Although a fictional romantic comedy musical, Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film La La Land has largely been regarded as a culturally significant ideological vehicle. Partially, ideologically charged rhetoric surrounding the musical appears linked to the timing of its release. Released in the United States just over a month after the shocking 2016 presidential election, discussions of the film’s content and form have not always been easy to divorce from discussions of its sociopolitical context. Brightly colored and filled with dancing, Americans appear to have grasped onto the positivity of La La Land in the wake of what many consider to be a historically bleak era. John Legend, for example, used the film’s celebration of “dreams” to make the point at the 2016 Producers Guild Awards that America is “open to dreamers of all races, all countries, all religions.” (Pond, 2017).
To further explore the reasons and implications for the societal importance assigned to La La Land, this article will analyze the film through the critical lenses of ideology, Marxism, and feminism. Through such analysis, this article largely focuses on the film’s economic and gendered messages. Given the film’s plot line, these messages are largely analyzed within the context of their relations to professional ambition, the arts, and the entertainment industry.
Set in Los Angeles during an ambiguously unidentified time period, the bulk of the film revolves around a romantic relationship between Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, an aspiring jazz musician. The film introduces the audience early on to Sebastian's music, and Sebastian soon joins a touring electronic jazz band. As the band gains popularity, Sebastian and Mia grow further apart until the tension in their relationship culminates during a conversation-turned-argument. Mia becomes upset when Sebastian explicitly articulates, for the first time, his intention to continue touring for the foreseeable future. Mia has been writing and rehearsing for a one-woman play to be staged in Los Angeles, leading her to tell Sebastian that she cannot leave Los Angeles to accompany him on tour.
Mia storms out, not to see Sebastian again until the night of her play. Due to a promotional photoshoot for his band though, Sebastian is so late to Mia’s show that he misses it. Making matters worse, the show attracts so few audience members that Mia cannot pay back the theater. Feeling discouraged, she leaves Los Angeles for her parents’ house. Sebastian is left alone to live in the apartment he and Mia had shared, where he gets a call from a director looking for Mia. After the director tells Sebastian that she saw Mia’s play and wants Mia to audition for her movie, Sebastian drives to Mia’s parents’ house to tell her the news.
Although the protagonists appear to be on better terms with one another after Sebastian persuades Mia not to give up and brings her to the audition, they remain broken up. Mia gets the part, moving to Paris to film it, while Sebastian stays in L.A. to open a jazz club. Mia becomes a celebrity, marries someone else, and has a baby. When Mia and Sebastian run into each other five years later, they exchange only brief eye contact and a smile.
As a commercial film glamorizing the commercial film industry, La La Land exemplifies the assertion, made by Marx and Engels in “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas”, tha the ruling class maintains its status by controlling the intellectual ideas which are produced, distributed, and normalized throughout the culture. (1845) From the start of the opening scene, the capitalist hierarchy is subtly yet continuously validated. The film opens with “Another Day in the Sun”, an upbeat musical number taking place during a highway traffic jam. Although the highway is filled with more Hollywood hopefuls than there are spots to go around in the sphere of Hollywood stardom, the highway is conspicuously void of any hint of competition or rivalry. People jump on top of cars, dance with hula hoops and skateboards, and even crowd around the back of a delivery van to see an impromptu musical performance from a band of delivery men. In spite of job insecurity, everyone wears a smile. This scene familiarizes its audience with an alternative version of L.A., which manages to conveniently gloss over the 16.3% of the Los Angeles population living in poverty, (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016) and which will serve as the backdrop for Mia and Sebastian’s story.
From the first line, the Hollywood film industry uses La La Land as an opportunity to reinforce a self-serving definition of “success.” The opening number begins with a young unnamed person telling her story, in song, of leaving a relationship behind to pursue her desire for movie stardom. This narrative relies on the unquestioned premise that success as an actor is equivalent to Hollywood fame, invalidating the goals of actors who dream of starring in experimental, avant garde, or independent projects.
The unnamed character’s account also works to establish an ideological framework which defines sacrifice in the name of wealth and fame as something honorable. Within this paradigm, the ability of job insecurity to contribute to depression, anxiety, headaches, (Wichert, 2002) and increased blood pressure (Ferrie, Shipley, Stansfeld, & Marmot, 2002) is irrelevant. Similarly, the links between low income, inadequate healthcare access, housing instability, and food insecurity (Kusha, Gupta, Gee, & Haas, 2005) are only merely inconvenient, at most. After the first unnamed character happily sings, “Without a nickel to my name/Hopped a bus, here I came”, another aspiring star joins the song to add, “...even when the answer’s ‘no’/Or when my money’s running low/The dusty mic and neon glow/Are all I need.”
