Dr Margrethe Bruun Vaage’s main area of research is cognitive film theory. She explores the spectator's engagement with fictional films and television series, and more specifically the imagination, the emotions and the moral psychology of fiction. Her latest book is entitled The Antihero in American Television (Routledge). She has published widely in journals such as the British Journal of Aesthetics, Midwest Studies in Philosophy and Screen, as well as in The Routledge Encylopedia of Film Theory and anthologies such as Cognitive Media Theory and The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies.
She is currently the School Deputy Director of Graduate Studies (PGT).
She serves on the Board of Directors of The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, as well as the Editorial Board of Projections.
My area of specialisation is cognitive film theory, at the intersection between film theory, analytical philosophy, cognitive psychology and narratology. Thematically, my work focuses on the study of the imagination, the emotions, morality, spectator engagement, and fiction in both film and television.
In 2016 I published a monograph entitled The Antihero in American Television (Routledge, 2016). The antihero prevails in recent American drama television series. Characters such as mobster kingpin Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), meth cook and gangster-in-the-making Walter White (Breaking Bad) and serial killer Dexter Morgan (Dexter) are not morally good, so how do these television series make us engage in these morally bad main characters? And what does this tell us about our moral psychological make-up, and more specifically, about the moral psychology of fiction? In this book, I argue that the fictional status of these series deactivates rational, deliberate moral evaluation, making the spectator rely on moral emotions and intuitions that are relatively easy to manipulate with narrative strategies. Nevertheless, I also argue that these series regularly encourage reactivation of deliberate, moral evaluation. In so doing, these fictional series can teach us something about ourselves as moral beings—what our moral intuitions and emotions are, and how these might differ from deliberate, moral evaluation.
The main thesis in my PhD dissertation, Seeing is Feeling. On the Function of Empathy for the Spectator of Fiction Film, is that empathy, as feeling aspects of a character's experience, has an important function for the spectator of fiction film. The paper “Fiction Film and the Varieties of Empathic Engagement” sums up the major findings of the dissertation. Other parts of the dissertation are published as “Self-Reflection: Beyond Conventional Fiction Film Engagement” and as “The Role of Empathy in Gregory Currie’s Philosophy of Film”.
In 2018/19 I am convening the following modules:
ART508 “Transgressive Women” (3rd year): Films in certain genres, such as action film, are often gendered masculine, their powerful, active and typically violent male protagonists seen as representing masculinity. There is, however, also a long tradition of transgressive female protagonists in "male" genres, and this module investigates such characters. The female protagonist is often perceived as standing between the masculine and the feminine. Among the many questions triggered by transgressive female protagonists, this module explores whether this character can and should be perceived as feminist or merely as exploitative, and how and why such protagonists may appeal to a female audience in particular.
FI622 “Television series: narration, engagement and evaluation” (3rd year) explores storytelling in fictional television series. The module addresses how contemporary so-called Quality of complex television series are valued in critical reception, and we examine the implications of these labels. We investigate The Sopranos, The Wire, Orange is the New Black, The Good Place, Westworld and other series in an inquiry into the narrative and moral complexity of contemporary American television series.
Finally, I teach FI607, “Storytelling and the Cinema” (2nd year). Understanding a film involves making sense not only of its story, its events and actions, but also of its storytelling, of the way in which we come to learn of these events and actions. This module explores different forms of narration and storytelling in cinema, focusing on questions of structure, reliability and temporality. The psychological and aesthetic role of narrative is explored through a range of theories and analyses from within film studies as well as from psychology and philosophy in order to explore how the use of e.g., focalization, narrators, plot twists and irony can complicate our comprehension of and engagement with a film.
In the past I have also convened FI583 “National Cinema and Identity” (2nd year). We explored the very idea of national cinema as well as the concept ‘transnational cinema’ theoretically, and used Scandinavian cinema as a case study. We discussed questions such as these how an American genre such as a Western is appropriated in a Norwegian national context (as in Pathfinder), and the vampire film in a Swedish context (as in Let The Right One In), and the difference between the Swedish Lisbeth Salander and this character in David Finsher’s American remake of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo.
For several years I also taught FI812 “Advanced Film Theory”, a core module on our Film MA programme. In addition to giving a historical overview of film theory, we explored theories of spectator engagement specifically, and reflected on what film theory is and should be.
I supervise undergraduate or postgraduate students with projects in (analytical/cognitive) film theory, philosophy of film, television studies and narratology. I particularly welcome projects latching onto my own areas of specialisation, e.g., the study of the imagination, the emotions, morality, spectator engagement, and fiction both in film and television.