This is the first of a series of posts exploring some of the ways the entertainment industry reinforces dominant (dispsitionist) conceptions of the human animal.
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Wikipedia defines the fundamental attribution error as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.” Since identifying it in the late 1960s, social scientists have added significantly to their understanding of the gap between why we behave as we do and why we think we behave as we do. We think we make choices based on the confluence of internal forces including our thinking, our preferring, and our willing – add a dash of personality, a pinch of character, a splash of the supernatural, and you have the key components for human behavior.
Science indicates, quite to the contrary, that those components are widely shared fictions. After thousands of studies and experiments, what becomes clear is that that the fundamental attribution error understates the vastness of that gap between perception and reality. We humans (particularly of the American variety) are more or less clueless regarding what is moving us. That is, the “situational” forces are far more numerous and subtle than we ever imagined. Similarly, the dispositionist reasons we offer or conjure up generally reflect our attempts to spin or make sense of our actions. We give reasons in an effort to make “reasonable” what often isn’t. We are, to use the jargon, situational characters caught in a dispositionist mindset and culture.
Where does this gorge between who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be come from? That dispositionist person schema has countless sources – including its own self-fulfilling effects on perception and construal. But one of the key tributaries from which the dispositionist river of individualism, personality, character, and choice are fed is the entertainment industry.
The December and January holiday box office is illustrative, with two of the more popular films, Rocky Balboa ($60 million gross) and The Pursuit of Happyness ($124 million gross–10th highest among films released in 2006), furnishing classic dispositional themes. Indeed, as the Rocky Balboa website promo announces: “The Greatest Underdog Story of Our Time . . . Is Back for One Final Round.” Now in his 50s, Rocky overcomes age, and the doubts and advice of everyone he knows, respects, and loves to take on (and, in effect, beat) the far younger, faster, stronger heavyweight champion of the world. And how, you might ask, does he manage this impossible feat? The answer is simple: an unwillingness to be moved by situation or, put differently, a tenacious will and unflinching disposition. In a speech to his son, Rocky himself explains his success (and, by implication, the success and failure others) with these spirit-rousing words:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very rough, mean place . . . and no matter how tough you think you are, it’ll always bring you to your knees and keep you there, permanently . . . if you let it. You or nobody ain’t never gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit . . . it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward . . . how much you can take, and keep moving forward. If you know what you’re worth, go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit.
We have an unlimited appetite that inspirational, dispositionist message, and the entertainment industry doesn’t tire of serving it up. The Fox News reviewer calls that speech “The most poignant and ultimately important scene in this humble film.” “That speech alone is worth the admission to ‘Rocky Balboa’ and makes the conclusion to the 30-year journey that Stallone let us share in worth the wait.” That’s saying something, particularly when you remember some of the earlier movies in the series.
Not feeling sufficiently inspired? Take a stroll to screen number 7. There you will find Chris Gardner, in The Pursuit of Happyness, dishing out a heaping helping of the same message. Looking over the cityscape with his four(ish)-year-old son, he admonishes:
You got a dream, you gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you that you can’t do it.You want something? Go get it. Period.
Nothing new here. Rocky powers through the steaming streets of Philadelphia while Gardner sprints the hilly boulevards of San Francisco. Balboa is figuratively hit by a truck (heavyweight champion Mason Dixon) in the ring, and gets up to keep fighting round after round. What drive! What a will! What a strong jaw! Gardner is literally knocked out of his shoes by a car. Still, for the sake of his dream – becoming a stockbroker – he jumps up and runs shoeless (but otherwise apparently fine) back to the “highly competitive” internship program at Dean Witter, as if nothing happened. What commitment! What character! What strong socks!
Both characters earn their success with more than simply pit-bull determination. They use their heads and exploit special training techniques to outsmart their less driven, less hungry competitors. Rocky’s coach, “Duke,” sums it up this way:
Duke: To beat this guy, you need speed. You don’t have any. Your knees are weak so no hard running. You’ve got neck arthritis and calcium deposits in most of your joints, so sparring is out.
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Duke: So what we’ll be callin’ on, is good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. Horse power. Heavy duty cast iron pile drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much it’ll rattle his ancestors. Everytime you hit him with a shot, it’s got to feel like he tried kissing the express train.
Duke: [cracks his neck] Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs.
Cue the trumpets – “doo dotadoo dotadoo dotadoo dotadoo . . .” – and roll the clips of bulging arms and barrel chest heaving beer kegs and flinging Russian kettle bells. “Feeling strong now . . .”
Gardner is no less resourceful, though perhaps a little less inspiring. To maximize his success as a glorified, cold-calling phone solicitor, he discovers he can save eight minutes per day by not hanging up the phone (vintage, 1970s) on the receiver – while his less motivated cohorts piss away seconds per call by lazily placing the handset onto the phone stirrups and then lifting the handset again. How does he pull this ingenious trick off? Gardner calls on his index finger to press the disconnect button while the handset stays firmly ensconced between shoulder and ear. Talk about using your head.
From wash-up to Heavyweight Champion of the World to “has been” and back. From broke and unpaid phone solicitor to multimillionaire stockbroker. Rock bottom to American dream. Rags to riches! Please tell me another.
Turns out, a “feel good” movie is one that assures us that we are who we want to believe we are — in control of our destiny no matter our situation. You want something? Go out and get what you’re worth. Go get it. Period.
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The next post in this series will explore whether, if anything, the message of those movies has anything to do with how we conceive of law and policy.
*****See also Part II of this Series.*****