Cleopatra is one of the most iconic characters of Ancient history. Her unparalleled beauty, intelligence, and political acumen have been the main reasons why she has been remembered as one of the most influential characters in our collective conscious. Given her fierce independence, she has been pegged as a femme fatale. Her life has become a myth where her beauty treatments are symbols of extravagance: the most popular one is probably her daily baths with goat milk. As it happens with Cleopatra, beauty and evil often merge when speaking about strong female characters.
In films and in theater there are no random coincides. The set and costume designs, the props, the movement of the cameras, and the usage of light are carefully placed to give meaning to a movie. For instance, there's a huge difference between a character drinking water or beer. These small and subtle elements can be used to define a character and give another layer of meaning to the plot. Throughout the history of cinema, these subtleties have acquired meanings that filmmakers keep using to convey a set of ideas. The one that has intrigued audiences the most, is the meaning behind adult characters drinking milk.
This beverage is usually associated with the most endearing, innocent, and tender time of our lives: childhood. This is why watching a despicable, adult drinking milk is always unsettling and visually striking. It may sound far-fetched, but scenes with adults drinking beer or wine aren't as powerful as when they drink milk.
In the video Milk in Movies: Why Do Characters Drink It? by Now You See It, explained that milk can represent the innocence of characters. The best example is Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can: this young man is pretending to be a professional pilot, but his facade is compromised when he asks the stewardess for a glass of milk before taking off.
Showing an evil adult drinking a glass of milk also represents evil consuming or destroying innocence. Let's focus on one of the most iconic scenes of 21 century cinema: the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino. Here, the nazi colonel Hans Landa of the SS is offered a glass of wine which he rejects; instead, he kindly asks for a glass of milk to prove his power over the French farmer. In his mastery essay Wine and Milk, Roland Barthes explains that:
"Its purity, associated with the innocence of the child, is a token of strength, of a strength which is not revulsive, not congestive, but calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality [...]. Some American films, in which the hero, strong and uncompromising, did not shrink from having a glass of milk before drawing his avenging Colt."
Classic cinema has shown its heroes drinking milk as a sign of purity; however, nowadays the antiheroes and villains are the ones who consume this pure beverage. It's evil defeating the good, the denial of innocence, and the loss of what makes us human, all represented in that white liquid. Adults drinking milk represent a transgression of social and moral values.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, the presence of fluids is essential for the development of the plot. This movie presents a dystopia where women are used to massively produce breast milk, which the strongest men of the community still drink to remain strong and healthy. Moreover, healthy men become "blood bags" that nurture young soldiers in the dictator's army. The constant references to liquids represent the population's fear of water shortage. Milk is even used to show Max's transformation. When saving Furiosa, he washes his hands in milk, representing the way he redeems his sins and approaches redemption.
Simple and subtle actions like drinking milk symbolize purity being defeated by evil and the corruption of human beings. How many times have we seen a character drinking it without realizing its implications? Just think of Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem's character in No Country For Old Men, or Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, who says the legendary phrase "I drink your milkshake." Last but not least, we can't forget the famous opening scene of A Clockwork Orange, where we see Alex and his group chugging down a milk-like drink to show that even though they are just kids, they're capable of causing chaos.
The devil is in the details, or in this case, in milk.
Milk in Movies: Why Do Characters Drink It?
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards