Disney Movies Actually Have it All! …They Really Do: Utopias, Gender Constructs, Cool Songs. It’s All There

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Apparently the word “utopia” translates to “no where” in the English language when looking at the Greek roots of the word.  If this were to be true it would really put a damper on my argument. The concept of a utopia is a multifaceted sphere that has it’s roots in different aspects. It can be described as a literary genre, something that is irreconcilable with fantasies, or a society that offers the best of the best for its citizens. The animated Disney movie Zootopia depicts an anthropomorphic society in which an inexplicable cause of predators reverting back to their feral state stands to threaten the former peaceful coexistence between predators and prey. Officer Judy Hopps, the determined and lovable main bunny, epitomizes the classic growing up story we have all seen in pop culture: she was beaten up when she was younger for standing up for her friends, enrolls in the police academy because she does not want to follow in the repetitive paths of her parents, struggles for a bit but then starts to kick some serious butt after realizing her dreams are on the line, and joins the real world with immense expectations after graduating at the top of her class. Pretty inspiring, right?

Narrow and confined attitudes in regards to expectations will almost surely lead to restlessness, as seen with Officer Hopps. She initially adheres to the notion that Zootopia is an already made utopia, and what this city has to offer for its citizens will remain constant. Apparently harmonious on the outside, the inside is not at all what it seems. There are tensions between the different classes of animals, and outsiders such as Officer Hopps, having grown up in a borough outside of Zootopia, believe that everyone can be anything they choose. She expects that everything will be easy, and that she’ll have it made immediately upon arrival. Having firm expectations about what a society is going to offer is a sure fire way to immediately face dissatisfaction. Too often the citizens of Zootopia elect to remain in the position they are dealt. This reluctance is seen when Officer Hopps is assigned her first job as being a parking maid: she somberly accepts her fate as being delegated to hand out tickets. The failure to recognize the differences between what a society describes itself to be, and what a society can be through efforts made by its citizens to make it better makes the difference between being content and feeling restless. The lack of fluidity of how Officer Hopps first lives when she arrives to Zootopia results in fake happiness; she does not realize that she has to try to make her own utopia, even if it requires failure in the process of doing so.

That being said, utopia’s are not just there. They have to be created. Creation comes about by trying different paths and failing until eventually the path chosen culminates in a successful way. It ends with feeling reassured, pleasured, and proud with what you are doing. So, what does the creation of a utopia mean? It encompasses the notion of creating a space where you can feel happy. The theory of utopia is that even when we seem the most jacked into the currently existing system, we are betraying (in our thoughts, words, and choices) our desire for something different, some sort of other system that is better (Thorne). The betrayal that Officer Hopps exhibits is not explicit. In Richard Dyer’s Entertainment and Utopia, the editor ponders:

How does show-biz fulfill such utopian desires? Not by literally representing a perfect society (like Sir Thomas More’s Utopia), but (i) by ‘non-representational means’- through music, colour, movement, and so on, and (ii) by picturing relations between people more simply and directly than they exist in actuality. (271)

Thus, the utopian-esque qualities are reflected in the soundtrack of the movie. Shakira’s song, “Try Everything” is aptly named. It is an implicit yet permeating soundtrack that reflects the character arc of Officer Hopps: her excited arrival to Zootopia, her confrontation with the sharp-witted fox Nick Wilde who illuminates the injustice in the city, and her enlightenment at the end of the movie in realizing that utopias are forged are all embodied in the lyrics of the song. (“Try Everything”) It is an effort made by the movie producers in trying to express Officer Hopps’s need to try everything, rather than her expecting anything. The presence or absence of the song in different scenes of the movie is working in efforts to undermine the idea that Zootopia is an already made utopia. Utopias are best when its citizens engage in an active lifestyle.

Actively shaping your role in society versus passivity is central to the movie. It is vital that the audience understands that Officer Hopps’s mindset towards Zootopia is passive in the beginning of her character journey. As she boards the Zootopia Express, she cannot wait to see what it has to offer for her. The signs that she sees on her journey are purposeful. They are representations of her attitude. The “Express” in the name of the train signifies that living in a utopia can be fast tracked, and that it will be brought to you regardless of the effort being put into living a better life. Also, she passes by a billboard with huge lettering that reads, “Zootopia Welcomes You”. It stands to serve that Zootopia has everything to offer and that everything that one could possibly need is already there. It’s implications are that a society already exists that fits the needs of everyone. Welcoming implies that you are going to be hosted, and negates the fact that the lifestyle is reciprocal. The citizens get what they put out.

