Victorian era row houses

In Gaslight: Dependency and Secrecy

George Cukor carefully avoids the obvious effects in telling this story of a husband (Charles Boyer) attempting to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane; instead, this 1944 film is one of the few psychological thrillers that is genuinely psychological, depending on subtle clues  —a gesture, an intonation—to thought and character. Boyer and Bergman are superb, and Angela Lansbury makes her debut as a cunning cockney maid. It’s also one of the few films to expand the use of offscreen space, not simply to the sides of the frame, but to the areas above and below the image as well. With Joseph Cotten and Dame May Whitty.
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

In this month’s  movie Gaslight (Cukor, 1944), Charles Boyer’s character, Gregory Anton, sets out to enact a well-planned strategy of deceit, in order to gain the possessions of a famous opera singer. He almost succeeds because his wife, Paula, is such an easy victim of his treachery. Her vulnerability comes from being a female ingenue, having grown up in the opera singer’s (i.e., her aunt’s) London household.

The setting for the movie is London during the Victorian era, so-called the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria and its highly moralistic and strict social code of conduct. In particular, the story’s cultural context is upper class society, within which women were especially dependent on their husbands and staff to manage all aspects of their lives. In fact, according to a description of the lives of women of that time in British culture (“Women in the Victorian era”, 2017, Mar 31; Buckner, & Francis, 2006),

women did not have the right to vote, sue, or own property.  .  .  . When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. Under the law the married couple became one entity where the husband would represent this entity, placing him in control of all property, earnings and money.

Further, women of all social classes lacked education, but according to Pickard (n.d.), women in the upper classes lacked many other skills as well.

In the upper classes it was assumed that a girl would marry and that therefore she had no need of a formal education, as long as she could look beautiful, entertain her husband’s guests, and produce a reasonable number of children. ‘Accomplishments’ such as playing the piano, singing and flower‐arranging were all‐important.

This aspect of British culture was shown recently in the Netflix series, “The Crown,” where Queen Elizabeth II in conversation with the Queen mother, asks why her parents did not provide a proper education for her. She rightly felt disadvantaged in her leadership role as monarch, and thus hired a tutor to help direct her to information on historical and legal issues that would help her to understand and converse with leaders of other countries with whom she interacted.

Paula Anton, played by Ingrid Bergman
Paula Anton, played by Ingrid Bergman

Paula Anton does not question whether important people in her life are acting in her best interest. She was born into a culture that influenced her to trust her husband to fill the role that society defined. However, Gregory Anton is a different person from those in her prior relationships who had established her sense of trust in others. He is motivated toward greed, and places no value at all on the person who can help to make his life more meaningful. The notion that some people are motivated by desire to achieve, and that some of those are less restricted by a moral conscience or less constrained by guilt than others, is an aspect of culture and of humanity that goes back a long way.

Anton is shown as motivated to achieve, but at the expense of what might be a wonderful relationship with his beautiful and loving wife. His incentive, therefore, is not just survival but something else that many of us do not understand. An example that we can understand are different perspectives related to the Academy Awards.

For most of us the Oscars are just fun, but movie studios have a different perspective and different incentives. Winning can mean prestige and millions of dollars (Farrow, 2017, Feb 24). Therefore, advertising and other means of influence are used to garner attention and attraction for a studio’s latest release in order to maximize its investments. For us, in order to understand completely the activities surrounding the Academy Awards, we must take on different perspectives to understand particular mindsets.

This is true in general about organizations and individuals as well, that “getting into other shoes” to think about a life event may help to understand and reconcile differences, or to raise suspicion. For Paula Anton, a different perspective would simply never enter her mind.

The Mindset of women as dependent

In the case of mindsets in the Victorian era, the limitations for women didn’t begin there, of course, but go back to the beginning of recorded history. Thus by the Victorian era, these collective ideas had become part of a societal concept whereby expectations for knowledge and understanding, for some women, might actually have succeeded in curtailing their curiosity about the world around them. One may speculate that Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula, will be especially naive about the world from her station as adopted ward of her aunt, who may have sheltered her immensely in her upbringing. Thereby, she has been “primed” in her world view to expect certain behaviors from others. The research of Williams, Huang, and Bargh (2009), using “priming” methodology, demonstrates that though the process of scaffolding in Paula’s early life experiences, social culture will significantly and unconsciously influence her goal pursuits, decision-making, and actions as an adult.

We learned from the example of Soviet montage theory in Battleship Potemkin (1925) that images in film are attractive and fast-moving, to which our eyes are naturally attuned, and that paired with images we find either attractive or repulsive, they can play on the ways that our minds and emotions naturally work. In research on such unconscious influences, those which we have no control over—influences that happen “naturally and instantaneously”—Bargh (1999) looks at advertisements designed to prime people, e.g., for actions to buy or to vote.

The relevant psychological principle involved in these messages is “priming.” Whatever we do—walk down the street, watch television, or talk to another person—the objects, people, sights, sounds, and smells we experience trigger various concepts in our minds.

