Torben Grodal


On his book Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotions, Culture, and Film

Cover Interview of August 20, 2009

A close-up

One of the chapters in Embodied Visions, “Love and Desire in the Cinema,” deals with romantic films and pornography.  The motivation for writing it was that the dominant constructivist film and literature theorists describe romantic love stories as social constructions made by the western bourgeois male society.  Some argue that romantic emotions were constructed in the 11th century, others that they are the result of the bourgeois society proper, from the Renaissance onwards.

These views starkly contrast historical, anthropological and biological evidence.  Romantic love and the forging of love bonds are found universally and can be traced as long back as we have any historical evidence.

In the chapter I first review the evolutionary and neurological evidence for why love developed in a process of evolution and by what biological mechanisms.  The evolutionary reason for love, emotional pair-bonding, is, as I just mentioned, the strong fitness-advantages of the increased intelligence coming with bigger and bigger brains.  The cost was that the child has to be born very immature, before the head is too big for the birth canal.  Furthermore, the immature brain is more flexible.  That’s why a father was needed—to enhance the baby’s survival by providing additional resources.  The old anonymous reptilian sexual desire did not disappear.  The sexual dimension was even enhanced: human females are able to have sex all year around, so pair-bonding has strong sexual underpinnings.

Stories and films extensively elaborate on the gratifications of and conflicts between love and desire.  When humans became agriculturalists the forging of romantic love bonds often conflicted with economic considerations.  Many love stories describe such conflict between love as individual emancipation and the pressures of family etc.  Other stories deal with emotional conflicts between love and desire.

For evolutionary reasons, women are more actively engaged in romantic films and stories: throughout history they have paid the price of being abandoned with a child or several children.  And empirical evidence supports a strong difference between male and female interest in love stories.  For the same evolutionary reasons men are more interested in pornography than women: they might let women or other cuckolded men bring up the children they father.

You need to steer a middle course between saying that romantic films and pornography are totally social constructions and saying that they are totally biological.  Films try out different scenarios and different solutions, they are part of cultural negotiations of love and desire.  However, these negotiations take place within a framework provided by our biology and evolutionary history.