Hollywood Movies and American Identity Formation

“Identity” is a very vague term with different meanings. What is identity? “It refers to the cultural values or perspectives an individual most strongly relates to; such as an Asian identity”(SCP), “The distinguishing character or personality of an individual”(Arts Connected Organization), “It includes those qualities that distinguish one person from another” (Encarta Encyclopedia), “The distinguishing character or personality of an individual” (Britannica Encyclopedia). The very concise definition of “Identity” is realized in the question of “who Am I?” It refers to one’s specific and unique characteristics and features which differ it from others. It represents the real “self” of the person and the behaviors and desires due to that understood “self”. Like most human characteristics identity is formed through a very long and deep process.

The personal continuity and being unique are the most important factors of identity formation. It goes without saying that people, moreover to their personal identity that is formed mainly in families and schools in very young ages, acquire their social identity according to what group they belong to; membership in familial, ethnic, religious or even occupational groups. These group identities are necessary for people in order to define themselves in the eyes of both others and themselves.

Erik Erikson has extensively discussed “Identity Formation” under his theory of “developmental stages”, which believes identity formation extends from birth through adulthood. He states that this identity formation begins in childhood and goes along to adolescence and it also gains prominence in adolescence. Having had physical growth, sexual maturation, and various occupational opportunities, adults will start integrating their former experiences and characteristics, gained specifically through childhood, into a fixed and -perhaps- permanent identity. But basics of identity are constructed in childhood and teenage years. Thus, it can be said that the most significant period of identity construction is childhood.

The predictable obstacle through the identity formation can be identity crisis caused by various reasons and circumstances. According to Erikson, the crisis can be resolved by one’s progress through previous developmental stages, orienting on basic issues of life such as trust, autonomy, and motives. “J. E. Marcia illustrates four common ways in which adults deal with the challenge of identity formation. Those who successfully resolved and passed identity crisis are referred as “identity-achieved.” Others who are trying to make commitments without questioning or investigating alternatives are named “identity-foreclosed,” those who are “identity-diffused” flee from making decisions about their futures who are unable to make total heartily commitments to careers, values, or other people. In contrary, those in the “moratorium” group are struggling and experiencing an ongoing crisis as they try to “find themselves.”(Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology)

READ ALSO:  Unlawful Possession of Marijuana in New York

Undoubtedly, societies are in search for “identity-achieved” generations. Hence, the young generation or even adults will not be struggling with their “selves” or the society to find out moralities and values when they are mature enough to work and produce labor for their society. To be able to lead generations to this level of identity, societies must have regulated plans to educate and treat children from the very young ages; so that these learned values and moralities will be strengthened through ages. Cultural means can best aid and instruct children. This process of identity formation has always been very dominant through years by Hollywood.

Hollywood as the most influential media in America, and also in other countries, has had a great role in identity formation of Americans since childhood. American values and morale are being conducted in different ways in Hollywood movies; religious, national, political, moral and even economic values. There has always been a great emphasis upon religious believes-attending church or celebrating religious holidays like Christmas- and national values; American has always been stressing upon. Equality, liberty, love for the nation, freedom of expression, human right have been demonstrated repeatedly in movies in order to imply meanings and values.

American cinema has also established the “rating system” in Hollywood so that it could have the cinema under its own control and it could present what ever was to the benefit of the society. Rating was considered as a way to set force limitations. Hollywood movies were being rated when bearing sexual affairs, violence, drug abuse and crimes. Thus, they would have restricted sexual openness in the society, they would have abandoned violence and drug abuse presented widely to people, more specifically to children for whose sake rating system has developed in the United States in 1930s by Motion Picture Association of America. Rating system has been categorized considering age limits. American movies have been divided into 5 categories as follows; G category- General Audiences- that all ages are admitted and is surely pure of any immorality, PG that means some materials may not be very appropriate for children, PG-13 implies that some material may be inappropriate for children under 13, R that children under 17 must be accompanied by parents or adult guardian and the last one is NC-17 that no one 17 or under is permitted.

READ ALSO:  Classical Hollywood Cinema - The Silent Era and Studio Era of Filmmaking

Another approach to teaching morality is through movies conveying moral values, expressing national and religious connotations, showing the way of life; the life which is desirable to public and government. The very good examples of these moral films made before and after World War II are “It’s a wonderful life” and “You can’t take it with you” directed by Frank Capra; former made in 1946 and latter made in 1938. Both films were great messengers of American identity.

In “It’s a wonderful life” we can see “George Bailey has so many problems he is thinking to end them all – and it’s Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds over the years”. The emphasis on Christmas, friendship, helping others, benignity of politicians and private organizations are all subjects that need a great stress and emphasis to be learned.

The same subjects also exist in “You can’t take it with you” in another way. Portrait of a love relation between a rich boy and a poor girl signifies the importance of ethics in life;” Alice Sycamore has to introduce the family of her fiancé, Tony Kirby, to her own family. The Kirby’s are wealthy, stuffy family of great self- importance, while the Sycamore’s are a collection of good-hearted lunatics. When the two families come together, lifestyle and philosophy collide head-on. The financial level of people is static, changing easily and it also remains very short. Poor people feel happy and supportive to each other and never feel alone. The important feature of both is that there is no sexuality in these two films.

To finish the discussion it is important to emphasize on the influence Hollywood has in every aspect of Americans. But the very real objective it looks for is identity formation which is most influential in children and youth; help them know their society’s values and even their government’s policies and plans.


1. http://www.britannica.com/ 2.

2. encarta.msn.com/

3. http://www.imdb.com

4. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2699


by Azadeh Ghahghaei