La La Land was a missed opportunity for the film industry to self-reflect. Mia’s professional journey could have facilitated a conversation about a need for greater numbers of creative, original Hollywood scripts and characters. Instead, a montage sequence depicts Mia auditioning for one cliched film role after the other. Mia pursues roles, such as that of the stern teacher and that of the no-nonsense police officer, which are so instantly recognizable as to nearly seem recycled. La La Land’s audience is never asked to wonder why Mia does not appear to audition for any roles which challenge conventional Hollywood film archetypes, nor is the audience ever prompted to consider why Mia continues to audition for such predictable roles. Any mention of artistic quality or integrity is completely absent from all discussions of Mia’s professional ambitions. For the La La Land viewer to achieve suspension of disbelief, the viewer must accept the notion that it is natural for young struggling artists to forgo artistic standards while breaking into the industry. By displaying the significance of such standards, the film industry excuses itself from striving to reach new heights of innovation. In this sense, La La Land embodies the Adorno and Horkheimer 1944 statement that “Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.”
Mia’s decision to take control of her own artistic and professional fate by writing her own play could have been used as a message of empowerment for performers, had it been taken in a different direction. Although the disastrous staging of her original play ultimately works out for her, it is only by the saving grace of the culture industry that she can redeem herself. Instead of working to pay back the theater, saving her money to try again, and learning from past failure, Mia gives up completely until a major film studio offers to pull her out of her defeat. This is not a message about reaching your dreams through resilience and self-sufficiency. Instead, the message is that your dreams might be within reach, but only if you place them into the hands of the culture industry. You alone do not have the power to create your own professional success, but working to further the interests of the culture industry can empower you. Through this message, Hollywood keeps the aspiring artist in her place, preventing her from emerging as a viable creative entity in her own right. When artists circumvent the culture industry gatekeepers by assuming the roles of self-appointed gatekeepers, the familiar hierarchy is challenged as the mainstream culture industry faces the threat of competition.
Ultimately, Mia finds her “happy ending” by choosing to live within the realm of hyperreality, even at the expense of genuinely experiencing reality in its full capacity. Although Mia and Sebastian stated that they will always love one another in their final conversation, Mia’s choice of husband suggests that her husband’s compatibility with the realm of celebrity which she inhabits is more important than her feelings for him. The final scene suggests that Mia and Sebastian regret ending their relationship, considering the wistful montage depicting an imaginary universe in which they remain together, the fact that Sebastian plays “Mia and Sebastian’s theme” for Mia as she and her husband watch from the audience, and the palpable emotion on Mia’s face as she sees Sebastian and hears their song again.
However, Mia’s bittersweet smile in the final moment implies that despite this, MIa is fulfilled by her professional achievements. All we know about her professional achievements, though, is that they have catapulted her to such a high level of fame that baristas on the studio lot tremble at the sight of her coming in to get coffee, and her face is on a giant poster outside of Sebastian’s jazz club. We know nothing about her everyday life. Her human identity has apparently been subsumed by the symbolic projection of her identities as celebrity, wife, and mother. Reality has collapsed into its own signs, creating a reality in which “everything is therefore ight on the surface, absolutely superficial.”, as described by Jean Baudrillard in “The Hyper-Realism of Simulation.” (Harrison & Wood, 2003) In Baudrillard's description of the new reality, “There is no longer a need or requirement for depth or perspective...Unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real’s hallucinatory resemblance to itself.”
Through a feminist lense, it is noteworthy that the depiction of MIa’s success revolves around other people looking at her in awe, while the depiction of Sebastian’s success is unrelated to how attractive or popular he might be. Sebastian’s success, much like his journey there, is communicated through a scene of him playing a whole song. Mia does not get equal screen time to be seen practicing her craft. The audience never learns the topic of the movie which turns her into a celebrity, nor do we see her reading or rehearsing for her one-woman play. In stark contrast, La La Land ensures that the audience is aware, at all times, of the details of Sebastian’s artistic ambitions. We quickly learn about his job as a restaurant pianist, followed by his respective jobs in a 1980s cover band and in two different jazz bands. Also unlike Mia, Sebastian’s character is given plenty of room to challenge the artistic status quo and to voice how he feels about his craft. He is fired from his first job for refusing to play the setlist, and he is never shy about how frustrated he is with the jobs which ask him to play music other than what he perceives as jazz in its most original form.
Sebastian’s character is also painted as more passionate and knowledgeable about the arts than Mia’s character. When Sebastian first takes Mia to a jazz club, he spends the entire scene enthusiastically explaining to her why jazz is so “exciting.” Mia remains seemingly oblivious to his point though, responding that she views jazz as “relaxing” background music for cocktail parties, because that is what it sounded like on one radio station in her hometown.
