A Single Man, Goffman and LGBT Representation

Last week I revisited A Single Man, which just about wins the esteemed title of my favourite film. Without giving too much away, it follows a single day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a gay English professor who has lost his lover of 16 years, and whose life is haunted by depression and a morbid fixation with his own mortality.

What struck me on this watch-through was how one of my favourite scenes almost perfectly illustrates Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘presentation of the self’. In his opening monologue, George states, ‘Only fools could possibly escape the simple truth: that now isn’t simply now. It’s a cold reminder, one day later than yesterday, one year later than last year, and that sooner or later … it will come’. Many of us know that feeling, but it’s not sociologically interesting. But then he continues with this: ‘It takes time in the morning for me to become George. Time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I’ve dressed, and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George I know fully what part I’m supposed to play.’

It’s a brilliant speech, and I can’t help but wonder whether Isherwood was influenced by Goffman when writing the novel. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life was published in 1959, and was hugely popular in the US. With A Single Man being published in 1964, it isn’t hard to imagine that Goffman’s thought may well have influenced the story. Regardless, this monologue is textbook Goffman. Briefly, the argument that Goffman puts forward is that we perform the roles that are transmitted to us by society. These roles are multiplicit, and potentially infinite. Some of us perform these roles better than others, and become very adept social actors, whereas others, for whatever reason, fail to do so. In this scenario, actors frequently lose ‘face’ and ‘deface’ those around them.

George has an intricate routine of preparing himself for his day which allows him to present himself in the way society expects English professors to do so. Obviously, if he showed up to work outwardly bitterly depressed, drank heavily and raged at his students about the tragedy of the human condition, he would not be adequately fulfilling the role he has to perform. The institution he works for would be defaced, and he would lose his job.

The other thing I would like to talk about is the LGBT representation in the film. Increasingly, there are calls for media to show interesting portrayals of ‘queer’ individuals rather than just tokenistic caricatures. A Single Man is a perfect example of how to do this well. Throughout the film, George’s sexuality plays second fiddle to the real themes of the work: loneliness and living in the present. While we are well aware he is gay, George is not at all portrayed as an obviously gay stereotype. His mannerisms, voice and dress give nothing away and he only mentions his sexuality overtly once in the film. While George’s sexuality underlies the entire work, at times you almost forget about it. This film is not so much one about gay liberation but a story of an ordinary man with the light and shadow that makes us human. It is about a man who fears the inevitably of his end, hates the seeming futility of the present and who has lost his only anchor in the world: his love. It is a tale anyone can relate to regardless of sexuality, race or gender. A Single Man is a very moving film which is wonderfully shot and accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack. I urge you to watch it.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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