“The Lobster,” Addiction, Love, and Social Norms

by Joshua Hoe

Let me say this up front:

1) If you have not seen the new movie “The Lobster” I will be revealing information about the movie. In other words, *Spoiler Alert*

2) If you are a sex addict who is triggered by movie sex scenes, while there are not many such scenes in “The Lobster” there are some so I would not recommend this movie (just to be on the safe side).

What is “The Lobster”

The Lobster

Many years ago, I was excited to attend the Dallas premiere of “Kiss Of The Spiderwoman” the excellent movie adaptation about men who come to deeply care for each other in a Latin American prison. Well, many of the other people attending apparently felt it was a movie about the Marvel super-heroine Spider-Woman and left the theater well before the movie got going.

So, I think “The Lobster” is a profound and important movie, but that, in some of the same ways, it may be an uncomfortable movie to watch and many might turn away or leave the theater.

I suspect some people will not enjoy it because it is told in the format of a surreal parable. We have been so trained to view linear and traditional narrative styles that even well-intentioned and brilliant people are put off by some of the best available tools to the ironist.

Of course, others might not enjoy it because it’s brutal political and societal depictions hit way too close to home. At times, I found the movie disturbing and even upsetting, sometimes painful to watch. But, I suspect that was because I felt connected to those characters through devices that were fictional but real enough to create discomfort.

Okay, the basic plot of “The Lobster” goes something like this:

The protagonist (Colin Farrell) is part of a dystopian mainstream society, strangely similar to ours in many ways, that believes that every person of age must be married.

This edict (mandating societal marriage) is so much a part of this societies legal norms that any single person (no matter how or why you become single) is expected to deliver themselves to a hotel where they are each given 45 days to find a mate. If, after the 45 day period, they have not found a mate they are turned (through a suggested but never seen but apparently real scientific or magical process) into the animal of their choosing.

Many commentators have suggested that this a metaphor for social norms in favor of traditional marriage and, to some extent, this is true. However, I think this goes to far, it is very underinclusive.

Oh, and just as an FYI, the protagonist (Farrell) tells the registration folks at the hotel that, if he fails to procure a mate, he wants to be turned into a Lobster (because they have a long lifespan and because he loves the sea).

The Disciplinary Power Of Social Norms

Colin Farrell

IMHO This is really a movie about the inherent violence of social norms and about the violence always present on the other side of “community” but it is also, in the end, a love story.

The Lobster suggests that communities, norms, and laws are always certainly about creating connections but they are also always about protecting those connections and about establishing the guidelines for when it is okay to be violent (or awful) to other human beings.

It is about how the “fear of difference” within social groupings functionally operates to discipline society and brutalize all of its members.

First, the pre-requisite for marriage in this dystopia is not heterosexual desire or indeed even love as we know it. While every person is required to meet someone that they “love” in the hotel, there are strict rules and very different about what constitutes love.

Love in The Lobster is defined not be desire, attraction, or intimacy, it is defined instead by genetic similarities. People with a limp marry other people with a limp. and people with a tendency towards nose bleeds marry other people with a similar tendency towards nose bleeds.

Second, the primary mover in changing the deck chairs on this particular fascist Titanic appears to be bureaucracy and simple human cruelty as much as enforcement of violence by Government edict.

When Colin’s character David arrives at the hotel he is asked if he prefers women or men. He decides he is not entirely certain and asks the clerk if he can register as bi-sexual? The clerk responds that they stopped allowing that option “last year.”

Third, the biggest crime in this society (outside of being single) is being unaccompanied. Every aspect of isolation is punished severely. When Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), one of David’s “friends” at the hotel is caught by the hotel’s personnel masturbating, he is forced – in a public display – to put his bare fingers directly on the heating coils of a toaster as the toaster is turned on. Whenever you see police, they question people primarily because they are alone.

At the same time, if a partner chooses to leave their partner and be with a different person only the partner who is left alone is responsible for finding a new mate (or ultimately choosing a new animal form to inhabit). The only important social currency is being a part of a successful coupling. If your partner dies or leaves you for another coupling, you have no recourse except to find a new partner or become an animal.

In addition, a perfectly acceptable justification for leaving your partner is discovering that your partner has been “faking” about their “love.”

In other words, if someone learns that their partner does not truly share the same genetic similarity (limping, great hair, being short-sighted, or having sociopathic tendencies) it appears not only a choice but perhaps a duty to split from that mate. Psychopathy is even permitted and even expected (if your “love” is based around mutual psychopathy).

In other words, the society is self-policing because once paired, couples are never alone. All social norms and mechanisms of disciplinary power are set up to enforce this lack of privacy (often through brutal means). In this way, I think “The Lobster” is making a very pointed and direct argument about the importance of privacy in freedom. But this dark comedy does not stop with the violent norms of the dominant society in this world.