This conversation could have been balanced out by a conversation in which Mia attempts to enlighten Sebastian about film, but no such conversation exists. In addition to knowing more about his own field than Mia does, he also knows more about her field than she does. For instance, after Mia attempts to hide her ignorance by pretending to understand the reference when Sebastian quotes “Rebel Without a Cause”, Sebastian educates her about film by taking her to see the movie.
Mia’s more understated relationship to her artistic and professional passions is congruent with larger patterns of gender depiction in film. Last year, the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering reviewed 53,000 film dialogues and discovered that women had just over 15,000 dialogues, while men had over 37,000. (Blumenthal, 2017) Also at the University of Southern California, scholars from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism found that found that 69% of male characters in the analyzed films, compared to just 55% of female characters, were seen actually on the job in their workplaces (Smith, Choueiti, Prescott, & Pieper, n.d.) Along such lines, it is also noteworthy that Mia’s identity as a wife and mother is conveyed to the audience at the film’s end, while the audience is left completely uninformed about Sebastian's relationship status and home life. According to a study of the 100 top films of 2017 by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 53% of female character had a known marital status, compared to just 40% of male characters. (Lauzen, 2018).
La La Land insidiously reinforces associations between gender and musical genre as well, contributing to the construction of a gender hierarchy within the music industry. Out of the four bands Sebastian plays with throughout the film, only one band member appears to be a woman. Similarly, the band in the opening number, and the band Sebastian takes Mia to see at the jazz club, both seem to be comprised only of men. These casting choices portray the worlds of jazz and rock as almost exclusively male domains, which is problematic because it ignores female participation in genres, such as jazz and rock, which have been typically taken more seriously by critics than has pop music. (Shmutz, 2009) (Strong, 2016) The fact that approximately twenty male musicians exist in La La Land for every one female musician is never commented on in the film. While such a skewed male-to-female musician ratio is seen as normal, it is difficult to imagine that the reverse situation would be accepted so easily by audiences.
The issue reaches beyond the topic of perceptions about women in music and into the topic of perceptions about women in society as a whole. La La Land’s exclusion of female musicians speaks to the “chick flick” double standard, wherein films which disproportionately feature men are simply films for everybody, while films which give men and women equal representation are seen as niche films aimed at women, and are therefore deemed impossible for men to enjoy or identify with. Two years ago, the crux of the issue was clearly summarized in a reflection on women in film published by The Guardian. To quote the article, “The lack of female representation isn’t intentional or even probably conscious: it’s just that when women aren’t seen and aren’t heard in public and cultural spaces, we come to view that absence as normal.” (Carpentier, 2016)
La La Land’s disproportionate focus on Sebastian’s artistry, as well as the exclusion of female musicians, may teach male viewers to internalize the message that they are entitled to take up more social space than women are. In everyday life, boys and girls alike, who are likely to identify role models and messages about gender socialization in media (Gauntlett, 2008), may come to perceive the absence of female creatives featured at real-life rock and jazz festivals, film festivals, and visual art exhibitions as “natural.” Adding to the naturalization of the absence of women from the public sphere is the fact that La La Land’s final scene defined only its female protagonist by her role in relation to her family, but allowed its male protagonist to express his identity in that scene through only his talent and entrepreneurial success. In reality, such portrayals can perpetuate the sexist norm of asking men about their professions upon meeting them, while not treating women’s professional identities with the same respect. When women’s professional identities are not taken seriously, the professional development of girls will likely not be taken seriously either. Such attitudes have adverse impacts on girls’ education, and may explain why teachers at all educational levels give disproportionately large amounts of attention to male students. It may also explain why teachers are more likely to praise girls for being obedient, quiet, and organized than they are to praise girls for academic achievement. (Houston, 1994)
La La Land’s glamorization of a capitalist hierarchy can also impact audiences significantly. This film provides respite from an oppressive economic structure, while promoting a false consciousness which celebrates that same structure. La La Land exemplifies the argument ,made by of Marx and Engels, that media texts produced by the ruling class function as distractions to prevent the working class from challenging the dominant ideology. (Marx & Engels, 1845)
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Uncle Sal on February 05, 2019:
What a bunch of ideological drivel. It appears that this authors role models are Lenin and Stalin. She should really study her history of the Soviet Union to see how well that ideology worked out for their citizens, or North Korea for that matter. Sounds like this was written by an ignorant millennial brainwashed by her Marxist professors in college. Laughable that she could take a feel good movie and twist it into something that fits her political agenda she’s trying to sell here. Pitiful and embarrsssing.
Liz Westwood from UK on September 02, 2018:
You give a detailed review here.