Friday, December 21, 2007

Rocky Balboa, outra crítica

Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment - Part I

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on February 20th, 2007

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.

* * *

blue-background-small.jpgWikipedia 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

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.rocky-balboa1.jpg

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 dixon-hits-balboa.jpgstrong
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.

. . .

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, hepursuit-of-happyness2.jpg 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.

* * *

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.*****

Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment - Part II

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 1st, 2007

Gardner and Balboa 4

In Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness
by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs.
We spend $10 per ticket and $8 per popcorn bucket to watch
more-or-less fictional stories of the downtrodden rise up through
sheer force of will and good life choices. Feels very satisfying.

We have an insatiable appetite for such stories, in part because they
tell us what we want to hear: anyone in this country can go from the
bottom to the top. No Excuse BookThe Horatio Alger story continues to
sell and sell and sell, because, to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, there is a
dispositionist situational character born every minute.

But does this sort of entertainment influence how we perceive law and
policy? Absolutely.

The basic scripts for Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness—just like
those for Rudy, Radio, Racing Stripes, Race the Sun, Raise Your Voice,
and that's just the "r"s—are the also the foundational scripts
employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today.
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." When the state and its laws simply facilitate individual
choice, we can be confident that those among us who are holding the
long straw drew well, while those stuck with the short straw chose badly.

So how does dispositionism explain inequality, poverty, and the
disappearing middle class? Easy: the less equal lack the will, the
commitment, the character, the drive, and the heart, of a champion.
The more equal pursue their happiness with the eye of the tiger. What
about credit problems that seem increasingly to plague so many
Americans? No problem: people lack the financial discipline to spend
wisely. If they would stop wasting their paycheck on plasma
televisions and $150 sneaker, maybe they'd have enough to pay their
rent. Okay, but whatTime Magazine Cover The War on Welfare Mothers
about the increasing national girth and the ill-health effects
associated with the obesity epidemic. Again, the answer can be found
in "choice" — specifically the good choices of the thin (but not too
thin) and the bad choices of the couch potatoes, video game players,
and everyone else too lazy to choose healthy.

Take any inequity or social problem, ask a dispostionist to explain
its existence, and you will almost certainly receive a
straightforward, pleasantly simplistic, choice-based explanation that
attributes most of the blame to the disadvantaged individual — or his
parents. And it is this perception of the person that has propelled
much of the late twentieth century's policy scripts of more markets
and less regulation, more freedom and lower taxes, more individualism
and less collectivism and state.

This person-schema/law-schema connection is explicit in both Rocky and
The Pursuit of Happyness. Consider that Rocky Balboa's biggest single
obstacle isn't his age, or his willingness to train, or even the
sincere doubts of his loved ones. No, it's those pesky government
bureaucrats who, at least initially, deny him his license to fight and
thus his "right" to pursue his idiosyncratic version of personal
happiness. In a verbal counterpunch that draws as many cheers from
theater-goers as the actual (fake) fighting does, Rocky delivers these
policy-oriented "hurtin' bombs":

Rocky Balboa: Yo, don't I got some rights?
Boxing Commissioner: What rights do you think you're referring to?
Rocky Balboa: Rights, like in that official piece of paper they
wrote down the street there?
Boxing Commissioner: That's the Bill of Rights.
Rocky Balboa: Yeah, yeah. Bill of Rights. Don't it say something
about going after what makes you happy?
Boxing Commissioner: No, that's the pursuit of happiness. But
what's your point?
Rocky Balboa: My point is I'm pursuing something and nobody looks
too happy about it.
Boxing Commissioner: But . . . we're just looking out for your
Rocky Balboa: I appreciate that, but maybe you're looking out for
your interests just a little bit more. . . . I mean maybe you're doing
your job but why you gotta stop me from doing mine? Cause if you're
willing to go through all the battling you got to go through to get
where you want to get, who's got the right to stop you? I mean maybe
some of you guys got something you never finished, something you
really want to do, something you never said to someone, something . .
. and you're told no, even after you paid your dues? Who's got the
right to tell you that, who? Nobody! It's your right to listen to your
gut, it ain't nobody's right to say no after you earned the right to
be where you want to be and do what you want to do! . . . You know,
the older I get the more things I gotta leave behind, that's life. The
only thing I'm asking you guys to leave on the table . . . is what's


Chris Gardner is even more pro-individual and anti-state.
Unsurprisingly, given the movie's title, Gardner weaves the
dispostionist language of the Declaration of Independence throughout
his autobiographical voice-overs. At one point he declares:

It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson,
the declaration of independence, and our right to life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, and I remember thinking; how did he know to
put the pursuit part in there. That maybe happiness is something we
can only pursue, and maybe actually we can never have it, no matter
what. How did he know that?

And what is Gardner's biggest challenge in his personal, private
pursuit? Is it when his wife, the mother of his young son, leaves him?
Nope. Is it when he has no place to sleep and spends the night on the
floor of the subway men's room with his son's head on his lap and his
meager possessions around them? Try again. Is it when he shows up to a
job interview with Dean Witter disheveled and dirty, after spending a
night in jail? Uh uh. When he is hit by a car? Not even close—just the
opposite, actually, we watch him intrepidly bounce right back up in
the middle of traffic telling the despondent car driver who hit him to
not worry.

No, Chris Gardner's announces that his lowest point is when the I.R.S.
seizes $600 of "my money!" from "my bank account" for taxes long
unpaid. "How can they do that?," he asks.

The answer to that rhetorical question can be found in the movie's
core value: don't begrudge the wealthy for their wealth, accept that
it is earned and deserved, and go pursue it for yourself at full
speed; when you face obstacles, as everyone must, don't make excuses
and don't ask the government to bail you out. In that vein, the film's
stark contrasts between extravagance and squalor, between smiling and
squabbling, between "me being stupid" and "happyness" are not intended
to raise questions about whether there is something wrong in the
system. It is intended to assure us that the system is fine. The
question is whether the individual wants something bad enough. Period.

The Federal Mafia BookNot convinced? Just consider how the movie's
"keep yo hands out my pockets" anti-taxation sensibility is never
reconciled with the clear absence of shelters for the homeless (at
least two of whom are portrayed as mighty blameless), with the public
transportation system, deficient as it may be, on which Gardner and
son so heavily rely for both transport and shelter, and with the
absence of social welfare programs that might have saved a marriage
and subsidized the budget-busting childcare.

No, The Pursuit of Happyness is about recognizing that the rich and
the poor are equally deserving of their condition. That's true even
though Gardner doesn't mind stealing a $20 fare from a desperate taxi
driver but knows never ever to ask for a single penny from the wealthy
businessman who actually accrued the fare. Similarly, Gardner empties
his wallet to loan the senior partner in the Dean Witter office,
Martin Frohm, $5. The wealth-dripping boss has no trouble asking for
money, but Gardner understands that he must be silent about the fact
that the loan will break him. Meanwhile, Gardner is repeatedly singled
out by his immediate supervisor to fetch coffee and doughnuts, park
his car, and tend to those menial tasks suitable for the the only
black intern in the program. Again, Gardner understands the implicit
rules of success: don't complain, don't even flinch, in fact, don't
even notice; just work that much harder. Getting the job means getting
along. Getting along means going along.

"You want something? Go get it. Period."

* * *

The next post in this series looks at a few of the situationist
lessons of Rocky and The Pursuit of Happyness.

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

Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment - Part III

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 20th, 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.*****

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