The Situationist

Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 20, 2007

rocky.jpgIn Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs. In Part II, we examined why the basic scripts for films like Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness–placing the individual in charge, making him sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to that person, while minimizing the role of the paternalistic and intermeddling “regulator” or “social program”–are the same foundational scripts employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today.

While these scripts are compelling, intuitive, and often affirming, social science indicates that they are upside-down. These scripts miss the power of the situation and how our schemas are primed to find (or imagine) causation and disposition in others’ behaviors and attitudes.

But there is no need to exhaustively review the social psychological evidence to make this point. All we have to do is go back to those same two films to see how, even by each movie’s own account, the bigger part of the story is about luck and situational forces that have little to do with the main character’s choices!

Remember back to the original Rocky — before it was known as Rocky I. Recall the setup. Rocky’s boxing career was done, finished, never having even reached the level of a has-been. Rock had hit bottom and found himself firmly anchored to a “never was” and more clearly, “never will be” status. Although Rocky may have shown flashes of talent as a boxer in previous years, and although he had a strong jaw and a never-broken nose when the story begins, he was also a second-rate club fighter who had just been thrown out of his locker, and his future seemed more intertwined with breaking legs for a small-time loan shark than with bustin’ face for the world title.

philly-market2.jpg Rocky was without assets, without family, without reliable friends, and without his youth. His best friend was a manipulative and self-serving alcoholic. Completely by fluke – owing nothing whatsoever to Rocky’s will, choices, preferences, or character, Apollo Creed, the world champion, arrives in Philadelphia to take on a challenger, who, at the last moment backs out because of an injury. It was to be a bicentennial bout, and canceling it was going to cost a lot of dough. Creed wanted a substitute – some local guy who the city might get behind but who posed no real threat. He thumbed through a book looking at names of local boxers and picked Rocky for one reason — a reason that had nothing to do with our hero’s talent, drive, intelligence, or merit. Creed selected Rocky simply because of his nickname, the “Italian Stallion.” The opportunity is as much the product of Rocky’s hard work as a lottery winner’s take can be attributed to good choices — more or less random luck.

Rocky MeatBut Rocky’s good fortune didn’t end there. When the opportunity arose, Rocky’s other options were bleak. At that moment, he had one foot into a dead-end life of low-level organized crime and thuggery. Had his alternative career options been more promising, the tiger’s eye may have remained dormant.

Pauly, who as friends go, left much be desired. But he happened to work at the slaughterhouse where Rock could spar against a warehouse full of bovine carcases. Rocky was also blessed to have an experienced trainer and manager, Mickey, who had immense knowledge of the sport and — owing to his age and his own star-crossed fighting career — something to prove. Mickey’s lessons were integral in Rocky’s battle with Creed.

Other sources of luck were Rocky’s idiosyncratic physical endowments. As five movies would demonstrate, Rocky had an unbreakable jaw. Rocky’s lackluster boxing skills rocky-apollo.jpgmeant that more punches landed, but his steel jaw absorbed blows that would have flattened most fighters. Similarly Rock was a south-paw, a factor that even Creed’s trainer worried about and that Mickey exploited. Fighters, if the movie is to be believed, expect power from the right side, and are taken by surprise when hammered from the southside. It was also plain luck that this aging pugilist didn’t pull a groin running steps, or break a finger glovelessly pounding cow cadavers , or otherwise injure himself from that unorthodox, treacherous, and full-on training regimen.

Rocky was also extremely lucky that his opponent, Creed, was himself situationally constrained — preoccupied as he was with the business side of the faux fight and unconcerned with the challenge Rocky posed. It’s a truism that being underestimated by one’s opponent is an enormous advantage.

Rocky and Adrian

Most important, at the very moment of Creed’s serendipitous selection, Rocky’s wooing of Adrian was just paying off. The growing mutual admiration between those two quirky and lonesome souls gave Rocky someone to impress, someone to show that he was more than he seemed. And as their love developed, Adrian provided Rocky confidence, inspiration, and someone who would be there for him win or lose.

In short, Rocky had all upside and no downside. Rocky’s situation created his disposition, not the other way around.

