Viewer 'Identification' with Characters
in Television and Film Fiction

Peter van Beneden

1. Introduction

There is a long tradition of theorising on identification, so a short review of the most influential people in this field, like Baudry, Metz and Mulvey looks appropriate. My intention is to show how these theories relate to the screen. First I will show how this process of identification is used and often essential in the telling of a story in film; e. g. the identification with the killer in Peeping Tom. Likewise in television this process of identification is seen very often. One only has to think of the dozens of soap operas, which seem to emphasise identification and involvement with the characters. The different processes that are at work here will be carefully analysed. Why would you want to identify with television characters in the first place? Why do you identify with one person and not with another, or is it even possible to identify with several characters at the same time? I will start by placing the discussion of identification in its proper context.

2. Psychological and psychoanalytical theories

A lot of discussion on psychological and psychoanalytical theories on spectator identification occurred in the seventies and the eighties. The founding idea was the application of the repertoire of Freudian motifs and psychoanalytical interpretation to the productions of Hollywood, often referred to as the ‘dream factory’. The first to make a valuable contribution in this field, with a direct link to spectator identification was Lacan. Lapsey and Westlake (Lapsey & Westlake 1988, 67) note:

According to Lacan the child interprets the prior union with the mother as anterior to ‘lack’, a condition where the child was everything and lacked nothing. From that point on there are three determining moments in the child’s development: the mirror phase (the acquisition of a sense of self), the fort-da game (the accession of language), and the Oedipus complex (the submission to the laws of society). In essence many other theorists draw upon these ideas. The main ideas of two of them, Metz and Mulvey will be discussed very shortly. It will become clear that field researchers without explicitly mentioning the theory of Lacan also use it.

Metz in his book Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier puts forward the view that film offers the spectator images of wholeness and completion (cf. Lacan). In cinema the spectator is presented with images of a world which exists elsewhere. Metz refers to this world which is elsewhere by saying that cinema is of ‘the imaginary’. To create a state of wholeness for the spectator cinema uses basically three processes: identification, voyeurism and fetishism.

Mulvey also uses these processes as a starting point but she uses them to explain that cinema is explicitly a male industry; movies typically star a male, idealised hero, who is defined as the active subject of the narrative, and with whom a male spectator narcissistically can identify, in a process that recapitulates the discovery of the image of oneself in the mirror stage. Women, on the other hand, are presented as essentially passive sexual spectacles that exist as the object of the audience gaze.

Mulvey presents the two ways of looking, voyeuristic and fetishistic, in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze. Seated in the solitary intimacy of darkness of a movietheatre, the spectator is likely to be less inhibited to do so. Hollywood film tends to couple this voyeuristic aspect of cinema with sadism, so that the difference figured by women is investigated by the constant re-enactment of the discovery of the lack. Such films, of which film noirs are outstanding examples, attempt to master the anxiety both through their typical investigation of the woman and by their narrative punishment of her.

Fetishistic looking, in contrast, involves ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself’ see also Hollows & Jancovich 1995, 140-142; Lapsey & Westlake 1988, 77-79; Mayne 1993; Cohan & Hark 1993, 16-19).

In the next section I will have a look at how these theories may apply on screen (often implicitly). A crucial difference exists between the use of these theories for a movie and for television. As already mentioned, watching a movie happens in a dark place. You have a big screen that requires someone’s undivided attention. On television, e. g. in soaps there is the opportunity for an in-depth presentation of a several characters such as a whole family or the people living together in a small community.

3 Application of spectator identification theories

3. 1 in movies

How are the theories we saw in the previous section now ‘translated’ in the specific context of film and in the context of television? First we have to find out what exactly is meant by ‘identification’. This definition of identification will be used:

the experience of being able to put oneself so deeply into a character -feel oneself to be so like the character- that one can feel the same emotions and experience the same events as the character is supposed to be feeling and experiencing. Also what Ellis has to say about this is interesting in this context (Ellis 1982, 43):

Spectatorship is thus far more complex than the easy association of male or female spectators with masculine or feminine positions. In the terminator films, for example, is the terminator really the only object of male identification? Is there really no identification with the character of Sarah Conner? Most people will probably they identify with both. As a result recent psychoanalytic film theory has seen a move away from the assumption that the spectator only identifies with a single narrative figure, and towards the claim that he or she engages in a more complex identification with the overall narrative. The narrative provides the spectator with multiple and shifting points of identification. Ellis concludes that identification is therefore multiple and fractured, a sense of seeing the constituent parts of the spectator’s own psyche paraded before her or him.

Thus so far we know that the single identification that Metz and the other theorists described is not enough, that it is possible and most likely that the spectator will identify with more than one character. Now it is necessary to see why people want to identify with certain characters. Stacey (in Hollows & Jancovich. 1995), who wanted to study the audience and its relationship to moviestars, has done an interesting study in this field. She studied women’s responses to Hollywood stars of the ’40s and ’50s. The respondents revealed a variety of different types of identification. . Stacey categorises the trends as:

Of particular interest is Stacey’s second set of categories, which concern ‘extra-cinematic identificatory processes’. These categories relate to activities performed outside the cinema in which the moviegoer acts upon her identification with a particular star. These categories are divided into the following:

Although the study also has several weak points, one of the strengths of the work is that it offers a sense of the distinctions between different types of identification, and in the process it illustrates audiences’ identifications as active practice rather than passive acceptance. In this context it can also be explained why women will not always identify with the woman in the narrative or why a middle class boy will sometimes rather identify with the upper-class boy than a boy of his own class in a story. Remember that Mulvey said that women in Hollywood cinema are very often shown on the screen as mere objects, therefore women will also identify with the male hero when his actions in a given situation, for example, inspires women. Other evidence on how people react or use identification with characters on screen is given in the next section.