The directors made specific choices in both how the song is initially played and matching the camerawork to the beat of the song in order to orient the audience towards how Officer Hopps’s expectations of Zootopia are extremely high. The way “Try Everything” is played during this scene represents Officer Hopps’s rigid mindset. It does not just start playing in the background. It is not all encompassing and does not touch everything it sees. She physically has to take out her iPod, plug in her headphones, and click “play”. She has to be fed the message of the song. It has to be told to her. Officer Hopps is glossy eyed as she stares out onto the horizon, and is fascinated with the possibilities that she thinks she will experience, and in doing so, the song and its message are forced into the back of her head. Also, when the camera angle focuses on a close up of the glimmering city, it stutters out two more times to encompass the entirety of the society. It’s glamorous. It’s beautiful. But the purposeful shifting from a narrow to broader view of the entire city (including the different sub-sections that are seen later in the movie as perilous and dark) is a representation of how it’s hopeful citizens need to open their eyes more to the different possibilities, which as seen in the movie, are constituted on opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s possibilities are both constructive in making the citizen happy, but can also be depressive.

The absence of soundtrack in scenes where Officer Hopps is questioning her role in Zootopia illuminates how stuck in the mud (or wet cement specifically) she is in creating her perfect place. It’s message is repressed. Nick Wilde, the sly fox who eventually helps Officer Hopps so perfectly puts it, “Everyone comes to Zootopia thinking that they can be anything they want. Well, they can’t. You can only be what you are”. Shakira sings, “I keep falling down, I keep on hitting the ground/ I always get up now to see what’s next”. She hasn’t gotten up. She in a rut, and furthermore, was openly berated for assuming that everything was going to be perfect for her. Is it starting to become apparent how her expectations are skewed?

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Officer Hopps actively beginning to engage in establishing peace between the predators and prey within Zootopia is mirrored in her realization that she is actively shaping her own establishment in society. She stuck it to the big boss, and tackled the case with help from Nick. She tried everything in order to solve the case. There are layers of complexity. The song is speaking to her physical actions, her physical actions shape her attitude, and her attitude shapes how she sees herself in Zootopia. She becomes confident, reassured, and content. She explains, “We have to try… I implore you, try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us”. The implicit song has finally met up with her explicit vocalization. In the closing scene, “Try Everything” is not playing in her headphones. It’s booming from speakers, encompassing the partygoers at a big concert. It has extended its reach from one small bunny to the entire population.

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Yet, we can wonder if her diligence in creating her own utopia is typical of utopian settings of Disney movies. Adding another layer of complexity to Disney utopian movies, multiple scholarly articles claim that Disney is focusing on spreading the message that women are passive and need to be told to revert back to their traditional roles by a man. Alexander M. Bruce rightfully disagrees with the notion that, “Disney thereby teaches its audience that women should fulfill the passive role in society, [and] not acting [towards their future]” (Bruce 2). In tandem, Deborah Ross discusses the notion that Disney movies, such as The Little Mermaid, reduce the heroine to objects of desire because the movie culminates with marriage (Ross 60). Do Disney movies reinforce gender constructs? In this instance, no. Take a look. At the level of the plot, Officer Hopps was in a rut but eventually kicks butt in the end and solves the case, albeit with the help of a male character. But their relationship is reciprocal.  Plus, the movie culminates with a concert where Officer Hopps encourages Nick to dance, thus establishing a relationship in which the female can exert influence over the man. At the implicit level, Shakira is a woman who is singing about trying new things. Thus, Zootopia, at it’s inherent nature disagrees with both statements because it’s main message is that characters, even females, can create their own utopias, and thus will not be subject to oppressive themes unless they do not actively choose to create it. In the wise words of Officer Hopps, “[It] turns out real life is more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker.”

Works Cited

Bruce, Alexander M.. “The Role of the “Princess” in Walt Disney’s Animated Films: Reactions of College Students”. Studies in Popular Culture 30.1 (2007): 1–25. Web. 21 April 2016

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Only Entertainment. New York: Routledge, 1992. 271-283. Print.