* * *

In our next post in this series, we will discuss the situational sources of Chris Gardner’s success.

*****See also Part I and Part II of this Series.*****


6 Responses to “Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III”

  1. […] need to go back to Part I and II, but I did just take a look at Part III of the “Promoting Dispositionism Through Entertainment” series. Before summarizing the […]

  2. […] Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III My post was lost here is a link to what Harvard Law thinks about scripts Explore posts in the same categories: […]

  3. […] The Situationist has an interesting report on how two feel-good movies, Rocky Balboa and The Pursuit of Happyness, are selling the American Dream, or promoting the idea of individual will and choice over our social environment.  Specifically in this case, the website argues that central to both movies is the idea that:- Laws, we’ve been told, particularly since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office, should facilitate choice – placing the individual in charge, making the consumer sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to the person, while minimizing the role of the collectivist, paternalistic, and intermeddling ‘regulator’ or ‘social program.’” […]

  4. Don Berg said

    What happened to Part IV?

  5. Don Berg said

    Since I cannot find the third part of this series to expose the situational factors that would have shaped the Pursuit of Happyness I will speculate on them instead.

    First you would probably look beyond the movie itself to the real story of Chris Gardner. The whole reason for the movie is his personal rags-to-riches American dream story. He goes from a homeless single parent to a successful stock broker. The question everyone wants to know is, how was that possible? If you believe the movie it was Chris Gardner’s unwavering commitment to taking care of his son and his ability to put up with the seemingly insurmountable circumstances in which he lived. The movie chooses to focus almost exclusively on the combination of the choices that Chris made that both got him into and out of a bad situation and the unreasonable, mindless, and/or uncaring actions of impersonal systems, like the government and parking in downtown San Francisco, that Chris had to overcome.

    What the movie de-emphasized were the situational factors that also contributed to both Chris’s downfall and subsequent rise beyond his previous station. Taking the movie at face value, Chris beat the odds and it was not an accident. There is no doubt that Chris was determined and made choices that influenced his life. The movie tells a certain kind of story and it only told that story. There is another story to be told here as well. It is the story of how the corporate interests that Chris is beholden to for his success also shaped his belief in and commitment to defining himself as a rags-to-riches story. His life could also be portrayed with equal drama as the corporate world redeems a lost soul. The story could also show how the corporate world reached down and heroically saved him from himself and his bad choices.

    The corporate system that Chris joined is one that is predicated on having winners and losers. Those who win deserve it, and those who lose deserve it, too. Only one person is chosen at the end of the stock brokers class. Every step of the way the system sets up a situation that makes it abundantly clear that if you win you only win because you deserve to win. If you lose it is because you are less able, less capable, and less worthy than the winner. The system is established to weed out losers.

    What is ignored in this view is the fundamental teaching of every wisdom tradition worthy of the name, that all life is sacred and worthy of honor and dignity. It is possible to set up systems of cooperative success, but that would require a different view of the world.

    In the corporate world dignity is not a human right, but a privilege to be earned. One of the special features of the DVD is instructive here. One of the elements that is brought out is the role of a homeless shelter that Chris frequented. The real Chris Gardner was adamant that the leader of the shelter is included in the movie. The movie even broke with normal filmmaking practice to hire the homeless to play as extras. And what they share is a comment by one homeless guy who was very moved by being given the opportunity to earn a check.

    If I get the situationist view correct, then in this story what Chris Gardner accomplished was not moral independence and empowered individuality in spite of the System. What Chris Gardner accomplished was to wholly give himself to the system. He gave them his time and energy in exchange for a lot of money, a really nice car, and the pride of putting to shame all those who do not measure up.

    The system drove him from start to finish and gave him a nice heroic story to teach the lesson of conformity to all those who wish to emulate his example.

    Chris Gardner was an ideal candidate for the system. He found himself in a situation when he had nothing to lose because he had nothing. He was at a low point, so the system of training that he plugged into did not have to bother with breaking him down, it just had to shape him in their image. And he is so grateful that he has brought them back a heroic tale that touchingly reinforces the system.

    Is that about right? Or am I missing something?

  6. jamie petersen said

    i love all of the rocky movies

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