In the mid-20th century, two major European academic thinkers, Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, had the important insight that the way we understand certain words depends not so much on any meaning they themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite' or, as they called it 'binary opposite'. They realised that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words, therefore, was a relationship rather than a fixed thing: a relationship between opposing ideas.
Binary oppositions are sets of opposite values which reveal the structure of media texts. Levi-Strauss was not so interested in looking at the order in which events were arranged in the text, he looked instead for the deeper arrangement of themes.
Levi-Strauss’ theory is successfully used in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) where we see many binary opposites including life/death, movement/ stillness, freedom/ restriction, future/past, expression/repression and courage/fear.
Fear/Courage - We are first introduced to gilberts mum in their family home where fear is lurking in that house, with no one wanting to go into the basement. We see her sitting on the sofa with the voiceover saying “she hasn’t left the house in 7 years.” This conveys her fear about leaving her home and suggests that there’s a reason for her entrapment. We later find out that she is ashamed of what she has become and afraid of what people will think of her now. Her facial expression and her shaky voice connote that she is afraid. She also fears for Arnie and his safety throughout the film.
All this is then brushed aside when we find out that Arnie has been taken in to the police station. Mama’s fear has been overcome and replaced by courage. She marched in and demands her son to be given back to her also referring to the police officer’s first name showing how serious she is being. She bangs her hand on the counter, showing how much she cares for her boy, and we see her as being courageous, as for these few minutes, Mama had forgotten about her physical shape and her main priority has become her son's wellbeing.
Movement/Stillness – The film begins with Gilbert’s stillness while we see the passing camper vans. His stillness is represented throughout the film as his voiceover talks about how his brother “got away” and that he is stuck at home as he has taken over the role of ‘father’ within the Grape household. Gilbert’s overall character is quite emotionless and shows no expression or tone in his speech and is afraid to speak out and is very reserved.
His contrasting character is Becky who is full of movement. We always see her riding her bicycle around the town and always has a bright smile on her face. Becky is much more forward than Gilbert and we see that it is her that makes the first move to kiss him. Her constant movement shows that Becky is a happy person and wants to light up Gilbert’s indifferent personality. Her constant movement seems to be one of the only things in Endora that actually does move a lot and presents a positive tone wherever she goes.
Freedom/Restriction – Gilbert is restricted as to where he can go in Endora and we see when he tries to leave he reaches the sign saying ‘You are leaving Endora’ but is forced to turn around because a part of him is trapped there. The family themselves are also trapped in their own home as well as Endora. The home is a nest of bad memories that keeps the family tied to the house, especially Mama. This restriction meant that the rest of the family had to stay and look after Mama and they couldn’t go out and experience life as a teenager.
Becky represents freedom with her bicycle, fashion and camper van. Her bicycle enables her to be able to go wherever she pleases, her fashion is her own and very different to that of any of the other residents of Endora suggesting that Becky is her own person and is free and her camper van connotes that she travels a lot which links back to her freedom.
The closing scene also shows the freedom that both Gilbert and Arnie now have, they are going to begin afresh as well as both of their sisters. This freedom is the film’s happy ending as we see the troubles that they were faced with have all disappeared.