Ross, Deborah. “Escape from Wonderland: Disney and the Female Imagination”. Marvels & Tales 18.1 (2004): 53–66. Web. 24 April 2016

Shakira. “Try Everything.” Rec. 31 Dec 2015. Zootopia. Stargate Records, 2016. MetroLyrics. Web. 24 April 2016.

Thorne, Christian. Lecture. 16 April 2016.

“Zootopia.” World Movies Free. 2016. Web. 20 April 2016.

“ZOOTOPIA – Train Scene (Try Everything) [HD 1080].” Youtube. 2016. Web. 24 April 2016.

I Started a Joke, the Joke Being That my Life is Worth Living

I started a joke which started the whole world crying

But I didn’t see that the joke was on me oh no

I started to cry which started the whole world laughing

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me

Oh no that the joke was on me[1]

Everyday is the same; we wake up, go to work or school, enjoy the occasional movie or dinner date, go to sleep, and then wake up to do the same thing over again. It comes to a point when there does not seem to be a meaning anymore, a point when our happiness becomes a lie. Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” offers an explanation to why we keep living when life becomes meaningless. We keep living because, “‘Still at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.’ But this “reason to believe” is an illusion, the song seems to say: there is apparently no “reason to believe” in life’s worthwhileness, no “reason to believe” that all will be well in the end. Still, the song’s characters keep on believing—believing, or at least hoping, despite all the evidence to the contrary. One reason for our perseverance in life is thus blind faith, or at least blind hope, according to Springsteen’s song”[2]. We find an outlet through entertainment and devote our free time to it. This entertainment comes to us in the form of an industry, as a product of our culture. It provides us with laughter but this laughter is only temporary and, often times, merely the very façade in which to hide our unhappiness.[3] We laugh because that is the only thing we can do to cope with the fact that we are living lives not worth living. Robin Gibb, as member of the Bee Gees, wrote the single, “I Started a Joke,” and although its meaning is never explicitly given, draws some semblance to this idea that our laughter is an indication that the life we are living is not worth living.

The premise of the song is that an unnamed individual, is misunderstood; he laughs when the world cries and cries when the world laughs. This individual has an idea, possibly an alternative to the present state of the world, something that could better the world but no one seems to be listening. This idea that he harnesses helps the world live again at the end of the song but the world is unaware of this until this individual dies. Throughout the song and, more broadly, his life, this individual develops a sense of self doubt. He quite literally believed that the joke was on him, that what he believed has somehow untrue because of the laughter projected from the world. He harbors a feeling of regret, as he, “[falls] out of bed hurting my head from things that I said.”[4] The whole world laughs at the person in the song because they think that his life is not worth living. However, in fact, the person in the song is living a fulfilling life because he is going against the rest of the world and not submitting to conformity.

The chronic feeling of regret the individual feels every morning is a direct product of the masses and their cynical attitude to something foreign to them. The whole world, in this sense, is conditioned to believe in one, standard set of beliefs so much so that their automatic response to something different is to laugh and reject it. This stand set of beliefs is presented to the world in a common medium, our culture and its corresponding entertainment industry.[5] With the rise of the culture industry, “‘the individual departs from the real social world, where he or she is average and recognition is slight and grudging, enters a ‘glamorous’ and media-glorified career field, and becomes…’somebody,’ ‘a god to millions,’ through the mass recognition of others”’[6]. The industry allows the masses to live vicariously through the characters they wish to emulate and thus escape the world we live in now to go to a fantastical, unreal version of this world. They are able to laugh like they are “glamorous” or in a “media-glorified career field” but none of it is real because it is all delivered to them on a silver platter of lies fabricated by the industry. The industry surrounding our everyday culture is so easily accessible that “Americans pass much of their lives in the ‘other worlds’ of the media…mass media consumption in general occupies 50 percent of all leisure time”[7]. It is the most efficient way to convince, often without consent, the masses to share a common ideology because “the cultural variability of these multiple realities is less than might be expected…[they] operate with values, motives, and roles firmly locked to the assumptions of the contemporary American middle class”[8]. The industry repurposes existent beliefs into different outlets, be it a movie, an album, or a TV show. This is how the industry achieves widespread dominance, by ingraining the ideals that they themselves first imposed onto society, forever a cycle of control.[9] How, in this industry that is so ingrained into the public’s minds, is anyone supposed to have a fighting chance to break the system or provide any sort of push-back or alternative?

