Power In Oleanna

Good Essays
‘Are we bound by it?’: Language and Gendered representations of power in Oleanna The world chronicled in David Mamet’s Oleanna is entirely disparate from the utopian paradise that Pete Seeger croons about in his song. Here, every use of language is charged with assumptions of power and gender that Mamet seeks to explore and critique. This review, using the film as a template seeks to investigate the way in which use of and access to language invests the individual with a certain semblance of power, thereby exploring how authority and domination is predicated on the application of these linguistic strategies by both genders. Distraught student Carol’s attempt to seek help from her professor John sets the plot in motion. What follows is palpably…show more content…
John doesn’t let her speak and patronisingly counters her every remark with drawn out refrains of ‘Yes. . . that’s right’. John’s penchant for interrupting and choosing to ignore Carol’s repeated pleas of ‘teach me’ is rooted in a sense of linguistic privilege that the membership of an academic institution affords him and he uses this power to appropriate Carol’s use of language. He deliberately uses convoluted academic words (such as stoics, paradigm) aimed at distancing and defining the power dynamics between them, and revealing that the access to language is contingent on socio-economic factors. Carol later castigates John for his elitist use of language saying, ‘then why can’t you use that word?’ John’s delusional claim of being a liberal educator who seeks to remove the ‘an artificial stricture between teachers and students’ is shattered by Carol’s assertion that he is a ‘vile’ hypocrite who ‘believes in nothing’. John recounts an anecdote where he was made to ‘feel stupid’ and seemingly sympathises with Carol’s plight. However, Critic Deborah Tannen claims that ‘any show of solidarity necessarily entails power.’( Tannen 3). By identifying with Carol, John automatically places himself in a position of privilege by generalising her and refusing to…show more content…
Language is laden with presumptions of the culture and for a man in a position of power like John to ridicule and dismiss it is extremely oppressive and exploitative just as his remarks about the futility of education are, ‘what is that but rape; I swear to God’ Carol asserts. The power dynamic is exhibited through verbal and non verbal cues in the course of the film. The inability to ‘understand’ and the deliberate defining of certain terms accounts for the shift in power balance. John defines prejudice as, ‘An unreasoned belief. We are all subject to it. When it is threatened, or opposed, we feel anger. . . ’, John’s prejudiced anger strikes back in his explosive outburst in the final scene of the film. Mamet throws light on the prejudices of society that we have internalized to the point of not registering their consequences and forces us like John to, ‘look in [y]ourself and see those things that I see. And you can find revulsion equal to my own.’ The especially striking images of the ladder and the paper airplane serve as pivotal symbols. The ladder that they both wrestle with emblematises the hierarchy of academia, and the phallic plane that is passed around during their verbal jousting represents the
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