What is it about?

Of course light is important in light -- without it, we wouldn't see anything. But light and dark are also often used metaphorically (some scholars would say: symbolically). In mainstream films, good people or creatures are often shown bathing in light, and also may wear white, or bright, clothes; by contrast, bad people or creatures are often shown in the shady, and in dressed in darker clothes. But this cliché does not always hold. For one thing, a director may mislead film viewers by reversing the LIGHT/DARK meaning. And light and dark are not only linked to goodness versus darkness, but also, for instance, to knowing versus not-knowing.

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Why is it important?

Lightness and darkness are phenomena that are highly significant to people. It is unsurprising that light is associated with good things, as light enables us to see, and thus to know things. If it is dark, we cannot see dangers, and we therefore feel unsafe. The associations we have with light and dark are thus rooted in biological survival mechanisms. The LIGHT/DARK metaphors may therefore be universal. It is important that we do not only analyse meaning that is governed by culture, but also meanings that are triggered by natural instincts.


Humanities research, particularly its Cultural Studies varieties, tends to insist that meanings are predominantly or even exclusively triggered by culture. It thereby concentrates on ways in which different (groups of) people understand things differently. It is vital that humanities research also examines where mechanisms of making meaning are probably universal. Such mechanisms are to be looked for in the fact that humans all over the globe have the same bodily needs and desires, and try to avoid whatever threatens their physical well-being. Unsurprisingly this "embodied cognition" is in turn used to structure more abstract meanings such as goodness and badness. This approach will help understanding what the famous sociobiologist Edward Wilson calls "gene-culture coevolution."

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: The GOOD IS LIGHT and BAD IS DARK metaphor in feature films, Metaphor and the Social World, December 2013, John Benjamins, DOI: 10.1075/msw.3.2.03for.
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