I just finished watching the movie “Arrival” which I really enjoyed. This didn’t really surprise me as the protagonist is a strong woman who is also a Linguist and it was a Science Fiction story about first contact. Now I admit, I made the obligatory “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” jokes during the film, but in general, the movie was engaging and interesting. I enjoyed the twist (spoiler: there’s a twist…) and was fooled along with most everyone.
Language Changes How You Think
It’s been a while since I’ve studied Linguistics, but the theory that languages can affect how you think has always intrigued me. When I was in school, I enjoyed learning Russian because of the verb aspects. Aspect is something English doesn’t have, but in Russian many verbs have two forms: one that shows completion and a second that has a more indeterminate form. So for example, there are two verbs that have the English translation of “to go” as in “I’m going to the store.” If you use one verb, the translation is “I’m going to the store and coming back.” If you use the second, the translation is “I’m going to the store and possibly going somewhere else afterwards.” But the literal translation of each is “I’m going to the store.” Transliterated these would be “Ya idu v magazin” and “Ya poydu v magazin.” ¹ Because Russian speakers use verbs with aspect, this means that how they think is different from how English speakers might because English speakers such as myself don’t innately understand aspect.
Another way language might affect how you think is in the words that you have access to. An example many people are familiar with is the idea that Eskimo have more than 50 words for snow. And it’s true that the Saami people (of northern Scandinavia and Russia) have over 180 words for snow and ice. For people who don’t live with as much snow or ice those distinctions are not needed. I discovered this when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Up here, the weather reporters refer to “sun breaks” on a regular basis, they also have terms for rain and sleet that I’d never encountered growing up in California. My father would laugh uproariously at the weather reports announcing that there would be 50% chance of sun breaks. But living up here, it makes perfect sense. I also now know the difference between sleet, hail, and graupel. This change in my language has definitely changed how I think, if in no other way than that I know better what to wear on my daily walk.
And ultimately that is the premise behind this movie. As Louise learns the alien language it changes how she thinks in a very profound way. I think any encounter with an alien race would need to change how we think and perceive the universe and our place in it, and “Arrival” takes that literally.
But Where are the Other Women?
One of the first things I noticed in this movie was the complete lack of women and People of Color. I think I saw one other woman in the linguist team they pulled together and I don’t recall any non-whites anywhere beyond Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker’s character) and of course the Chinese. There may have been some women extras on screen in various scenes, but in general there weren’t any.
This stood out to me because when I studied Linguistics it was almost 100% women. I think there was one man in our graduating class, we had only two male professors, and I don’t recall any male grad students. The only classes that had men in them were the general education classes, and even they were mostly women.
So if there were so many women in the field, what happened to them in this movie?
Then once I started thinking along these lines I started wondering at all the other people who seemed to be missing from this film. Most of the military appeared to be white males. Being mostly male didn’t surprise me, as the active duty military in the U.S. is only about 14-15% female². But I expected more non-white people. This was an incorrect assumption of mine as (from the same source as previous) active duty military is around 25% minorities. But even still, there probably should have been a few more non-white military members.
Then we come to the computer scientists working on the second team. When I worked in the Silicon Valley, computer scientists were more male than female, but there were many more races involved than just Caucasian, and there were some women, just not a lot. And in the few scenes I recall from the movie there were no women or People of Color visible, apart from the two leads.
Gender and Race Shouldn’t Matter, But They Do
I want to think that how I feel about a movie shouldn’t be reflected by the genetic makeup of the cast, but the missing people has been bothering me. And the protagonist being female doesn’t make up for the fact that she is being used to represent her entire gender.
She’s also being used as a love interest. Because Hollywood seems to feel that any time a man and a woman are together in a film, there must be some type of love interest. It seems as if the Louise character was made female because stereotypes say that a physicist cannot be anything but male. And with a male main character that means that the other role must be female. So it’s lucky that Linguistics is a fairly female dominated field, as I said previously. She fits the stereotype of being white, pretty, female and smart, but smart in a female way – through languages.
And of course, Forest Whitaker is there to represent for every person of color out there, even if his role is stereotyped as well. As I mentioned above, the military is only about 25% minorities. I don’t know what the distribution is across the ranks, but it does seem convenient to cast a black man in that role. By doing that, the movie looks more racially diverse.
“Arrival” is Interesting, But Flawed
It is easy to see how people’s thoughts can be influenced by the language they speak, but our culture is influenced by the movies we watch. And especially by the movies that we honor. At the time of this writing “Arrival” has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It is up against a movie about women of color in the space program—“Hidden Figures”—as well as other films.
“Hidden Figures” is a historical drama about three very smart black women: an engineer, a computer programmer, and a mathematician. They are part of a group of black women all assisting the space program to get the United States into orbit and then to the moon. This fact alone made me question the demographics of “Arrival’s” cast. If there were black women back in the ‘60s who were easily smart enough to help build a spaceship, what happened to them in 2016, when the aliens arrived?
¹ I haven’t studied Russian or Linguistics for 20 years, so this is probably completely wrong… But it’s how I remember it.’
² “Demographics of Active Duty U.S. Military” StatisticBrain http://www.statisticbrain.com/demographics-of-active-duty-u-s-military/ accessed February 23, 2017