In films, the portrayal of certain types of characters can become a stereotype, particularly when that character exhibits the same types of traits as shown in movies in the past. This essay will discuss the stereotype of the addict, more specifically, the alcoholic and through the analysis of two recent films, it will be shown how this stereotype is portrayed by Hollywood. The two films being analysed are The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016). It will be shown that the representations of the alcoholics in these movies are typical to that of the stereotype a number of ways. Firstly, this essay will discuss the characteristics of the alcoholic stereotype and give examples of these from each film. Next, the essay will examine how the alcoholic stereotype is portrayed in other films and how this relates back to each film. Finally, the broader subject of how gender plays into these two representations will be analysed as both characters in the films are female.
The Girl on the Train (2016) shows the story of Rachel who divorces her husband after it is revealed that he is having an affair. Rachel however, believes it was her alcoholism and being unable to have a child that made her husband fall out of love with her. Every day while on the train, she goes past her old neighbourhood and pretends she has the life of a couple named Megan and Scott whom she often sees and she believes have perfect lives. One night while going home, she sees what she thinks is Megan being intimate with another man, proceeds to get drunk and goes to confront her. Rachel wakes up injured the morning after, having blacked out and later finds out that Megan has gone missing. The movie then follows the investigation into Megan’s disappearance and Rachel’s involvement in this.
The Intervention (2016) is quite different in plot; it shows a weekend where four couples go to an old family holiday home together. They plan to have an intervention with one couple, Ruby and Peter as they think it would be in their best interest to get a divorce. The weekend shows that each couple and each individual has their own issues and begins to centre around Annie’s alcoholism. Eventually it is releveled that Annie orchestrated the weekend out of her not wanting to marry Matt and the others have an intervention with her to address her alcoholism.
Stereotypes are prevalent in films as they help to give the audience easy cues to what type of character is being portrayed. Hartley (2010) states that a stereotype is a fixed impression and a term that describes groups that can be attributed with particular traits and qualities within the media. It is also suggested that these traits are mostly negative, giving stereotypes a negative connotation. This negative portrayal is true within the selected media texts, The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016) where alcoholism is shown in a negative light and as harmful to the character and those around them. Wedding (2000, p.5) citing Denzin (1991, p.3) states that the stereotype of the alcoholic in films is shown within the inebriety and excessive drinking of the character. This is presented as a problem for the people closest to this character and there is a struggle for everyone to resolve this problem. This description is true of both of the media texts. In The Girl on the Train (2016), Rachel’s drinking is said to be the cause of her husband’s affair and in The Intervention (2016) Annie’s drinking causes worry and discussions between the other couples. In both films, the characters try to solve their issues, Rachel is shown as going to Alcoholics’ Anonymous and Annie is shown making the decision to order an orange juice on a flight rather than an alcoholic drink. These examples show that these characters fit both the definition of a stereotype and the definition of an alcoholic within a media text.
One common characteristic that is portrayed in films with Alcoholic stereotypes is that of the character speaking loudly and saying and doing embarrassing things. In The Intervention (2016), Annie is inappropriate in what she says around the dinner table and the rest of the group is shown to be very embarrassed and it is an awkward scene. The Girl on the Train (2016) shows Rachel embarrassing herself in a number of situations, such as drunkenly yelling about her ex-husbands new wife and leaving voice messages at one in the morning on her ex-husband’s phone. That these are characteristics often shown in movies portraying alcoholics is supported by Room (2014, p.504) where he states that the drunk person is quite often immune to the usual social conventions in that they will sing inappropriately, laugh and speak much too loudly. Embarrassing themselves and those around them is one of the most common characteristics of alcoholics in films.
Another situation that is portrayed is that of the character hitting rock bottom and then family and friends discussing the issue in an intervention style discussion. The Girl on the Train (2016) shows Rachel being spoken to by her friend Cathy who she has been staying with after police come to talk to Rachel about her involvement in Megan’s disappearance. Cathy also finds out that Rachel has not had a job for a year and it is after this and waking up bloodied and injured with no idea of what has happened, that Rachel goes to Alcoholics’ Anonymous. While The Intervention (2016) does not show Annie’s rock bottom moment as the movie is about her relapse into drinking, her interference in Ruby and Peter’s marriage is seen as a pivotal moment and her inability to face her own relationship problems is seen as the reason for her continued drinking. Annie’s friends sit her down and have an intervention asking her to seek help for her problem. In his analysis of alcoholism in cinema, Hersey (2005, p.485) stated that Alcoholics’ Anonymous has played an important role in movies about alcoholism since the 1940s. His analysis found that the concept of hitting rock bottom is a theme widely used in addiction cinema and there is the familiar narrative of the alcoholic finally reaching a point of desperation and becoming willing to seek help and change. Based on this evidence, it can be seen that the convention of hitting rock bottom and seeking help is prevalent in both The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016).
