Analysis of The Film Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood
The film, Gran Torino, by Clint Eastwood, follows the life of a Korean war veteran and his relationship with his Hmong neighbors as they battle to overcome the trials that they are faced with. The character that struggles the most in the film with fighting the social norms is Thao. Thao is constantly being pushed by the influences in his life to be their idea of a man.
There are two cultures that have an active influence on Thao in the film which are Hmong and American. Within these cultures, Thao has individuals who are attempting to subject him to their notions of masculinity, which are Walt, his family, and the Hmong gang.
Thao’s experience with overcoming and sometimes conforming to these influences are put in an interesting perspective when analyzed through a the lens of panopticism. In Panopticism by Michel Foucalt, Foucalt believes that society works to mentally control people by creating institutions that act like the panopticon. These institutions, such as church, school, or hospitals, play a major role in subject formation in that they give you signals on what type of behavior and beliefs are acceptable in the society. These institutions are the government’s way of watching and controlling you.
We are essentially powerless to escape the social norms our society chooses to adopt. One major institution that plays a huge role in Thao’s life is his family. A family is a socially constructed institution in that it teaches and prepares you for the behavior that is expected in society. Thao’s family is described by his sister, Sue, as traditional Hmong and is shown in a scene where Walt comes over for a Bar-B-Que and Sue gives him a rundown of Hmong cultural behavior. Thao is shown in this scene doing housework and chastised by his family for doing women’s work and mocked for his lack of a girlfriend or job. T
his shows that in Hmong culture these are the attributes that make one masculine. Thao’s family is working as the prison guards of the panopticon in this scene by letting him know that they are watching him and seeing that he is not doing what is expected of him and Thao is the prisoner because he is subjected to their watch and treatment. Like the Panopticon, Thao is aware that there is a higher authority watching him and wanting him to act in a specific way but he is unable to.
In Panopticism a major idea is that the watchguard is a fear tactic used to scare the prisoners into behaving although they’re might not be guards present in the tower, there is also the possibility that there is . This is similar to Thao’s encounter with his family in that they are not using actual force to get him to behave and do the things they want him to do but instead using tactics that emotionally harm him and maybe scare him into conforming to their ideals. An interesting thing about Thao’s family dynamic is that there seems to be a lack of a male authority figure in their household, the audience never sees Thao’s dad or even grandfather. It is possible that this lack of a strong male figure in the household creates an immense amount of pressure on Thao to fill the void where his father should’ve been present.
Perhaps because they lack a man they overcompensate and push Thao to be something that he is incapable of being at the moment. This is one of the main controversies with Panopticism, does it seek to reform the person in the prison or just to keep them in their forever controlling them with no intentions of letting them out? Does Thao’s family seek to just emotionally harm him while keeping him with them forever or do they actually want to see him become their vision of a man? In addition to his family subjecting him to their notions of masculinity, Thao is also pushed by Walt. Thao and Walt’s relationship is extremely unique because initially Walt has no respect for Thao as a person and thinks he is no good, but eventually he ends up taking Thao under his wing and being a mentor or role model for him.
Walt is a retired auto worker and war veteran, and despite his old age he acts as the watcher in the neighborhood. Panopticism is a large system with many sublevels so Walt himself is not the ultimate watcher, there are others watching him to ensure that the neighborhood is not complete chaos or even maybe to ensure that the neighborhood stays in the shape that it is. The government does not always care about the troubles that plague urban youth so this shows that Panopticism in our society is a structure built for the higher authority to watch the people and keep them in their place, causing trouble but not too much that it will affect them.
Walt is simultaneously subjecting Thao to the notions of masculinity that he himself has been subjected to. Walt is very patriotic, which is a characteristic that was installed in many Americans in the 1950s, along with his strong work ethic, intolerance for laziness, and distrust of foreigners. The morals and behavioral norms that Walt displays are the result of the society. Walt’s patriotism was most likely installed into him in school where they make children say the pledge every morning or by the media with action toys and comic books. Walt’s pride in his participation in the Korean War also shows that American society has created this ideal that a true man is one that will serve his country and be willing to sacrifice himself that Walt feeds into, describing the events that happened to him during the war whenever he wants to prove his manliness.
Walt’s strong work ethic also may have come from behaviors associated with manliness in society. The typical household in Walt’s era consisted of a wife who tended to all the housework and a husband who worked and provided the income for the family. All of these qualities that Walt has are reflected in his advice that he gives to Thao telling him that a real man has a car, woman, or job. There are many instances where Walt calls Thao gender slurs such as pussy for doing behavior that is not considered masculine, like gardening. This shows the similarity in Hmong and American culture in their notions of masculinity and the activities they view as feminine. This also shows that Panopticism can be applied in many different sects of life and many cultures.
Taking on his role as a mentor, Walt helps Thao land a contracting job and a date with a girl he likes. In this way, Walt is going beyond the role of a watcher and actually physically forcing Thao to conform to the actions of masculinity. In addition to the actions, Walt attempts to teach him the behaviors associated with being a man in a scene where Thao and Walt go to the barbershop. In this scene Walt shows Thao how men talk to each other, exchanging insults with the barber and instructing Thao to do the same. Walt advises Thao to talk about his girlfriend, car, or job when conversing with another man. This shows us that human behavior is not biologically determined but learned through society and cultural expectations.
People are not inherently masculine or feminine, they are taught by society that these are the gender roles and this is what you should conform to if you wish to be normal, this is what Panopticism aims to do to the subjects. In the speech Aint I A Woman? by Sojourner Truth, she exemplifies similar struggles with battling gender roles. In the speech, Truth speaks on the common behaviors and characteristics that are considered feminine saying, women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Truth expels these notions by saying Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
These lines challenge society’s ideals and are an exclamation saying that she does not have to conform to their gender roles. Truth repeats multiple times in the speech And ain’t I a woman? deconstructing the normal that society has created for women and refusing to be a prisoner to their mentality. Sojourner Truth was a slave so she was in literal imprisonment; Truth knew firsthand the reality of being a subject and despite this she rose to speak out to the people who have oppressed her.
Thao faces similar challenges in standing up to the people who are oppressing him in the film, which are his cousin and the Hmong gang he is a part of. Thao’s cousin, Spider, is the leader of a Hmong gang in their neighborhood which try to get Thao to join them. They attempt to initiate Thao into his gang by making him steal Walt’s Gran Torino. The gangs ideas of masculinity include doing illegal activities that put your life in danger. Spider is peculiarly hard bent on getting Thao to join him although he has shown that he is not cut out or qualified to do gang activities. There is a struggle for dominance within Spider that is clearly shown through his persistence with harassing Thao. Spider is seeking to validate his own masculinity by subjecting Thao to be under his rule.
This relates to Panopticism in that Spider and his gang are one of the lower levels of guards and believe they have power and influence over people through violence when in fact they themselves are merely just subjects of the system. They believe that they are separate from the influence of the law and government but are truly prisoners in the system, doing what the government expects of them. Spider is in fact losing the notion of masculinity he has by actively participating in the Panopticism system, whether it is unconsciously.
We have moral systems, culture, behavioral norms, and socially accepted ways of thinking that control us. No matter where we go or what we do, these cultural patterns follow us. We cannot escape them. Thao was subjected to societies ideas of masculinity and his struggle to conform to these ideals was shown throughout the film. We as people are not inherently anything, our subjectivity is created for us by society and panopticism works as a way to ensure that we are behaving as such.
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