Once something that we perceive has activated a mental concept, the concept stays active for a while. During this period, it can affect our thoughts and decisions, even if they are entirely unrelated to whatever activated the concept in the first place.

For example, the priming effect of negative advertising in political campaigns is well-understood. Consider the negative advertising in the current race to fill the 6th District seat of Tom Price, newly-confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services. We all strongly disapprove of such tactics that are aimed at damaging the reputations of opponents. We believe that advertising a candidate’s qualifications would be much better without all the vilification, but politicians do this because it works. Even so, faced with this, we think that we are able to control the input in such a way that it will not affect our judgment, but some of it goes on without our active acknowledgment  “A healthier respect for the power of those influences and a humbler attitude about our own degree of control would make us more likely to try to counteract them” (Bargh, 1999).

Secrecy and withholding information

In fact, completely withholding information has possibly more effect on our choices and behavior than overtly directing information to enter our minds. If secrecy prevents people from obtaining information that would cause different behaviors, then the manipulation is just as great as unconscious influence. Yet, this is a far more powerful form of control than anything researchers have found in other types of messages that alarm us.

Windows of Wells Fargo Bank on Shattuck Ave destroyed during UC Berkeley attack

Secrecy goes hand-in-hand with the creation of a “culture of fear.” Sociologist Frank Furedi suggests that today’s culture of fear did not begin with the 9/11 attacks (Duffy, 2005). Panics were set up long before and had gained widespread attention—for everything from the dangers of nuclear attack and Communism, to global warming and oil production, to what we eat, to vaccines and super bugs.  Not the realities, but our fears and perceptions of risk, ideas about safety, and controversies over our health, the environment and the uses of technology, have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability and escalated by sensationalist news. Typically, the realities are much more complex and require experts to explain.

I suggest that the initial withholding of information about former President Obama, his background, alternate names, education records, Michele’s thesis, etc. set fear ablaze for many people whose long-held understanding about American ideals were put in jeopardy. Decisions were made that in retrospect, however, may have been the best. Who can possibly know now? But it seems to me that transparency might have been a better choice, especially in such an important and revolutionary election.

In order to allay fears and possibly endear himself to the larger population, not only to Democrats, Obama might have been more forthcoming at the outset, e.g., presenting himself through hardships as Abraham Lincoln did—that he studied law by candlelight, or aspired to grow through adversity in his life. However, whether anticipating the public reaction or not, the PR engine of the DNC surely found that secrecy was a far more powerful and de-stabilizing element than political strategies of the past.

Now we see President Trump hiding information, therefore exhibiting the same kind of behavior for which he criticized former President Obama. President Trump’s refusal to disclose information, hiding his tax returns, once again incites fear of what is unknown. For many, I expect, hiding his tax returns is a violation of public trust and a departure from the institutionalized behavior of prior presidents—violating long-held understanding about America’s leadership.

One may also argue that confusing information is simply a different way of hiding information and has a similar de-stabilizing effect. President Donald Trump uses computer-based media to disseminate his own messages, ostensibly for allowing transparency, but in actuality it is principally for bashing his opponents on their decisions and activities and distracting from his own.

President Trump’s disparaging communication on the campaign trail led most to believe he had no chance to win. However, it appears that in some cases, people are so desperate for jobs, and for reducing the violence and sense of helplessness created by the prior economic crises, the decaying of cities and the demise of industries, that they can overlook his failure of civility and political correctness if his election can improve the fractured state of the nation.

I expect that, for many, President Trump offers temporary hope that an aggressive, action-oriented, personality can make a positive difference. But, as the campaign ended, the meaningless and evasive, sometimes false, yet frightening messages continue, while the uncertainty escalates around him. Does this mean that he is hiding his true strategies? I suggest that, if his intentions are honorable, he simply needs to stay on message—any message that provides understanding that progress is in the works and not World War III. Does his behavior have nothing to do with withholding information, because there is no real information there at all to withhold?

Secrecy is the strategy of Gregory Anton in order to keep Paula away from his true intentions, To keep her from people, information, and at the same time, hide his own activities, is fear-mongering. However, he has the power of the legal system as well as Victorian society behind him in doing whatever he needs to do to control and influence his wife’s mental stability.

The Power of community

We can surely relate to Paula and all of these aforementioned powerful influences, and yet she might be dead if not for the meddling and interference from a nosy neighbor and a detective with a personal interest.

Suburban US neighborhood
Suburban US neighborhood

The literature on cults and more recently, on terrorist cells, reveals the importance of environment in the ability to go unnoticed. Hawdon and Ryan (2009) predicts community characteristics likely to provide the anonymity required for the development of terrorist activity in developed nations.

In the case of Paula Anton, her community came to her rescue in spite of restrictions imposed on her by her husband and her larger societal context. Bottom line, it helps to be a busy-body in your neighborhood and to pay attention to others around you. Lives may be saved in the process.

We will continue this look at community involvement in our film next month.

Disclaimer: Articles represent the views of their authors. Movies on My Mind and its editors do not take responsibility for statements, either fact or opinion, made by contributors.


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