The individual in the song supposedly has the alternative the world needs to break free but is unable to be fully heard because of the disconnect he feels from the rest of the world. He is unable to relate to them, believing that the “joke was on [him]” and constantly clashing with them, whether it be crying or laughing. The whole world laughs at him, not because they think he is inherently funny, but because that is what they were conditioned to believe. The world, through the culture industry, has been brainwashed to believe that their lives are worthy and anything different, such as this individual, is unworthy of living. Laughter, in this case, becomes mockery, not a representation of happiness but rather a representation of quite the opposite, contempt. Laughter, in this song, symbolizes the conformity of the masses as entertainment is mass deception; everyone thinks they are genuinely happy but their ‘happiness’ is merely a cover-up to their worthless lives.

The person in the song, however, is exempt from this mass deception because he cries when everyone laughs and laughs when everyone cries. He goes against the grain and thus, when he dies, the world is able start living because he had lived a worthy life. But it is only the individual in this song who is exempt from the web of the industry because he is a fictional character; a worthy life is not possible so long as the culture industry still exists. The world’s laughter was not only the catalyst to the individual’s own spiral into self regret, but the laughter also produced this very song. This song tells the story of someone who has been beaten down by the byproducts of the culture industry and conformity in general but, by the song’s very existence, participates in the industry that rendered him hopeless.

Since the song’s release in 1968, “I Started a Joke” has seen 23 different renditions, a quantitative figure to represent the impact this one song has had on the culture industry.[10] The problem with the culture industry that has infected our society is that it is screaming with similarity, nothing is innovated anymore, everything is taken from something else. The Wallflowers performed a version of the song in 2001 for the Zoolander soundtrack, and while the lyrics are clearly the same, the background music and the overall feel of the song has dramatically changed. These 23 remakes of the song are no different than any other cultural artifact in that they were not made without being marked by the industry’s stamp at the time of conception. Our culture industry breeds conformity from conformity and uses this conformity to convince us that we are living lives worth living. Laughter should be an outward expression to indicate sheer happiness but it is really only a cover-up for the meaninglessness we feel inside—we are all the same so what is the point of living this life? We are nothing more than puppets in a show, and what do you do at puppet shows? Laugh.

[1] Gibb, Robin “I Started a Joke” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beegees/istartedajoke.html. (will refer to as ‘Gibb’)

[2] Mathew, Gordon. What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996). Pages 3-4 (will refer to as ‘Mathew’)

[3] Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (Stanford California, Stanford University Press, 2002). Page 112-113 (will refer to as ‘Adorno’)

[4] Gibb

[5] Adorno, 97

[6] Caughey, John L. Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach (United States of America: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). Page 168 (will refer to as ‘Caughey’)

[7] Caughey, 34

[8] Caughey 34, 35

[9] Adorno, 115

[10] I Started a Joke. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Started_a_Joke.

Hope for the Best? Utopianism in The Great Gatsby

On the most basic level, people consume entertainment purely for the sake of amusement.[1] There is no pretense, only an honest desire for pleasure. One popular conception of entertainment is that it serves as a form of transportation away from the monotonies of daily existence.[2] All of its forms, especially the vivid imagery of musicals and movies, can make your wildest dreams come true. Each offers the chance to imagine an alternate utopian universe where everything and everyone is better. The elements of music and dance are essential in constructing that imagination, as they indicate to us through their performance and cultural context how we should feel.[3] The most powerful movies incorporate those elements into the fabric of the production.

The award-winning Australian director and producer Baz Luhrmann excels in blending elements of theater and film to create an especially utopian brand of popular culture. Luhrmann is a progeny of the culture industry: his father was a movie theater owner and his mother was a ballroom dance teacher, and his own career began in theater.[4] The first movie he directed was Strictly Ballroom, which was first a critically acclaimed play.[5] He has directed and produced several other films, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.[6] These three pieces make up a collection known as the Red Curtain Trilogy, so named because each movie incorporates theatrical motifs.[7] Luhrmann’s rich theater background enabled him to fashion a unique direction and production style.

