Empathy at the movies

It’s Friday night and I’m off to a not-so-nearby couch for whatever P can rustle up on the VCR (yes, sadly her TV is not DVD-friendly). A quick search of my parents’ upstairs sitting room shows up some old cassettes – a few episodes of Rumpole, Tubby Custard Footprints and The Madness of King George. Being a conscientious empathy blogger, I feel the need to offer some related movie ideas. What would you suggest?

The first one that springs to mind is a film which my therapist told me go and see for homework. (Well it wasn’t exactly homework but she did recommend it.) As it is in Heaven is one of those movies that people rave about, and the reference to empathy is that the main character (a famous musician who returns to his childhood village) needs to empathise with himself and revisit his childhood (at least in his memories) in order to heal himself emotionally.

Movie No. 2 provides an excellent example of non-empathy in the figure of Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets. It’s also a great film to watch if you like Helen Hunt, are interested in OCD (obessive-compulsive disorder) or just like cute dogs.

I’ll expand on this theme next Friday with some ideas about “chick-flicks” and other movies. I’m also trying to decide what I think around empathy and sex differences (women tend to have high empathy, men low empathy). For a start here is a quote from Helena Cronin from the Darwin Centre at the LSE:

Because, if you reproduce sexually, you must divide your reproductive efforts between competing for mates and caring for offspring.

Males specialise more in competing, females more in caring. So in humans, as in all other sexual species, males are shaped by all-out competing, females by committed caring – from brains to bodies to behaviour. So the question to ask about a species is never: are there evolved sex differences? The question is always: what exactly do the differences look like in this species?

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8 Responses to Empathy at the movies

  1. seachanges says:

    Interesting thought…..

  2. sadie says:

    ooh, what a delicious exercise! I think so many movies would work here. one that comes immediately to mind is Chocolat. In fact, I think many “foodie” movies would qualify…since food stories are typically about generosity and being or getting back in touch with the sensual, abundant, magnaimous, and instinctively kind parts of one’s self (i.e. the food critic “Ego’s” transformation in Ratatouille ). But I just finished reading a childhood favorite, Charlotte’s Web, and I’m sitting down to the movie tomorrow (for the lit flicks challenge). Charlotte is perhaps the quintessential empath…and, in keeping with the gender differential you mention above, she is a great foil to the much more competitive Templeton (a rat). Maybe more on this in my Charlotte’s Web post. I loved As Good as it Gets! for all the reasons you mention!

  3. Pete says:

    Dick – thanks for the link. Looks like an interesting movie – will have to track it down.
    Seachanges – I hope so. These gender debates can be quite polarising though.
    Sadie – I loved Chocolat and, despite initial misgivings, really enjoyed Ratatouille as well. That’s an interesting take on Food – have never thought of it quite like that before. Hope you enjoy Charlotte’s Web the movie.

  4. Litlove says:

    Women who have children get a crash course in empathy. So the films from the eighties when men ended up holding the baby are interesting in this respect. Three Men and a Baby is very light fare, but still, and then there’s Jack and Sarah (was it?) with Richard E. Grant. You could probably make a case, however, for cinema being the medium of empathy as it extracts a sympathetic identification from the viewer. Have a watch of an old horror movie to see how you are dragged into the position of the victim (or sometimes even the villain).

  5. Pete says:

    Litlove – very true about cinema being the medium for empathy (which makes it slightly depressing that mainstream movies are so bad). And you’re right of course about women getting a crash course in it. When men do it they tend to make a song and dance about it (hence Three Men), which I suppose could equally apply to me! *Ouch*

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