movie using Richard Dyer’s four senses of representation, as cited in Harnett (2000), as a framework. With a focus on the disabled character Arnie, the analysis will identify and discuss the ways the film reinforces limiting stereotypes about disability. Finally, the implications of the analysis for use in an educational setting to raise awareness of the representations identified will be discussed.

Re-presentation, as the first sense of representation, refers to how television or other visual media re-present our society back to us (Dyer cited in Harnett, 2000). Through the use of artistic expression and technical elements neither true reality nor an entirely false account is portrayed. Dyer states that “reality is always more extensive and complicated than any system of representation can comprehend’ (Titchkosky, 2003, p. 134). In society’s media, the world is generally simplified or typically presented in a way that is most beneficial for the medium.

The presence of disability in a film is often used for storytelling (Raynor and Hayward, 2009). In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Arnie’s disability is constructed as an emphasis of the film. The film relies greatly on the “dramatic power of the disability alone” (p. 23) to move the narrative forward. The selection and focus of particular aspects of Arnie’s life and his disability are used to explain his actions and evoke reactions from the audience. For example, when his fear of jumping in the water is overcome, it creates a ‘feel-good’ factor. Also, the focus on his inability to cope, generates a sense of pity from the audience such as in one particular scene when Gilbert leaves Arnie to get out of the bath by himself, only to discover him still in the bath, cold and shivering, in the morning.

Dyer’s second sense of representation refers to the application of common stereotypes that have been recognised for characters with disabilities in film. These stereotypes create one dimensional characters with limited emotions, where the disability comes first and the person second, justifying differential treatment and segregation (Black, 2004). Some of the negative representations identified by Safran (2000) as stereotypical for disabled characters will now be applied to the character of Arnie.

As mentioned above, the portrayal of Arnie’s character demands a feeling of pity from the audience. This stereotype communicates “disability as a problem...
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