Another characteristic in films with alcoholic characters is they are often seen trying to drink in private or hide their drinking. The Intervention (2016) opens with this concept, in the first scene, we are introduced to Annie who is on a flight with Matt. When the stewardess arrives she begins to order an orange juice but upon seeing that Matt is sleeping, she orders a scotch on the rocks instead. Whenever she is confronted about drinking, Annie tries to stay flippant and dismissive about it to show that it is not an issue. The Girl on the Train (2016) shows Rachel trying to hide her drinking from her housemate Cathy and she also lies to her about having lost her job. Cathy catches her drinking and leaving voice messages on her ex-husband’s phone and pours out her drink, she also confronts her when she sees Rachel’s bedding bloodied after Rachel is attacked. This is a common theme that is used to show that the character’s drinking is wrong and that they shouldn’t be doing it. Room (2014. P.505) suggests that the reason for this obvious and common device is to show that even though there are adverse consequences to the continued intoxication, it is compelled rather than chosen and that the addict is not in control of their actions, the disease is. Based on this evidence it can be seen that this secrecy is another device used in films depicting alcoholics and is used to show the seriousness of the drinking problem.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are themes that have been explored many times in film and the two films being examined in this essay have the same characteristics and narratives as many of these other films. This idea that alcoholism has been widely portrayed in film is supported by Viano (2002, p. 134-142) who presents the idea of the Intoxicated Screen. Viano suggests that the first portrayal intoxication in film was in the mid 1890s and there have been many such portrayals since. Both Viano and Hersey (2005 p.467-491) discuss the movie Clean and Sober (1988) which depicts Darryl who is a cocaine addict and alcoholic and enters into a treatment facility for these issues. In his essay, Hersey states that Clean and Sober (1988) presents a classic narrative about alcoholism in that Darryl hits rock bottom, goes to treatment and gets clean. This movie also presents the familiar Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting. Another example of this narrative is 28 Days (2000) which again presents the story of the addict who in this movie is named Gwen. Gwen hits rock bottom, has family that are concerned about her and she goes to a treatment clinic. One last example of this same portrayal is the movie Smashed (2012) which is the story of a couple who bond over their mutual love of drinking. The lead character Kate, nearly loses her job as an Elementary School Teacher due to a drinking related incident and decides to join Alcoholics’ Anonymous. Through these three examples, it is clear that the narrative of the alcoholic in movies is a familiar one and through the analysis of the characteristics of these movies, it can be seen that The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016) are very typical of these types of films.
Aside from the familiar characteristics of these types of films is the way in which the female alcoholic is portrayed and the frequency in which these types of characters tend to be female is also typical. Both movies that have been analysed depict female characters who are shown to be lost and unhappy and in need of rescuing. It is suggested that this may be because females are more likely to show extreme emotional displays and that perhaps filmmakers feel an audience would be more comfortable identifying with a female addict (Hersey, 2005, p.481). Hersey (2005, p.481) also states that it is quite stereotypical for female addicts to have said addictions due to family or relationship problems. This is definitely true of both texts; in The Girl on the Train (2016) Rachel begins drinking due to not being able to fall pregnant. Her drinking issues then intensify once she divorces her husband and learns that he has a child with his new wife. In the Intervention (2016) Annie is drinking to mask her feelings towards Matt whom she does not want to marry and start a family with, despite being engaged for a number of years. Hersey (2005) goes on to suggest that the depiction of these female addicts shows that society is more comfortable with the notion of helpless women being driven to drinking rather than one who just drinks because she chooses and then finds it difficult to stop. This evidence show that both The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016) are typical in the way that female alcoholics are portrayed in film.
It has been discussed that the stereotype of the alcoholic is one that is commonly portrayed in films and through analysis it has been proven that The Girl on the Train (2016) and The Intervention (2016) are clear examples of this stereotype. Firstly, this essay looked at the common characteristics of alcoholic characters such as embarrassing themselves and others around them, being secretive about their drinking and the common theme of their family and friends being affected and working to help solve the issue. The familiar narrative of the character hitting rock bottom, being put through an intervention by their friends and family and then seeking treatment was then discussed with examples from each film. The essay then looked at the way the alcoholic stereotype is portrayed in other films which showed that again, these selected texts were typical in their portrayal. Finally, the gender roles in such films were examined to show how female characters are depicted and that this linked back to the way the female protagonists were depicted in the selected text.
28 Days 2000, Motion Picture, Columbia Pictures, North Carolina.
Clean and Sober 1988, Motion Picture, Warner Home Video, Burbank.
Denzin, N.K 1991, Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema, New York, Aldine DeGruyter, p.3.
Hartley, J 2010, Stereotype, in Communication, Cultural, and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd ed). London, Routledge. pp. 215-216.
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Smashed 2012, Motion Picture, Sony Pictures Classic Films, Los Angeles.
The Girl on the Train 2016, Motion Picture, Universal Pictures, New York.
The Intervention 2016, Motion Picture, Burn Later Productions, Georgia.
Wedding, D 2000, The Portrayal of Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Western Genre, Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education, vol. 46, no. 2, p. 3.