Luhrmann’s most recent opus, the 2013 film remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular novel The Great Gatsby, deviates from the typical Hollywood blockbuster in its strong emphasis on song and dance. He reconceives the story of enigmatic mogul Jay Gatsby much like a Hollywood musical, with frequent scenes of lively dancing and revelry that fuel the plot development. Luhrmann’s theatric background explains why this nonstandard blockbuster film resembles a musical. Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies at King’s College in London, believes that such Hollywood musicals present to their viewers how their own lives could be “something better.”[8] The integration of music and dance into the storyline makes viewers wish that their own lives were equally exciting and fulfilling.

The character Jay Gatsby himself epitomizes what it means to yearn for “something better.” The young tycoon, born the son of “dirt-poor farmers from North Dakota,” was able to quickly ascend the ranks of society through his ambition and shrewd intellect.[9] The level of wealth and fame that he attains seems to signify the fulfillment of the quintessential “American Dream.” Gatsby seems to have it all, yet he is not satisfied. A simple green light that shines from a dock across the bay captivates him; it symbolizes all the things for which Gatsby yearns. From his home across the water, Gatsby often watches it with great intensity, and even reaches for it. Yet he can never quite grasp it: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… – so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[10] Gatsby’s past shortcomings and failures haunt him, yet he continues to believe that he can right them. This attitude of persistency and hopefulness is what endears viewers to Gatsby despite his many flaws. Baz Luhrmann encourages us to wish in the same way he does, and the entire audience shares Gatsby’s longing for the unobtainable.

Luhrmann manages to infuse some elements of hope into an otherwise deflated plotline; he understands that the audience, too, needs hope. The time period in which the movie takes place is the height of “Roaring ‘20s,” a time of great prosperity during which stock prices reached record highs.[11] Luhrmann is very ostentatious in his depictions of this great wealth. He spares no expense in representing Gatsby’s summer parties, creating sensational spectacles of colorful and cacophonic chaos. These dance scenes closely resemble theatrical numbers in their choreography, sweeping the film’s audience onto the dance floor and giving them a chance to experience how such a party looks and sounds. During these raucous moments, Luhrmann wants viewers to consider what their own lives would be like on such a grand scale. The music that accompanies both these wild scenes and the tamer moments of narration dictates to the individuals watching the movie what they should be feeling. As philosopher Suzanna K. Langer describes it, “Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.”[12] People are conditioned to attach certain emotions to the moods of the music they hear; musical tones are similar in structure to human feelings.[13] Luhrmann capitalizes on this capability. He excites his audience with raucous party anthems, allowing his audience to discover what a utopia feels like; he makes them want it.

Musicals and their film counterparts offer utopian solutions to contemporary problems: abundance eliminates scarcity, energy eradicates exhaustion, and intensity replaces monotony.[14] During these truly extraordinary parties, there is only excess, effervescent liveliness, and passion. These solutions are, Dyer says, ones that capitalism provides: “abundance becomes consumerism, energy and intensity personal freedom and individualism.”[15] In essence, these cinematic musicals suggest that capitalism can resolve its own problems. But there some issues that the musical film simply does not address.

The Great Gatsby celebrates capitalism, even as it conveniently ignores the legitimacy of class, patriarchal, and race struggles. This film offers a glimpse of a “better” world, but it is world that is only better for the wealthy white male. It completely ignores the needs of any characters who do not conform to that definition, even if those needs are indeed legitimate. Tom Buchanan, the incredibly wealthy husband of Gatsby’s true love Daisy, bluntly captures the stark class divide of the film when he tells Gatsby that he and other “old-money” socialites “were born different, it’s in our blood.”[16] Despite his newly acquired affluence and renown, Gatsby can never attain the same status as Tom and Daisy because his family was poor.

Gatsby’s mansion on West Egg, the home of “new money” families.

This disregard for the needs of marginalized groups within contemporary society is not simply an isolated case of a single movie. Dyer argues that entertainment, although it “is responding to needs that are real, at the same time it is also defining and delimiting what constitutes the legitimate needs of people in this society.”[17] In choosing to respond to certain issues and not others, the creators of that entertainment (i.e. big film corporations) have the power to determine what issues merit attention and discussion, and what issues do not. The dominant ideology within today’s capitalist society is the rich white man; why expect the pop culture industry to be any different?[18]

Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s estate on East Egg, where the “old money” socialites live.

