Understanding Society

Tilburg University has been a reliable provider of high-quality education and research for more than eighty years. We specialize in the social sciences and humanities and we seek to make a structural contribution to society.


Last month I saw: Toni Erdmann and La La Land. Both pictures got a lot of praise, but I was puzzled. In Toni Erdman the main character Wilfried has a daughter: Ines, who pursues a business career. Wilfried feels she is unhappy and tries to get in touch with her in a clumsy and sometimes hilarious way. Ines is in a lethargic relationship with a colleague, and when her father asks her if she is happy, she claims that to be too big a word. In the end it seems that Wilfried has not been able to make her see life differently.

In La La Land Mia, a minor actress goes to depressing casting calls and falls in love with Sebastian, a jazz piano player who has to change his performance in order to fit. He refuses. Finally Mia succeeds as an actress, goes off to Paris, leaving Sebastian behind: end of relationship. Both stories don’t render you very unhappy or angry, but they made me feel awkward: uneasy. The male characters in the two movies refuse to take part in the rat race and they pay the price of being an outcast (Wilfried) and leading a very modest life (Sebastian). The female characters: Ines and Mia, pursue a career and succeed, but they are unhappy.

On January 19th Zygmunt Bauman died, an emeritus professor of sociology. In fact he was more of a culture critique than an empirical sociologist: a master at pinpointing the Zeitgeist. He did not stick to one discipline, but always combined insights from philosophy, history, and sociology. He influenced my thinking as a student profoundly. His most famous books, were all about liquidity, and were published after his retirement: Liquid Modernity, Liquid Love, Liquid Times, Liquid Life and Liquid Fear.

In his view, traditional bonds such as ties of family, class, religion, marriage and even love, aren't as reliable or desirable as they used to be. Nowadays we want the impossible: freedom as well as security. We reject suffocating relations with family or spouses, but we also want to be safe. In the two movies this depressing predicament of especially young people is played out. Mia and Ines sacrifice everything for success: both tolerate, for the sake of their career, powerful persons to humiliate them in public. At the end of the movie Ines is likely to succeed in her career and Mia definitely has succeeded. But it is made clear that both sacrifice their chances to happiness. These female characters seem to be helplessly alone in the Zeitgeist: Liquid Love, Liquid Fear, Liquid Life.