3. 2 On television

So far we have seen that people -for different reasons- want to and will identify with persons they see in the movies. On the small screen on the other hand certain programmes give even better possibilities to identify with. Soaps, for example, are for a large part about identification and involvement with the characters. It is therefore not so surprising that a lot of research has been carried out on why and how people identify with soap characters.

The reason why soap operas allow this degree of involvement is fairly obvious: no other genre allows the same sustained contact with characters as soaps. It is this long-term involvement which enables viewers to establish a sense of intimacy with certain characters which may be wholly lacking in their day-to-day lives. The degree of involvement will vary from viewer to viewer of course. Livingstone (Livingstone 1990, has done an interesting study of what the consequences of this are. 66 regular viewers of Coronation Street responded to a questionnaire about a selective narrative, which had unfolded over several months. The questionnaire included attitude statements with indications of agreement and disagreement. The responses were subjected to cluster analysis, producing four clusters as follows: cynics, negotiated cynics, negotiated romantics and romantics.

Livingstone found that it was not sociological or demographic factors that influenced the interpretation, but psychological factors. The most important factor was identification. The issue whether the viewers identified with (or saw themselves similar to) any of the characters was shown to be important in how viewers interpreted the narrative. Also very interesting was that whether characters were evaluated positively or negatively was strongly related to identification. Likewise the point of perspective-taking/sympathy, the extent to which viewers perceived the narrative sympathetically from a particular character’s point of view, was positively correlated to identification and evaluation judgements. Recognition denotes the extent to which characters were perceived by viewers as being like people they knew in everyday life and played some part in influencing viewers’ interpretations in this study. This, however, was not as significant a factor as the previous three factors.

Kilborn (Kilborn 1992, 79) argues that this identification will be the strongest, that viewers feel especially close to characters when the latter are going through times of stress, drama or crisis. The degree of involvement is such that one might even suggest that viewers -in the grip of such feelings- are undergoing a form of catharsis. He claims that viewers even can derive therapeutic benefit from this form of emotional indulgence.

Although I agree with the facts that people will identify with certain characters, and that they will interpret the narrative from that character’s point of view and even sympathise with him/her, I believe that it is also very important to understand that this is only possible in a specific context (cf. supra). Ang (Ang 1982, 29) argues:

3. 3 Differences between identification in cinema and on television.

Most viewers are said to identify with television characters much in the same way that they identify with filmstars in the cinema. An interesting difference is nevertheless noted by Noble (Noble 1975, 37): According to him a night out in the cinema, in darkness, in an unfamiliar surrounding is designed to allow the viewer to forget both who he is and where he is. Noble argues that this involves the loss of one’s own identity: identity loss. Another difference with television is that the same character rarely appears in two consecutive movies.

Television on the other hand is viewed in the home with the light on and often in familiar company. This situation will likely remind the viewer more of his own identity. Also the fact that on television a lot of characters come back each episode makes the viewer feel that he knows these characters, much as he knows the people who live close to him. Rather than immersing in the production the viewer answers these characters back, feels sorry for them when in difficulty, hates them when they are belligerent and to all intents and purposes responds and replies to them as though they were people he knows intimately. This gives the viewer the opportunity to para-social interaction. Para-social interactions afford the viewer opportunities to interact with characters of the opposite sex, characters of higher or lower status. This can lead to critical analysis of events and occurrences, and since they involve no identity loss such interaction may well provide practice for everyday social roles and allow the viewer to take roles not yet experienced in real life.

4. Conclusion

First I have tried to establish the right theoretical background. Lacan’s concept of the ‘manque à être’, the want to be is crucial in this context. Spectators want to ‘gain an identity’. Cinema can give the spectator images of wholeness and completion, and therefore make the spectator forget his lack for a moment. To create a state of wholeness for the spectator cinema uses basically three processes: identification, voyeurism and fetishism. Identification is the most important one.

Then I have noted that identification is an active practice rather than a passive acceptance. Women might for example identify with the male hero if his actions in a given situation inspire her. Also identification theory has seen a move away from the assumption that the spectator only identifies with a single narrative figure, and towards the claim that he or she engages in a more complex identification with the overall narrative.

On television certain kinds of programmes facilitate identification and involvement. Livingstone found out that identification with the characters is the crucial factor to explain how people differ in their understanding of the narrative in soap operas. Although the process of identification is used both in cinema and on television, there are certain differences. Cinema involves identity-loss; when a viewer watches television on the other hand he keeps his own identity. Identification with a soap character gives the viewer the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. This provides practice for everyday social roles.


November 1998