At this point we have come to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby and other such musically oriented movies do in fact present utopias, albeit seemingly discriminatory ones. But if these alternative worlds seem bigoted, are they really any better than the real world? Fredric Jameson, Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, argues in his article “Progress Versus Utopia” that a society founded upon capitalism “demands a memory of qualitative social change, a concrete vision of the past which we may expect to find completed by that far more abstract and empty conception of some future terminus which we sometimes call ‘progress.’”[19] Jameson draws a connection between the utopian desire for “something better,” in the form of social change, with the idea of progress.

If utopias and progress are indeed intimately intertwined, the alternative universes presented in musicals need not be utopias at all (although they certainly can be). Though the societies depicted in cinematic musicals might be discriminatory, that does not mean the movies have no utopias to offer. We as viewers can identify the wrongs present in the films, and imagine how both that world as well as our own could be better. A production’s primary task, then, is able to make problems of class, patriarchy, and race just as apparent through its song and its dance as the problems of scarcity, monotony, and exhaustion. That I was able to imagine how the worlds of The Great Gatsby and other musical films could be massively better means that they served their purpose.


Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” In Only Entertainment, Second Edition, 19-35. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.

“Baz Luhrmann Biography.” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 2013. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia.” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.

[1] Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Only Entertainment, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 19.

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[4] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 20.

[9] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[10] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[13] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 22.

[14] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 24-25.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[17] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[18] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[19] Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia,” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.

Essay #2

Game of Thrones Fans: Pawns On The Chessboard?

What role do fans play in the culture they consume? This is the question I’ve been battling while exploring the relationship between the hit series Game of Thrones and its consumers. Do fans actively adopt the series and have a role as creators? Or are they simply part of the culture industry machine, one that churns out content and systematically commercializes certain parts of fan culture? Today more than ever, the convergence of culture into every corner of our lives has made the divisions between producers, content, and consumers more fluid than ever. Whether this gives fans new power or simply signals a re-ordering of the culture industry is a significant question; it implicates if fans are finding new ways to subvert the culture industry – or whether they are becoming more entangled in the web of powerless consumerism. By examining the relationship of Game of Thrones fans – and in particular a pair who have become important collaborators to the author George RR Martin’s writing – I hope to uncover what exactly the state of fans in our society is today.

Game of Thrones is the source of one of the largest and most active fan cultures today. The series, which is simultaneously a book series by George RR Martin (yet to be finished) and a television show, has a rabid fan-base that first grew mostly online when the first books were published and has recently exploded with the introduction of the show. Like other popular series the fan culture involves online forums, conventions, cosplay, fan fiction, and lots of active communication towards both the author and the show’s producers. The show, based on a fictional world known as Westeros that resembles a medieval time imbued with magic, is famous for its complex storytelling and repeated killing of popular characters. The many facets and plotlines, along with the extreme popularity of the show have given birth to thousands of consumer creations, from fiction to digital recreations of the fantasy world. The important question, however, is if these fans are simply consumers with little true agency or do they represent a wave of creativity that allows them to influence the show and simultaneously side-step the grip of the culture industry?

First I think it’s prudent to layout what some fans of the series are doing. When the series was just books, there was a large community of online forums discussing the show at great length. As the show has come into popularity this discourse has spilled over almost everywhere, blurring the line between casual fans and those engaging in true fan cultures. When I use the term fans I mean those that try to take some part of the chronicle and either re-interpret it or re-imagine it. This includes the plenty of online fan fiction pieces as well as alternative storylines that have been disseminated around the Internet. There are also thousands who create costumes, engage in role-playing, and meet other fans at both physical and electronic gatherings. Furthermore there are fascinating pieces of art dedicated to the series; everything from paintings to iron throne toilets now adorn various parts of the world. In one sense, this allows fans to interpret Game of Thrones anyway they want, and take it in new directions if they choose. Henry Jenkins describes fan creations by saying “Their works appropriate raw materials from the commercial culture but use them as the basis for the creation of a contemporary folk culture.” Unlike content created by the series itself, “fan artists create artworks to share with other fan friends. Fandom generates systems of distribution that reject profit and broaden access to its creative works.”[1] Jenkins argument is that fans are in fact independent and creative consumers, and they reject the money and control driven motives of the culture industry in one sense by creating independent art and writing.


