My Life Without Me – Individuality in conflict with societal roles
My Life Without Me – Individuality in conflict with societal roles
Sacrificing one’s own options and choices in life, making decisions based on the role of being a good parent and aiming to advance future generations by renouncing own opportunities are ideals that have sustained in many cultures. But why is there a stronger emphasis on fulfilling societal roles and sacrificing own interests to fulfil such norms, if individualisation is such a high value in modern, especially western, society? There are dire consequences for society when people sacrifice their own self-fulfilment in order to fulfil obligations that have been thrust upon them.
In the first few moments of My Life Without Me (Coixet 2003) Ann explains the problem with the life that she has lived up to that point. As the title suggests, she has lived it without her self: she explains who she is, as if realising for the first time that she actually exists and is a real person, a character. Ann is merely 23 years old and has lived her life up to the expectations that have been forced upon her: she gets pregnant with 17 and from then on she is but a mother and a wife and the main breadwinner of her family.
In western modern society the concept of individualisation as the social advancement of individual ideals, autonomy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness is repeatedly referred to as one of the most important rights an individual has. In addition, an increase in the legitimacy and postulation of individual self-realisation and the cultivation of individual originality has taken place (Willems 2012: 147).
With Ann we are shown an example of the problem that occurs, when there is a plain conflict of interest between the roles that have been sprung upon an individual, such as the role of a mother, even at merely 17, and the development of an individual identity, self-realisation and pursuing ones own personal interests. Even in the list of the ten things Ann wishes to do before she dies, her priorities are clear: the first half of the list are all things immediately associated with her role in her family.
The things she wants to do for herself come last. In one scene, when she is asked in a bar what her favourite music is, she starts by saying she hasn’t listened to music in a long time, and that she used to like Nirvana. Immediately she drifts off to talking about how she met her husband there. She isn’t able to say what her favourite music is now, because she has ceased to do anything for herself. Ann, as an individual, faces society, while the society is made entirely out of individuals that have norms and expectations.
If one considers these two components separately and ignores the context and reciprocal relationship, one creates an unbridgeable gap, which can lead to problems in the analysis of Ann’s character and the conflict she finds herself in. If one takes into consideration Ann’s circumstances, it becomes clear that Ann lives in Canada and finds herself in a religious society, that does not accept abortion for example as a given privilege and choice. When she realises she is pregnant at 17, it is obvious that she must get married, assume her role as a mother and must prioritise this role over all else.
As Marcuse describes, two manifestations of the individual have developed in recent history, and although they are related to each other reciprocally, this dichotomy leads to a conflict in society. First, there is a tendency towards the development of a free individual and intellectual subject, and on the other hand there is the development of a free economic subject in free competition. A separation occurs between the struggle of the individual for his autonomy and the development of his self, and, at the same time, in a fight for its existence.
Ann is forced to work and provide for her family, while her autonomy is strongly compromised. She takes care of the children, fully assuming and prioritising that role, rather than pursuing or even having dreams of her own. This shows that there is not only pressure from society to survive and provide financially for herself and her family, but also a moral obligation to prioritise her role as a wife and mother. Ann does not become aware of the compromises she has made towards her own identity and individuality, until she knows she is going to die soon.
Through the role she has assumed, her self-fulfilment and expression presenting her individuality have been compromised. This is the price she has to pay for fulfilling her material and moral obligation. Questionably, compromises like these have consequences for societal structures as well as for the individuals one finds therein. The film depicts a subtle answer to the question of what the consequences from such compromises and conflicts are. An important factor is that Ann never tells anyone she is going to die.
She solves the conflict of interest in her life by living her up to her new-found individuality separate from her traditional family life. The integration of these two lives would be ever so filled with conflicts, that she decides to start living a double-life instead: one in which she lives up to the expectations and her role as a loving wife and mother and another in which she pursues all the things she feels she has missed out on, like smoking, drinking and sleeping with another man.
These two currents are not reconcilable. Another consequence is that Ann has very concrete plans for how the life of the others should go on, once she is gone. She acts manipulatively, by trying to introduce her husband to a woman she thinks should take her place, or by recording birthday messages for her children and advising them on how to act. Though one sympathises with Ann as a loving mother and wife that wants the best for her family even after she is gone, it seems paternalistic.
