Captivity and Media Culture in The Truman Show
The 1998 American produced film The Truman Show details primary character Truman’s coming-to-awareness of the reality of his life. Directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, the film was inspired by a 1989 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Special Service” in which a man discovers a camera televising his life from behind a mirror (Steinberg). Niccol initially wrote the screenplay to be set in Manhattan until Weir was brought onto the project and suggested an “idealized setting” as opposed to a known one (Bliss). Thus, the film was moved to Seahaven, a utopian-esque town riddled with thousands of cameras filming and broadcasting Truman’s life to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since the day he was born. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank. Well-known as a comedic actor, Carrey gives the film a light-hearted, slightly comedic feel—mostly due to the expectations the public has of him—yet with very dark undertones. Truman is portrayed as a prisoner of his own life, without him knowing, but there’s another surprising captive to this story: the audience.
The movie opens with Truman, now roughly 30 years old, beginning his day as if it were any other one, except on this morning Truman leaves his house and sees a stage light fall from the sky, marking the start of his unraveling world. Now with a watchful eye, Truman begins to observe strange things around him: everyone is in the same place at the same time every day, radio interference proves that people are tracking his movements, and people talk as if they were in an advertisement. Truman starts to fight his circumstances; he tries to get out of town only to be forced to turn around by staged situations at the hand of show creator Christof. His marriage begins to disintegrate as he starts to classify his wife, Meryl, as part of the enemy. As a desperate attempt to take his life into his own hands, Truman escapes the cameras and boards a one-man sailboat headed for Fiji—a momentous decision for him due to his great fear of water caused by Christof’s manipulation. Not caring if Truman dies, Christof creates a massive storm and capsizes Truman’s boat. When a crewmember tells Christof that they “can’t let him die in front of a live audience,” Christof counters, “He was born in front of a live audience." Truman survives, and the boat crashes into the blue screen that signifies the end of the set. Christof addresses him directly for the first time, in a desperate attempt to get Truman to stay, explaining that he is Truman’s creator and that the world loves Truman. Ultimately, Truman decides to leave his staged life, and the show’s audience is seen cheering on his decision.
In an interview, Weir proposes this question: “Why did the world watch this man 24 hours a day?” (Bliss 6). Truman was built to represent an everyday person in the shoes of a celebrity; “There’s nothing fake about Truman himself . . . . It isn’t always Shakespeare but it’s genuine,” Christof announces at the start of the film. In one sense, it is easy to say that Truman is the primary captive of this story. This entirely fake world is set up around him. However, Truman’s character gets an escape. Against Christof’s best efforts and last ditch attempts at getting Truman to stay within Seahaven’s walls—telling him, “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created. But in my world, there’s nothing to fear”—Truman still leaves. The same cannot be said about the audience.
The Truman Show uses Truman as a tool for showing that the show’s audience is equally as captive by the show as Truman himself. Niccol has been quoted questioning the relationship between Truman and his audience: “I’m interested in this idea of who’s the real captive—is it Truman, or is it the viewers watching Truman” (Bishop 7). The audience in the film is reminiscent of one of the most long-established literary narratives: the traditional American captivity narrative. Stemming from Puritan history, this narrative style began with stories of white people being held by Native American society. It is possible to take a deeper look at modern texts—such as The Truman Show—through the lens of these captivity tales. The primary elements of the traditional captivity narrative can be directly applied to the audience in the film. Their zombie-like state throughout the film represents their captivity within the reality-television culture represented in the film. The film features clear social commentary ranging from Christof’s relationship with Truman as the overbearing parent creating a system of rebellion, to religious elements signifying a not-so-perfect God and celebrating free will. The audience plays an important role, however, in a very specific type of social commentary by acting as a catalyst for criticizing pop culture and media’s intense presence in everyday American life.
The Traditional American Captivity Narrative
Originating out of Puritan society, the traditional captivity narrative stems from true stories in which Native Americans took primarily white women and children captive. In Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola’s book Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, she argues that captivity narratives are the “first American literary form” (xi). The best example of these narratives is Mary Rowlandson’s widely studied captivity story. After being taken captive and held for eleven weeks while not knowing where her children were, Rowlandson continuously put her faith in God, trusting that he would be her rescuer if she did not stray from her convictions. She wrote, “Oh, I may see the wonderful power of God, that my Spirit did not utterly sink under my affliction: still the Lord upheld me with His gracious and merciful spirit, and we were both alive to see the light of the next morning” (The Second Remove). From very early on in her narrative, Rowlandson trusts that God has a plan for her, even when she thinks it may result in her death. Instead of being frightened, she returns to her religion and views it as an affirmation of her faith when she wakes up to see the light of day. Later on, Rowlandson describes a situation where her Bible was taken from her: “[My mistress] found me sitting and reading in my Bible; she snatched it hastily out of my hand, and threw it out of doors. I ran out and catched it up, and put it into my pocket and never let her see it afterward” (The Twelfth Remove). Details like these are examples of how closely Rowlandson—and other female captives—held their religion. To put it simply, it was the single most important part of their lives.
