Friday, 6 July 2007

Since I'm holding forth on movie heroes (Rocky B.)

I also saw (before I left for England) the lastest Rocky Balboa movie. I got to thinking about the type of hero/person Rocky is meant to represent, and it made me think of an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance."

I think this episode was from season two. Anyway, the story is: this kid (bad dancer) is auditioning for the second year in a row to be on the show. His mother is in tow at the audition. He does his piece and gets reamed by one of the judges (stern British guy), who tells him point blank that he will never be a dancer. At this point, the mother gets up and yells at the judge that her son can be anything he wants to be - if he works hard enough, he will be a good dancer. She seems to believe this to be true - passionately, hysterically. Her son, perhaps, believes it as well.

Now, this example is laughable, but it brings up an interesting philosophy of American culture. Do we really think that we can do anything we want to do? My parents certainly told me that when I was young, even though we were not wealthy or well-connected. The idea seemed to be that through work and committment one could acheive anything.

Now, I don't believe in a truly Aristotelian argument - that people are born with certain talents and should pursue careers that fit them (he also famously said that certain people are born to be slaves). I do think that humans have the ability to learn things and change the way their minds and bodies work. I also believe, however, that some things require a lifetime of shaping, a lifetime of particular opportunities and particular practice (supposedly, we acquire the ability to be tone hearing -as opposed to tone deaf- within the first year of our life). The 'good' dancers on that show, for example, had lessons and teachers and recitals and diets and expensive lycra bodysuits. They probably had these things for most of their lives, and the access to these things is what has conditioned them to have an aptitude for dancing. As the show proved, one cannot (barring extreme talent for a thing) simply self-teach for a year or two and become good.

Yet somehow this guy and his mother firmly believed in the philosophy of hard work and gain. This brings me back to Rocky, another person who, I think, embodies this philosophy. Rocky is not a smart guy. He is a bit naive about a lot of things. I think of the scene where he begs the council to let him have a boxing license - the council is acting on behalf of his bodily health, but he insists that his body is his own to govern, even if he destroys it in pursuit of his goals. He firmly believes that, with enough training, he can turn himself into the fighting machine he used to be. Though Rocky barely survives the fight, the movie ultimately, unfortunately, perpetuates this philosophy, that hard work will get you whatever you want, that hard work can transform you into someone else.

This philosophy is a flaw in American thinking. It is connected to the myth of self-reliance (that you can boot-strap your own way from poverty to wealth, invisibility to fame, fat to skinny, ugly to beautiful, etc.), and it may be why some Americans are so unhappy and overworked. How many movies do we see in which the above transformation is successful? How often do we blame ourselves for laziness or lack of committment when in actuality we are working ourselves to death in search of the unattainable?

I am also not advocating that we stop working, or become lackadaisical with ourselves. I still believe in our ability to change and grow. But I do think that a movie like Rocky Balboa and its promotion of this American 'just work harder' philosophy obfuscates the reality of disparate wealth and access in our country. It is a fact that people who are born into wealth have more opportunities than people who are born into poverty. It follows as well that the wealthy, because of their access from birth to these opportunities, will seem more 'talented' at their chosen profession/hobby, on average, than their less well-off peers. We do not all start off on an equal playing field. And the equal playing field is what we should all be working towards, lest our younger generations face our same feeling of dismay, exhaustion, and confusion that can only be felt after an unsuccessful fight between one's forehead and a brick wall.

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