While it seems selfless and kind of her to want her husband to have a nice children-loving companion when she is gone, the way she chooses someone over his head and manipulates the situation without his knowledge or his say to the matter, seems downright scheming and even patronising. While it is beautiful and touching of her to record all the messages for her childrens’ birthdays for them, it seems like she does not only have loving and encouraging words to stay, but is much rather trying to influence them on how to act and to behave in the future.
It seems like the price she has paid in fulfilling her role, rather than indulging her own self, has had this effect on her. This very much reminds me of the sacrifices that many parents make for the next generations to come, especially of young immigrants, that wish for a better life for their children. Parents, as the first reference of what is right and wrong and important, influence their children strongly, especially in respect to education and how to determine their life.
A mediation of the parents’ culture on to the children takes place and while the participatory influence parents have is hard to measure and define, it is obvious that a lot of elements in the behaviour of second-generation immigrants can be accounted to their parents (Farsi 2013: 100 ff. ). These parents sacrifice their home country and the fulfilment of their own dreams and individuality, in order to fulfil the obligation that has been thrust upon them: to provide the best chances and education they can for their children. While these intentions, like the intentions of Ann, are noble and entrenched with morality, the outcome is often paternalism.
If one sacrifices self-realisation, self-fulfilment and the expression of ones own individuality for the role of being a great parent, the outcome is often a paternalistic attitude towards the pursuit of the rest of the family, especially the children. Furthermore when Ann knows she will die and leave her family, she knows she will lose her influence on them, which is why she decides to influence them as much as she can before, and ensure that her daughters and her husband live their life the way she thinks they should.
The influence of parents that are immigrants lessens when the are in a different atmosphere and culture. The values they have been brought up with often get lost in western society, especially when they come from a middle eastern background. Much like Ann’s death, that will eliminate her influence on her family, it seems the influence of cultural values also “dies” once the environment is changed by the removal and replacement through modern western societal values. The stand-up comedian Amir K. explains this matter in his sketch on his father (K. 2011).
The reason the audience appreciates and laughs about his performance, lies in the woeful cliche of the portrayal of his father. He depicts the disappointment of a typical middle eastern father who shouts at his son for pursuing a career in a path he does not deem appropriate, in his case stand-up comedy. He quotes his father in saying “You waste of education, waste of my money” or “You’re a fucking clown? I brought you to this country to be a clown? You can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can open up a bank… [but instead you choose a career in comedy]”.
The reason especially young immigrants of the second generation can laugh at this is because it is so common for parents to have paternalistic expectations towards the career paths and norms and values that their children should live by. Similar to the case of Ann, it seems that the sacrifice of their own individuality for their role as a good parent, and the loss of their influence on the other hand, could lead to such a paternalistic attitude and the attempt to manipulate and coerce their values and their idea of how the children should live their lives.
While I do not wish to condemn Ann’s love and care for her children, just like the sacrifices immigrant parents make for future generations, one must take into consideration that when dynamics of society thrust roles onto individuals that imply sacrifice of ones own self for the well-being of another and giving up the pursuit of one’s own expression of individuality, problematic, paternalistic relationships can occur. What begins as a well-intended sacrifice out of love, could end in a relationship in which choosing ones own path is something that none of the parties involved can pursue without a feeling of guilt.
Bibliography Farsi, Armand (2013): Migranten auf dem Weg zur Elite? Zum Berufserfolg von Akademikern mit Migrationshintergrund. Online-Ausg. : Berlin [u. a. ] : Springer, 2013. DOI: 10. 1007/978-3-658-01564-0 Marcuse, Herbert (1970): Ideen zu einer kritischen Theorie der Gesellschaft. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Willems, Herbert (2012): Synthetische Soziologie – Idee, Entwurf und Programm. VS Verlag fur Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden Internetquellen: K. , Amir (2011): Middle Eastern Dad. http://www. youtube. com/watch? v=JCxMWWf4_Ww Seen 24. 11. 13 20:11.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 25 November 2016
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