Derounian-Stodola describes women in captivity narratives “as either helpless victims or provoked avengers” (xxi). Rowlandson is the helpless victim type; she never takes control of her situation and tries to escape. Derounian-Stodola points out that later captivity narratives also placed women in the position of victims; the twist, though, is the captors switched from being solely Native Americans that were portrayed as evil to the white society that is the evil. New captivity narratives pointed the finger at European-American stereotypes while relieving the Native Americans of the immoral, cruel stereotypes (xxv). As riveting and thought-provoking as these narratives are, Derounian-Stodola comes to this conclusion: although narratives such as Rowlandson’s are first-person female accounts of a historically accurate situation, they should not be taken solely at “face value” (xxvi). These stories are “not completely true, genuine, correct, or authentic” as they, like fictional works, go through editing processes built for “[boosting] sales” (xxvi). Derounian-Stodola introduces the idea of a factual work being manipulated and distorted for profitability—much like The Truman Show.
While these stories were, admittedly, mostly about a woman who was a non-Native being held captive by a group of Native Americans, Derounian-Stodola also explains that these narratives could be extended to include “the slave narrative, the spiritual autobiography, the providence tale, the UFO abduction story, the convent captivity narrative, and the sentimental novel of seduction” (xi). A more modern description of the captivity narrative once it is extended beyond the Native Americans is this: a person or group of people is bound, physically or mentally, by an overpowering outside force. Taking this updated definition, we can now apply it to the audience in The Truman Show.
When taking our new, simplified modern description of the captivity narrative, it is possible to place the audience in the film as the people that are bound by the outside force. In this case, the outside force is The Truman Show, Truman, and Christof. The audience in the film gets very little screen time. The characters don’t have real names—enter Bar Patrons one, two, and three; Man in Bathtub; Senior Citizens one and two; Garage Attendants one and two; and Japanese Family (“Full Cast & Crew”). In terms of screen time, they pale in comparison to all the other actors; the audience members are granted several seconds at a time where the actual cast—the ones given good old-fashioned names, that is—has the rest of the film at their disposal. However, these sporadic few seconds are vital and all we need to establish one very important conclusion about the audience: their lives entirely revolve around The Truman Show, allowing them to fit perfectly into the captivity narrative.
Even though this portion of the cast is shown for short periods of time with little to no dialogue, they are hugely important in the exploration of human captivity: “Viewers and fans watch Truman’s every waking moment—cheering his triumphs, ruing his setbacks” (Bishop 8). The audience is essentially the most important part of the equation of Truman’s reality; without them, there would be no success of the show and, thus, no show. The audience, according to Bishop, is an “unthinking gaggle of mentally moribund celebrity-worshippers” which is what Christof counts on for a flourishing reality show (7). Christof even acknowledges that Truman’s fans “leave him on all night for comfort.” The show functions in the same way that a nightlight does for a child afraid of the dark: it allows them to feel as if they are not alone and if something were to go wrong—a literal monster in the closet for the child, a metaphorical one for the audience—they would have Truman there as a protective, guiding light. The audience in the film is completely enamored by him. Even by knowing so little about them personally, we can establish that the show has such a tight grip on them that they have no distance from it at any hour of the day.
Weir’s aforementioned confession regarding moving the setting from New York to fictionalized Seahaven comes into play here. The audience’s attraction to Truman’s celebrity lifestyle acts as their fantasy; he lives a cookie-cutter life free of the problems in regular society—something the audience will never be able to achieve. Truman represents the ideal. His life is protected; he’s safe within Seahaven’s dome. “He lived in . . . pleasant Seahaven Island. He had a respectable job, an attractive wife, a best friend and a comfortable home. Everyone liked him. The weather was mostly perfect and no one was depressed,” Linda Mercadante explains in her article comparing The Truman Show and the 1998 utopian film Pleasantville (1). Truman represents a utopia that the audience will never experience first-hand. He is their connection to perfection and a relatable version of perfection.
Christof’s explanation that Truman is “genuine” and not “phony” is valid only because Truman is unaware of the reality of his world. Kent Drummond describes Truman’s “hyper-ritualistic, telescopic behavior” as the cause for comfort because “it means that Truman is theirs for yet another day, and that the game is still on” (523). The audience can rely on Truman’s behavior as long as his world remains in equilibrium; once he starts to learn that his life is staged his reliability starts to fade.