Meet The Loners

Rachel Weisz

In this surreal society, the counterpoint to mating is joining a separate but distinct group of people who have run into the forest in order to join up with a group called “The Loners.”

What the movie demonstrates, as much as anything else is that rebellions are often just as fascist (if not more fascist) than the societies that they spring from.

“The Loners” have a similarly rigid social structure built entirely in diametric opposition to the dominant culture. The biggest crime you can commit in “The Loners” is trying to be “with” anyone. If you are caught flirting your lips are cut in something called the “red kiss.” If you try to have sex, you will have your genitals mutilated before being forced to have sex while damaged (You can, however, masturbate as much as you want).

“The Loners” even dance alone. In one of the funnier moments of the movie (and it is a comedy) David is told, “Loners dance alone, that is why we only listen to electronic music.” The dominant society enforces togetherness and the rebel society enforces a society whose members are always “alone together.”

Once David runs away from the dominant society and joins the loners he falls deeply in love with a loner who is never given an official name (the cast breakdown online calls her short-sighted woman because they believe what connects them is that they are both near-sighted). To carry out their forbidden love, they create a whole language of intimate glances and gestures.

The leader of The Loners (Lea Seadoux) is the very essence of a cruel bureaucrat. When she finds out that David (who is short-sighted and wears glasses) and “short-sighted woman” (Rachel Weisz) are having a relationship (after reading SSW’s diary without permission) she tries to destroy their “love” by destroying their similarity. She schedules SSW to sneak into town and have her short-sightedness “cured” but actually has her blinded instead (theoretically destroying the “love” between the David and SSW by destroying the similarity between them).

But, it turns out that despite The Leader’s best efforts to make their love impossible, David and SSW still love each other. And here is where the true horror of the violence of norms is revealed. David and SSW escape and have decided to stay together, but either in order to survive in a society that thinks “same = love” or because they themselves still believe it is similarity that defines love.

After the escape, the two lovers sit down at a restaurant, David takes the knife from the table and tells SSW he is going to go to the bathroom to blind himself (presumptively using the dinner knife).

Ultimately, he had to leave the society insisting love was about similarities to find someone similar that he loved. Ultimately, because he loved someone he met in a society so much, he would sacrifice fundamental parts of himself to become same.

While he is in the bathroom, and SSW is waiting at the table, the screen goes dark. I suspect to tell one last joke, in the future, we will only see them as they see each other. The winners in this story are the blind couple because, in the end, despite the wreckage all around them, they have each other (even in darkness).

See, it’s a love story.

Addiction: What Lessons Did I Learn

Leave it to me to write thousands of words about everything but addiction on my addiction blog. I did think this movie had some interesting commentary that gave me some insight into my own struggles.

First, I don’t have to invest emotionally in the shame that society manufactures to maintain it’s hegemony. Yes, when I do things that hurt other people I should feel ashamed. But, being different in and of itself, is not something to feel ashamed about.

I already mentioned the incident with the toaster, but the hotel guests are allowed to “extend” their stays by going hunting for the Loners. If a hotel guest shoots a loner with a tranquilizer dart (who will be subsequently turned into an animal) they are allowed an extra day at the hotel (before being turned into an animal). The toaster, the blinding, and the hunting are all examples of how we often willingly participate in the structures of shame that wound us deeply.

“The Lobster” does a spectacular job of mocking the so-called logic of social norms. There are several times when a character will say something entirely logical only to have another character say “That’s absurd.” This is another example of how social proof is used to enforce the cruel logic of groups.

We do have to be responsible for our actions but we do not have to blind ourselves to be part of a group (or if we do, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to belong to any group that would have me as a member but only at the price of blinding myself).

We can choose to participate in the rules of the society (David blinds himself to stay with SSW) but we should not do so out of shame.

Second, not everything can be broken down to discrete and controllable measurements. Love is not a chemical formula (or at least not one we understand). This does not mean that all “love” is permissible or desirable, in fact, much of what is shown as “love” in The Lobster is not “love” at all (there is a great, if cruel, sequence, for example, where the Loners go on missions to ruin the “love” matches at the hotel).

I know as a sex addict, I spent most of my life confusing sex with love just like the people at the hotel confused genetic similarity as love. For me, what the movie seems to have at its heart, is that love is that indefinable something that makes you empathic and gentle towards someone else. It is about caring about someone enough to blind yourself in the face of social absurdism.

I will try to take that message forward.

Oh, obviously the movie is about not being cruel to each other. As addicts, we are incredibly cruel to ourselves and others can be cruel to us. Maybe a takeaway is that we don’t have to be to others (or to ourselves) the way that others are to us.

Did you see The Lobster? What did you think? Let me know what you thought, leave a comment!


2 thoughts on ““The Lobster,” Addiction, Love, and Social Norms

    1. Mark,

      It is a very surreal film, but if you enjoy that kind of thing (and I do), it is very well done.

      Thanks for the kind words, it has been nice to connect with you as well!


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