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Exploring Deviance in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) is a film that unfolds the main characters’ deviant behaviors as they involve themselves with addiction that ended in tragedy. The setting is the simple, well-kept Brooklyn apartment of elderly widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn). On the right, her son Harry (Jared Leto) unplugs the television and asks his mother for the keys to the padlock, chaining it to the radiator; on the left, Sara, her nerves frayed from having seen this event play out too often, retreats into the bathroom only to throw out the keys to her son. Both characters are addicts in one way or another, and this scene sets out their respective lives: for Sara, lonely since the death of her husband, it’s television, whereas Harry gets off on heroin and needs to pawn his mother’s beloved set for them to buy more drugs. Harry, with his friend Tyron (Marlon Wayans), and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), soon get involved with the drug business, and their lives go downward spiral. They get horribly derailed by their sudden incapacity to buy the pure heroin they have been dealing in and living by. On the other hand, Sara’s viewing habits sends her addicted to diet pills as she watches noisy game shows all day and soon loses her mind. In this paper, we will relate the deviant behaviors of the characters in this film to some of the most relevant theories that explain these types of behaviors.

Like Aronofsky’s fast hallucination sequences, scenes played out in an accelerated blur with dialogue slowed down to a growl, the characters are displaying their deviant behaviors until they rapidly fall down beyond redemption. Even though there may be some factors related to deviant behavior at the individual level, the majority of delinquency researchers believe it would be a mistake to ignore social and environmental factors in trying to understand the cause of such misbehavior (Messner & Rosenfeld 1994, p. 11). Most criminals might be indigent and desperate, not calculating or evil. Most grew up in deteriorated parts of town and lacked the social support and economic resources familiar to more affluent members of society. But in Harry, Sara, Tryon, and Marion’s case, their act is more than the issue of economic aspects: all of the characters have issues with addiction and absurdly thinks that it is their key to better lives, although their “wants” can be achieved by normal means. Thus, to understand these characters’ criminal behavior, we need a closer analysis as to what influenced them to involve in the destructive social forces that affect human behavior.

Experts who have a social or sociological orientation have studied criminal cases concerning social change and the dynamic aspects of human behavior. They found out that changing cultural norms and institutions could somehow affect individual and group behavior. In our postmodern society, there has been a reduction in the influence of the family and an increased emphasis on individuality, independence, and isolation. Most significantly, the weakened family ties have been linked to crime and delinquency (Howes & Markman 1989, p. 1044). Political unrest and mistrust, economic stress, and family disintegration are social changes that have been found to precede sharp increases in crime rates. Conversely, stabilization of traditional social institutions typically precedes crime rate declines (LaFree, 1998).

In the case of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Sara has become lonely since the death of her husband and has taken refuge in watching television. This probably made her neglect guiding her son, who has also taken in heroin addiction. Because they do not have enough money, Harry steals in order to satisfy his craving for heroin. According to Robert Merton, one of America’s preeminent sociologists, although most people share common values and goals, the means for legitimate economic and social success are stratified by socioeconomic class. Without acceptable means for obtaining success, individuals feel the social and psychological strain; Merton called this condition anomie. Consequently, these youths may either (1) use deviant methods to achieve their goals (for example, stealing money) or (2) reject socially accepted goals and substitute deviant ones (for example, becoming drug users or alcoholics). Feelings of anomie or strain are not typically found in the middle- and upper-class communities, where education and prestigious occupations are readily obtainable. In lower-class areas, however, strain occurs because legitimate avenues for success are closed. Considering the economic stratification of U.S. society, anomie predicts that crime will prevail in lower-class culture, which it does (Schmalleger, 2006).

Schmalleger (2006) explained that Merton’s anomie, or strain, the theory was originally a structural theory focusing on the effect of cultural change and inequality. Given the focus of more recent theories, it was perhaps predictable that criminologists would attempt to find ways to bring strain to the personal level. Theories emerged during the 1980s and 1990s to do just that. One of the known contemporary versions of strain theory is the result of the work of Robert Agnew. In his version, Agnew explained that the traditional strain theories look at positively valued goals. In addition to what Merton contributed, Agnew asserted that another ingredient should be added: the avoidance of painful (or negative) situations. Just as an individual’s goals can be blocked, so can the ability to avoid undesirable situations or stressful life events. For instance, if Sara had attended a psychiatrist to deal with her depression or Harry was admitted to be rehabilitated for his heroin addiction, then they might have avoided the undesirable situations that they experienced in the film.