As the narrative progresses and Truman begins to learn more about his own captivity—and nears his own escape from it—the audience’s devotion to the show never wavers. If the audience were only invested in the show for the sake of Truman, their narrative would be much simpler and wouldn’t fit with captivity. Their attraction would be to Truman the person, or the character, as opposed to the lifestyle he represents. However, because of their attraction to the ideas being presented in the show and not just Truman’s well-being, the audience’s narrative represents a complicated set of cultural ideals connected to the media.
Maurice Yacowar compiled a list of thirteen different ways to look at the film ranging from the obvious (It’s a Jim Carrey film) to the abstract historical references (The buck stops here), showing that there are many ways viewers can look at the film beyond seeing Truman as the only captive of this story. In one of the opening scenes, we see Truman as the audience does, from the perspective of the camera posted behind his bathroom mirror. He plays out an alien fantasy, drawing a space helmet around his head and talking to his imaginary commander from outer space—perhaps an ode to his inherent and not yet realized feeling of alienation in his actual world. The final scene of the film shows Truman recognizing this alienation and stepping out of the boundaries of the set and into the real world, divorcing himself from on-camera life. Moments later, we see the audience channel surfing, looking for something to fill the void that Truman’s exit has left. Yacowar uses Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as an example for how a person (Truman) can be considered a product in a “commercialized world”: “In one of the Hollywood dramas he emotes before his bathroom mirror, he instructs his starving comrades: ‘Eat me, dammit! That’s an order!’ . . . Once Truman is gone, stepping out of the TV frame for good, [the security guards] immediately forget him and move down the menu. One asks for another pizza slice: ‘What else is on? Where’s the TV Guide?’” (10). The last few lines with the security guards flipping through the channels are very telling.
Upon Truman’s exit from the boundaries he’s remained within his whole life, the audience is given a choice: they can set their remotes down and start living their own lives, or they can continue to sit glued to their seats in front of their televisions. Their choice of the latter shows that they are not obsessed with Truman; they don’t have any particular attachment to him. Once he’s offstage, he is quickly forgotten. As Yacowar writes, “Truman is a commodity” (10). The audience’s decision to find something else that is on proves that they are held captive within the realm of television. After years of watching Truman 24/7, walking away from their television sets is not considered an option. The audience doesn’t think twice or hesitate when looking to find something else to watch. They rooted for Truman and cheered when he escaped his captivity, but are unable to also step out of their own captivity. They are unable to live their own lives. Just as Mary Rowlandson passively dealt with her captivity and held a tight grip on her Bible, the audience in the film passively lives through what they are seeing on their television sets, clutching their remotes as if they are their only source of life.
Self-criticism in the Media
In Tony Bennett’s article “Theories of the Media, Theories of Society” he argues that there is a difference between the type of storytelling we have now—as portrayed in The Truman Show—and the days of “folk culture.” When compared to previous decades and centuries “we now have a weak and insipid ‘mass culture’ which is commercially produced and offered to the masses for their passive consumption” (Bennett 36). The film itself backs up Bennett’s ideas. Christof mentions in his opening narration that Truman’s life “isn’t always Shakespeare.” The audience outside of the film is being set up for this comparison between past versions of storytelling and the culture that arose from it (today’s studies of Shakespeare as an important part of history and education, for example) and current media culture that aims for everyone from the high-brow to the low-brow audience and everybody in between.
At no point in the film do we see anyone cast Truman aside; the sample size of audience members we are shown is meant to represent society as a whole. We can safely assume that everyone off-camera is as enamored with Truman as everyone on-camera. Bishop credits this to society’s “fascination with fame,” which is portrayed in the success of The Truman Show as a television show within the film, as well as the huge success that The Truman Show the film had once released in theaters (8). The show and the celebrity culture surrounding it “within the work-a-day world of the bourgeois order . . . embodied a vision of an alternative to existing” (Bennett 44). The audience in the film represent this working class in the “bourgeois order” as seen by the security guards and wait staff in the restaurant—jobs that are likely stagnant, keeping the employee in the same social class and indefinitely doing the same mundane day-to-day tasks. Thus, Truman’s life and television show is their alternative to existing, allowing them to escape their lives. The danger represented here is this: what happens when our temporary escape turns into a 24/7 alternative to existing?
