Today, I watched a film with my afternoon class, one of those Scary Movie No. Whatever horror film parodies (the students wanted to watch it – shrug – and since it’s a parody it’s acceptable), and I noticed a very odd phenomenon:
Almost as soon as the movie started, the students began assigning roles to each other. “I’ll be that girl, because she’s totally pretty.” – “No, you can’t be her, because she dies.” – “Okay, I’ll be the policeman then. Or does he die, too?” I noticed the same phenomenon the last time I watched a movie with this particular group. They immediately started assigning the leading roles to each other. They even insisted on assigning a part to me. Mostly older adult parts. Last time around, I got to be a police officer, this time I was a reporter.
Gender is not a determining factor. The film we watched a few weeks ago was a Dutch comedy (which neither I nor the kids knew, so we ended up watching a Dutch film dubbed into German with English subtitles) about five male losers and yet this group of girls immediately decided which of the main characters they wanted to be.
They completely identify with the parts, too. Conversation during the film goes something like this: “Oh look, A. is smoking and drinking again.” [This was the Dutch film and the kids mercifully were not aware just what the character represented by A. was smoking.] And today: “Oh look, Ms. Buhlert just got stabbed.” Me playing along: “I thought you said I don’t die in this film.” – “No, you survive, Ms. Buhlert. You just get stabbed.”
I’ve been watching occasional films in my classes for a while now, but this is the first time I have noticed kids actually projecting themselves into the movie. The closest I’ve come so far was a boy I taught last year who wrote fanfiction based on Hollywood action and adventure films (he did a big epic based on Jurassic Park and a story which was like Titanic, only in space). The heroic paleontologist or spaceship captain would inevitably be named after himself and was usually a complete author insert, not even abstracted to the Mary Sue level.
Thinking of myself at that age, I would often imagine myself inside a book or movie, having adventures alongside the characters. I also would make up new adventures with the established characters and sometimes mix up characters from different franchises. I’d ship characters, too. Indeed, one of my favourite pastimes was pairing off characters from a film/TV show/cartoon that had too many men with the characters from one that had too many women (I didn’t do slash as a teen, not even when it was totally obvious). In short, I did all of the stuff you find with beginning fanfiction writers.
But I cannot recall ever sitting down to watch a film and saying, “I am that character.”
Though my parents tell me that when I was about three, I first insisted that I was Popeye the Sailor and later insisted that I was Robbi the robot from the German children’s TV show Robbi, Tobbi und das Fliewatüüt. Apparently, I even insisted on being addressed as Popeye or respectively Robbi and didn’t answer to my own name, which mightily confused elderly relatives who had no idea that they were supposed to call me “Popeye” now.
Still, I was around three or four, when I insisted on being Popeye or Robbi the robot. The girls in my class are thirteen.