According to Broidy and Agnew (1997), the General Strain Theory (GST) identifies three major sources of strain: the failure to achieve positively valued goals, the loss of positively valued stimuli, and the presentation of negative stimuli. The first type of strain includes three subtypes: the failure to achieve aspirations or ideal goals, the failure to achieve expectations, and the failure to be treated in a just/fair manner. Classic strain theories focus exclusively on the failure to achieve aspirations. In particular, these focus on the inability of individuals and groups to achieve the culturally defined goals of monetary success, middle-class status, or both. GST, then, significantly broadens the scope of strain theory. It examines a broad range of goals–goals that derive from the cultural system as well as those that are existentially based. And, it considers types of strain other than goal blockages, such as the loss of positive stimuli like friends and romantic partners and the presentation of negative stimuli like excessive demands and verbal/sexual/physical abuse.

Furthermore, Broidy & Agnew (1997) identified the differences in types of strain that could be helpful in explaining gender differences in crime. The greater emphasis of males on material considerations and the greater financial stress of males may explain their higher rates of property crime. Like in the film, Harry and Tyron are involved in the drug business because they want to settle with their girlfriends and have better lives. Corollary to females, they sometimes steal to finance their social activities or to provide assistance to their families. However, the emphasis of females on ties to others and on procedural justice may help explain their lower rates of serious violence and property crime. Such a crime may be an effective way to obtain money or punish others, but it is a less effective vehicle for establishing ties to others or achieving procedural justice. The failure to achieve relational or justice goals, however, may be conducive to more self-destructive forms of illegitimate behavior, like drug use and eating disorders. Likewise, the other forms of strain more often experienced by females are not conducive to serious violent and property crime. With the exception of some types of gender discrimination, these strains involve excessive social control and a restriction of criminal opportunities. It is difficult to engage in serious violent and property crime when one spends little time in public, feels responsible for children and others, is burdened with the demands of others, and is under much pressure to avoid behaving in an aggressive manner. These types of strain, however, pose few barriers to self-destructive forms of behavior like drug use and criminal behavior compatible with female gender roles–like shoplifting. In fact, the above types of strain may foster such forms of deviance. Drug use, for example, allows females to “manage” their negative emotions without directly harming others. Minor property crime may allow females to finance social activities or better meet the demands of others. In the film, Marrion gets involved with a sex party to help her boyfriend, while Sara gets addicted to diet pills because she wants to join a game show to be famous and help her son to get rid of his drug problem.

In the same vein, GST contends that what links strain to crime are the negative emotions individuals experience in response to strain. GST argues that strain increases one’s level of negative affect, leading to emotions such as depression, anger, and frustration. These emotions, being unpleasant, create pressure for corrective action. Crime is one possible response. According to GST, the emotional reactions of anger and frustration are especially important because they increase the likelihood of a criminal response. As Agnew (1992) stated, anger energizes the individual for action, lowers inhibitions, and creates a desire for retaliation/revenge. GST might explain the lower rate of female crime by arguing that females are more likely to respond to strain with depression rather than anger (p. 59-60). Just like Sara, who gets addicted to television after the loss of her husband. As Mirowsky and Ross (1995) pointed out, it has been argued that women “respond to stressors with somewhat different emotions than men… men get angry and hostile–women get sad and depressed” (pp. 449, 451). Also, GST categorizes the types of oppression or strain that individuals experience and argues that oppressed individuals may turn to crime in an effort to reduce their strain or manage the negative emotions associated with their strain.

Another theory that might explain the deviant behaviors exhibited in Requiem for a Dream is Farrington’s Theory of Delinquency Development. In the studies conducted by David P. Farrington and Donald J. West, they have shown that there is far greater diversity in the ages of resistance than in the ages of onset of criminal behavior. In 1982, in an effort to explain the considerable heterogeneity of developmental pathways, Farrington and West began tracking a cohort of 411 boys born in London in 1953. The study, known as the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, is ongoing. It uses self-reports of delinquency as well as psychological tests and in-depth interviews. To date, participants have been interviewed eight times, with the earliest interviews being conducted at age 8. The Cambridge study reveals that life-course patterns found in the United States are also characteristic of English delinquents. Farrington found that the study’s persistent offenders suffered from “hyperactivity, poor concentration, low achievement, and antisocial father, large family size, low family income, a broken family, poor parental supervision, and parental disharmony” (Farrington, 2000).

