“The Double” (Addendum): Doubling, Shame, and Body Dysmorphia

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

As a member of a movie discussion group, I often see films that I would ordinarily be entirely unaware of. The week after posting my blog on “The Double,” I saw Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki). The film concerns a young woman, Sofie, who does not have any real social life, but rather devotes herself to work. The reason for this appears to be given in her offhand remark early in the film that she is not beautiful. Beauty is a recurring theme in the film. For example, the titular character, Howl, at one point claims that he doesn’t want to live if he can’t be beautiful. Sophie is transformed into a severely overweight, old woman. She gazes at her mirror image in dismay at this transformation. The change is caused by a curse from Howl’s former love interest—the Witch of the Waste–who has lost her beauty, growing morbidly obese (her name in English clearly involves a pun on “waist”).

The film includes various sorts of doubling. At one point, Howl takes on the appearance of a particular king as a disguise. This is reminiscent of the Zeus and Indra cases, except that Howl does it to protect a woman rather than to seduce her. This is, obviously, a doubling in which two different persons appear in identical bodies. There is also a prince who appears as an unspeaking scarecrow, which may suggest the dead version of the self stressed by Rank—though, appropriately for the film’s younger audience, the death motif is very much underplayed, and the prince is restored at the end anyway. Though it stretches the use of the term somewhat, the change in the Witch of the Waste could be viewed as a sort of doubling also, one in which the bodily self alters so much that we might be tempted to say that the person is no longer recognizable.

The doublings all involve the relation between one’s first-person sense of oneself and one’s third-person sense of others. In addition, they bring into play one’s idea of other people’s third-person sense of oneself. This is clearest in reference to beauty. To say one is or is not beautiful is usually to say, in part, that one’s bodily appearance to others is or is not beautiful for them. Again, it is the sense of other people’s disgust at oneself that triggers shame. Shame can be moral, intellectual, related to personality, and so on. It can also bear on one’s physical presence and appearance. In this last case, it commonly manifests itself as body dysmorphia (see chapter three of Giles)—a distortion of one’s bodily self-image, a distortion that highlights or even imagines (what one takes to be) aversive features and downplays or even occludes (what one takes to be) attractive features. This is just what happens with Sofie, as she is “cursed” with being an overweight, old woman. The curse is in effect a metaphor for her own dysmorphia, and both last until she and her borderline dysmorphic beloved, Howl, are united at the end of the movie.

One difficulty with treating body dysmorphia and age is that it could lead to ageism. Fortunately, the film avoids this problem. As my fellow film-group members stressed in discussion, the old Sofie is quite a strong, self-confident agent. Indeed, she is far more active than the young Sofie, Perhaps this is precisely because she is no longer focused on her appearance. As Rorty and Wong explain, “Someone with a low sense of somatic self-confidence”—as appears to be the case with young Sofie—“can feel alienated or unimpowered, act in a tentative and anxious way, limit her desires, avoid confrontational situations, expect failure, and so on” (21). This is exactly what we see with the young Sofie at the start of the film.

In short, this film reinforces some points of my earlier post. What is more important, it leads us to see some aspects of literary doubling—and of shame—that are consistent with those earlier points, but I had not even begun to articulate.


Works Cited

Flanagan, Owen and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, eds. Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Giles, David. Psychology of the Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Miyazaki, Hayao, dir. Howl’s Moving Castle. Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 2005.

Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg and David Wong. “Aspects of Identity and Agency.” In Flanagan and Rorty, 19–36.