The Pacific Heart

Psychiatry, Spirituality and Culture

Shame and Pariah: Sex and Identity at the movies

PARIAH and SHAME are powerful explorations of identity and sexuality

Adepero Oduye, right, in PARIAH
December 29, 2011

SHAME and PARIAH are two of the most psychologically powerful and brilliant films I've seen in a long time. I highly recommend seeing these two very different movies. PARIAH, featuring an all African American cast, portrays a 17-year old girl as she blossoms into her identity and faces opposition from her mother. SHAME is about a middle-aged man losing his identity as we watch him seek the highs demanded by his sexual addiction. PARIAH is ultimately about wholeness; SHAME is about fragmentation, emptiness and despair. They both speak volumes about the hope and challenge of being human.

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PARIAH, directed by Dee Rees, stars newcomer Adepero Oduye as Alike (A-lee-kay), a talented High School student who shyly looks for her first lesbian experience, first in nightclubs with her butch friend Laura, then on her own. She's had to hide her sexual identity from her parents - a disapproving, churchgoing mother, and police officer father. She is anything but ashamed of herself. She finds her voice in her writing; her poetry gives the movie its final lift of buoyant hope. I especially liked that there were no stereotypes in this movie; every character seemed three-dimensional and real; there was truth in the storytelling. I also liked that Alike's identity was more than simply her sexual preference; she is student, daughter, sister, friend, writer and woman. I hope this movie can help start conversations among people of all ethnic backgrounds about acceptance and love of family members who are gay, lesbian, transgendered and queer.

Sex in film is usually titillating, erotic, tantalizing. Steve McQueen's SHAME, starring Michael Fassbender as Brandon, is anything but. Fassbender has had a busy year, it seems, also starring in A DANGEROUS METHOD (reviewed in the last blog post). That movie also had its share of sexual compulsion. SHAME almost completely removes the "relationship" aspect from Brandon's life. I'll quote my recent blogpost "Casual Sex: A Psychiatrist Responds":

"The example of sexual addiction is an extreme example of sexuality that points to important questions about how sexuality is held within the culture and human psyche. An endless seeking after sexual highs, followed by depression, isolation, shame and regret; a craving for superficial intimacy while depths are lost within oneself and others; often, a life history of abuse or neglect that goes unaddressed, causing pervasive harm to the addict."


SHAME fit the bill on every score. Brandon has depths, painful depths - there are hints of childhood trauma, perhaps sexual trauma. He detaches from meaningful intimacy, and instead loses himself in encounter after encounter: casual (outdoor) sex with a woman he meets at a bar; prostitutes; online webchat and a hard drive filled with porn. His sister re-enters his life, and she becomes a reminder of his past, and an angering, saddening reflection of himself - a projection of his own endangered feminine principle of relatedness.

It would be difficult to find a film that more perfectly holds a mirror up to American society's sexual obsession. Sure, Brandon is extreme, but the bars that hold him hostage are invisible bars for all of us. We are flooded with sexualized images of women, and likewise subject to our own desires; it takes active resistance to not be taken in by them, to not lose a sense of the greater feminine principle, one that surely includes sexuality, but like Alike - is not dominated by it. Similarly, we can lose sight of the greater masculine principle, where aggression is a protecting and not self- or other-abusing impulse. I hope that we see signs of such wholeness in our political, personal and entertainment landscapes in the New Year.


© 2011 Ravi Chandra. All rights reserved.

(Note:  the term "invisible bars" and the idea of "depths lost within oneself" were plucked from David Mura's essay "Male Grief:  Notes on Pornography and Addiction", to be reviewed in a future blog post.)

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Ravi Chandra, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, California.

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