Other risk factors for delinquency included harsh discipline, negative peer influences, and parents with offense histories of their own. Chronic offenders were found to have friends and peers who were also offenders, and offending was found to begin with early antisocial behavior, including aggressiveness, dishonesty, problems in school, truancy, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and restlessness. Consistent with other resistance studies, Farrington found that offending tends to peak around the age of 17 or 18 and then declines. By age 35, many subjects were found to have assumed conforming lifestyles, although they were often separated or divorced with poor employment records and patterns of residential instability. Many former offenders were also substance abusers and consequently served as very poor role models for their children. The Theory of Delinquency Development can veritably explain the delinquent behaviors of Harry, Tyron, and Marion. Since they are at a young age and has dysfunctional families, they have involved themselves fully in their peers, and their values have been misaligned them to commit all sorts of crime just to satisfy their heroin addiction.

Lastly, an important theory that may also contribute to fully understand the deviant behaviors of characters in the film is the Social Control Theory. According to Charles R. Tittle (2000), a prominent sociologist at Washington State University with a specialty in crime and deviance, social control theories emphasize “the inhibiting effect of social and psychological integration with others whose potential negative response, surveillance, and expectations regulate or constrain criminal impulses” (p. 65). In other words, social control theorists seek to identify those features of the personality and the environment that keep people from committing crimes, as Tittle observes. However, social control theorists take a step beyond static aspects of the personality and physical features of the environment in order to focus on the process through which social integration develops. It is the extent of a person’s integration with positive social institutions and with significant others that determines that person’s resistance to criminal temptations; social control theorists focus on the process through which such integration develops. Rather than stressing causative factors in criminal behavior, however, social control theories tend to ask why people actually obey rules instead of breaking them. Since the youths in the film have no positive integration in their social environment, they continually steal and commit misdemeanors because no institutions or superiors are controlling them.

All the three theories – General Strain, Delinquent Development, and Social Control – have all aspects that can explain the deviant behaviors of all the characters in the film Requiem for a Dream. However, it seems the General Strain Theory (GST) encompasses all the other theories because it also explains the deviant behavior of Sara. The other three could only fit the deviant behaviors displayed by Harry, Tyron, and Marion. More importantly, the GST differentiates how women develop deviant behaviors as opposed to how men imbibe them. This is especially important to understand the characters of Sara and Marion in the film. They are not essentially committing crimes, but they are developing these deviant behaviors because of either depression or their desire to assist their loved ones. Many studies about the GST indicate that females are more likely to report and be affected by network events than are males, with such events including the loss of family members and friends. Further, females often find it difficult to engage in such behavior they may value. Females face certain barriers when it comes to participation in certain social settings and entering certain areas of the city–particularly when unaccompanied and at certain hours of the day. Females also face certain barriers when it comes to behavior at work and behavior among family members, friends, and others. These barriers affect virtually every aspect of one’s life, including appearance, conversation, physical and emotional expression, and sexual behavior. Essentially, GST is the most all-encompassing in this aspect, and it best explains all the characters’ deviant behaviors in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.


Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency. Criminology 30: 47-87.

Aronofsky, D. (dir.). (2000). Requiem for a Dream.

Broidy, L. and Agnew, R. (1997). “Gender and crime: a general strain theory perspective. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34(3): 275-307.

Farrington, D.P. (2000). Explaining and Preventing Crime: The Globalization of Knowledge: The American Society of Criminology 1999 Presidential Address, Criminology, 38(1): 1-24.

Howes, P. & Markman, H. (1989). Marital Quality and Child Functioning: A Longitudinal Investigation, Child Development 60: 1044–1051.

LaFree, G. (1998). Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America, Boulder, CO: Westview.

Messner S. & Rosenfeld R. (1994). Crime and the American Dream, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Mirowsky, J. and Ross, C.E. (1995). Sex Differences in Distress: Real or Artifact? American Sociological Review 60:449-68.

Schmalleger, F. (2006). Criminology Today: An Integrative Introduction, 4th ed. NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Tittle, C.R. (2000). Theoretical Developments in Criminology,” in National Institute of Justice, Criminal Justice 2000, Vol. 1, The Nature of Crime: Continuity and Change (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2000), p. 65.

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