The Truman Show (1998)
Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney
By Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Rebecca Doser
The Truman Show (Fig. 1) is a 1998 American drama written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir. The plot follows the life of a man named Truman who was unaware that his life has been completely constructed by a producer named Christof in a reality television show for the past 30 years. When skepticism arises, Truman grows suspicious of what he perceived as “reality” for his entire life and he seeks out his own internal strength to ultimately escape the “media bubble” he lives in.
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory once said, “Does a fish know it’s wet?” upon which he answered, “No” (Baran, 2015, p. 4). This concept is one of the most important elements involved in understanding how individuals, such as Truman, are completely submerged in a “media bubble” and further, how social constructivism shapes values, norms and habits. In The Truman Show, Truman’s daily routine is shaped by the people he sees every morning, the radio show he listens to every day, the completely fixated environment/movie set in which he lives and the hyper-commercialism of which he seems to be unconscious of for his entire life. Media informs us, entertains us, delights us and annoys us (Baran, 2015, p. 4) and the way in which one decodes a message can vary significantly based on how one interprets signs and symbols (Baran, 2015, p. 6). In the movie, Truman interprets his marriage, work environment, social interactions and even his habitual friendly neighborhood greetings (Fig. 2) as normal elements of his daily routine simply because he has never experienced anything out of what he considers “the ordinary.” He has become sucked into the “bubble” created by Christof and it is not until the end of the movie that he physically is able to touch the confinements of his “media bubble” in order to find the courage to leave.
Many characters hold differing views on reality in a general sense throughout the movie. In the dialogue between Christof and Lauren, Christof asks her, “Do you really think you’re in the position to judge him?” However, at the same time, this question could be brought back to Christof himself since he is the one who decides what is right in the world he created for Truman. Lauren claims that Christof is manipulating Truman’ life therefore that world is absolutely fake, whereas Christof throws the question to her, and all the viewers, to perhaps question the reality of their world as well. This conversation brings us to think of our own lives in regards to who really formulates the “media bubbles” that build our habits and norms.
According to the Baran, media literacy is defined as “the ability to effectively and efficiently comprehend and use any form of mediated communication” (Baran, 2015, p. 18). In other words, the author explains that mass communication is a learnable skill and can be practiced. How can this idea of media literacy explain Christof’s claim, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented”?
We accept the reality constructed by media because we have learned that the mass communication, which exists everywhere (Fig. 3), manipulates us everyday, especially in our generation. Television, radio, newspapers and social media exert mass communication that shapes how we have learned to live in this world without a doubt just like Truman does in The Truman Show. Therefore, it is not as easy and simple as one may think to escape the “media bubble” that effects everyone in the same way it effects Truman.
Another important concept that is evident in both the reading and the movie is the idea of data mining and a surveillance society. In class, we analyzed how everything from your online financial recordings to what size shoe you are to even what events you attended last week, which are all recorded in some form/database. In the movie, Christof says, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented, it’s as simple as that.” This statement ties into the idea of a dominant or mainstream culture in that one seems to hold sway with the majority of the people (Baran, 2015, p. 11). Culture’s idealized standards of beauty, appeal and liberation are evident in our Facebook posts, Snapchat stories and online presence because our generation has grown up following suit of the mainstream culture of our time. We are oblivious to this element of our everyday ritual, similar to Truman in his inability to comprehend the extent to which his life has been created for him until he is able to escape the lure of Christof in the final scene.
Towards the end of the movie Christof says, “There is no more truth out there than in the world I created for you.” Truman’s life has been cultivated by the media since birth and while this may be simply entertainment to some such as the two older woman and the bathtub man in the movie, it is decoded as an inappropriate and unethical act of manipulation by others such as Lauren/Sylvia. These varying viewpoints stem from multiple points of access, which is an approach to media content from a variety of directions and derives from it many levels of meaning (Baran, 2015, p. 22). Thus, as Baran describes, most of society tuning in to The Truman Show is doing so in order to fulfill self-enjoyment and/or appreciation because they too, are engulfed in this “media bubble” of which we all get sucked into.
In the final scene, these multiple points of access are further analyzed when the viewers react differently to Truman’s escape of his “media bubble” or “world.” Intertextuality is the most important concept to understand in order to interpret this last scene from a media lens. Truman walking on water in the final scene is a parallel to the Bible of Jesus walking on water. In the story “Jesus Walks on the Water” in the New Testament, Jesus tells Peter that he has the courage to come towards him and not to doubt his ability. “Take Courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” he says (Aitken, 1968, p. 27). In this scene, Weir is intentionally visually interweaving both the story from the Matthew and it’s moral content in order to underscore the message that both of them share. This message is that extreme internal strength is necessary to escape a lure, or in Truman’s case, his “scripted paradise” or “media bubble.” Truman confronts his fear of water and even yells out that he is challenging Christof even further with his comment, “That’s all you got?” He displays that he must physically touch the confinements of his “media bubble” in order to build up the courage to leave. This understanding of both stories is necessary to understand the final scene in all its comparable elements to the Bible. For example, Truman’s fixation on the boat when he is knocked out and “resurrected” is similar to the formation of Jesus’ body on the cross (paralleling crucifixion) and Christof’s voice coming from the clouds mirrors the voice of God.
In the end, the social construction of reality could be cultivated by all the media in recent years, and we accept that reality. Christof might have been right about this matter. We accept the reality that is presented in front of us because that is the only reality we know and learn as we grow up.
However, since we are trying to become more aware of the ironic and difficult reality of our world that has been shaped and created by media (Fig. 4), how can we identify “true” reality if there even is such a thing? If the world we live in is somehow manipulated by artificial elements of media then will that always skew our perception of reality? Indeed, it is very hard or almost impossible to classify the definition of true reality when what we believe is true is controlled by mainstream communication and the social construction of our everyday thoughts. Yes, we do accept the reality that we see in television shows such as Sesame Street because those are sources of knowledge and habits that we have learned from a young age. Similar to the fact that Truman had accepted his ‘fake’ reality that was produced into a show his entire life, we fail to notice the obscurity in what we hear, see and view day after day. Even after we start to recognize and analyze the “media bubble” in which we live, does this realization allow us to build up the courage, like Truman, to actually escape the confinements of this media lure?
Aitken, Robert. The Holy Bible. New York: Arno, 1968. Print.
Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 1.” Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. 4-27. Print.