When the film was released to 2,315 theater screens in the United States in June of 1998, it raked in nearly $32 million opening weekend (“Box office/business for The Truman Show”). The result was praise to filmmakers for finally acknowledging media’s grip on society. One reviewer on IMDb described The Truman Show as “brilliant” adding that “while it works quite clearly as a sarcastic satire and a commentary on the destructive and intrusive nature of the media in the post-modern age, in the light of the reality TV syndrome which was at the time just starting to grow, it’s also a philosophical metaphor about the state of mankind” (Itamarscomix). The film was quickly and widely seen as more than just entertainment; it became media criticism. However, the film hovers over a fine line between being effective satire and disrespect by using film to criticize the media. The Truman Show’s filmmakers find themselves on the side of effective satire because of one very important detail: audience manipulation.
In Bishop’s article, he claims, “The audience watches a movie like The Truman Show and comes away convinced that it has experienced the latest (and most insightful) in media criticism” (7). Filmmakers rely on the real life audience being smart enough to understand the criticism, but depend on them to continue to fall into the media trap. Bishop continues, “Films like Truman are created and packaged by entertainment companies as a means to exploit, and at the same time dissipate, our desire to engage in genuine media criticism. In the end, the power of the media is affirmed rather than challenged” (6-7). These entertainment companies take advantage of audience predictability. The film was marketed to draw patrons to the theater to spend money on this particular film. Then, the audience essentially sat down for a 103-minute-long lecture on society’s obsession with the media. The best possible outcome for the filmmakers is this: upon walking out of the theater, the audience feels as if they’ve acquired a new level of wisdom that nobody outside of that movie theater has. However, they must not be too wise, as filmmakers still bank on the public purchasing the movie as soon as it hits the shelves.
The result of the master manipulation of The Truman Show’s filmmakers is walking away from the film feeling as though we’ve been let in on a secret. Now, through Truman and through the audience in the film, the media’s hold on society is clear. The film is able to prove how the media can have addictive drug-like elements. Everyone is susceptible, except for those who just exited the theater. The film instills a false sense of control in its viewers. Those of us who have seen the film are now aware of the problem. This awareness feeds into the problem even further by allowing us to feel as though we are now above society’s obsession with the media: “We do not see ourselves in the faces of fictional viewers peering longingly at the television screens in Truman—they represent the people who really let the media control their lives, we think. What is even more troubling is the fact that this incipient media criticism has been created by design” (Bishop 7). As viewers, we see the audience in the film as representative of everyone else, not us. After all, we understand this film’s deeper message and this understanding gives us the delusion that we are not the problem.
The Truman Show represents many forms of the traditional early American captivity narrative. While often overlooked because of Truman’s obvious captivity, the audience in the film has a subtler, but essential captivity narrative of their own. Even though their allotted screen time is very brief, their captivity is much more complicated than Truman’s; he is shown as a freethinking character, trapped by the people he trusts. However, Truman’s story ends with his release. He takes ownership of his own life, entering unknown territory willingly and eagerly.
The audience in the film is not shown as having the promising future that Truman does. Much like many of the early Puritan captivity narratives, Truman is marketed to gain the widest audience possible. Stories like Rowlandson’s were read through and reworked by many before being made available to public readers. Reminiscent of propaganda, the idea was to make clear to readers who the enemy was. In The Truman Show, instead of editing personal narratives, we see Christof manipulating situations to benefit the show. Maintaining control over Truman keeps the audience tuned in at all hours of the day and keeps profitability up. In turn, controlling Truman allows control of the show’s audience. The audience is seen as captives because they are mentally held captive by an overpowering outside force: Christof and The Truman Show. When given the opportunity, the audience in the film chooses to stay planted in front of their television sets instead of following in Truman’s footsteps and finding their own lives to live.
As a result, audiences and critics see The Truman Show as social commentary. The audience in the film is representative of real life audiences and our addiction to media. The relationships between characters act as a catalyst for filmmakers to show how society unknowingly falls prey to the media trap. Although the filmmakers want to profit from The Truman Show as much as possible, the film does offer a solution to the problem. We are introduced to a single character that is able to escape the media’s chokehold: Truman. There are two instances in which we see Truman engage with media. First, he is shown listening to the radio. However, this is counteracted by him driving to work. The radio is shown as functional instead of pure entertainment. He isn’t going out of his way to listen to his favorite radio program; something is simply on in the background on his way to work. Second, there is an extremely brief moment where Truman is forced in front of his favorite television show at his mother’s house. He quickly turns his attention to his wedding photos with Meryl. Truman can be seen as the answer to the media trap; if the media is seen as unnecessary and only used for functional purposes, it will not interfere with lives. Christof says, “We accept the reality of the world in which we are presented,” and if Truman acts as a model, the reality is entirely outside of a television screen.
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