The rampant fan involvement, however, can also be interpreted as a further arm of the culture industry. Sam Caslin argues in her essay on the culture industry in a multimedia age that these fans are simply occupying a space within the culture industry. She argues that while multimedia has given fans new methods with which the fans “have attempted to gain some power within the mechanisms of modern cultural production and Western consumer society as a whole”, the culture industry “is able to inculcate fans into assembling themselves into markets.” Drawing on the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, she says, “the culture industry is no longer about the passivity of the audience.” Rather, now “The fan in particular now has multiple roles to play, from consumer to advertiser and, if their own desires are fulfilled, producer.”[2] Essentially her argument is that all these creations and activity by fans now serve as marketing and advertising, and as long as they stay committed in their devotion to the series they will remain that way. It is an expansion on the “pseudo-activity” that marked the token resistance within the system as described by Adorno, replacing the former ‘passivity’ of the consumer.[3] Any influence the fans have over the storyline or artifact they create will remain a part of the industry machine, and only if they question the actual method of creation will they actually challenge the creators.

It is useful to compare these opposing views when we examine Game of Thrones, and in particular, two super fans Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson. The couple first started reading the books shortly after the series began, and after being part of one of the very first forums, wanted to start a Game of Thrones game. To aid the game they started a fact-based website about the Game of Thrones world, Westeros.org. Soon the series exploded and the site became the number one destination for information on the Game of Thrones world. George RR Martin then started coming to them to fact check things for his writing, and now they have co-authored a book on the history of Westeros, the Game of Thrones world, with Martin.[4] On the surface, this justifies Jenkins, as their personal creation and additional take on the Game of Thrones world has ended up directly influencing the actual series. It shows they were able to “create works that speak to the special interests of the fan community.”[5] It was the ascension of fans to creator status that allowed them to directly influence the series as writers of the new book.


The journey of Garcia and Antonsson, however, doesn’t necessarily stand as evidence of fans subverting the culture industry. They didn’t create something new that was then adopted. Rather, they were picked by the creators of the series and simply made into producers. Before the book, Martin only came to them for fact checking – they weren’t influencing his plots.[6] Therefore Garcia and Antonsson are fulfilling the role described by Caslin where fans are elevated to ‘producer’ status. They haven’t changed the interests of the series with their ideas. Rather, it was decided their ideas would be the show’s next step. While Jenkins would see this as evidence for fan influence it is hard not to see it as the industry adopting the two fans as creators. They still have to operate in the pre-existing Game of Thrones world and among the same rules, only they are now responsible for the content. This can be seen in the criticism leveled at their work. Before, the criticism from other fans began a back and forth over a story that was open to be edited.[7] Now they publish a new piece of the Game of Thrones content and it is then criticized and debated, but since it isn’t a living piece but a mass-produced artifact, it won’t be changed. They’ve gone from fan to produce, and as Caslin would say, they’ve only changed their role in the culture industry.

So what is the verdict thus far? On the one hand, Jenkins is rather convincing when suggesting that fans express their independence by influencing the artifact itself. Certainly Garcia and Antonsson have a large influence on Martin and even write a part of the series with Martin. Additionally, Martin is known to have taken suggestions from fans before to make changes in the series when presenting pre-published work.[8] There, however, is the extent that the argument holds me. Caslin’s suggestion that the couple are simply being promoted from consumers to producers within the culture industry, and that no real change has occurred, is much more convincing as its hard to see how any of the fans’ actions change the interests or focus of the series. The idea that these fans were simply incorporated into the industry machine is furthered by the declaration by both the author and the show producers that fans will not influence their plot decisions.[9][10] Much of the alternative content created around Game of Thrones involves bringing back favorite characters who were previously killed, but as even as fans plead for their favorite characters back or for the killing to end the producers appear unmoved. This is actually significant because Game of Thrones represents the evolution of the culture industry in our multimedia age.


Game of Thrones reveals a new way in which the culture industry works in our day and age that illustrates why its fans are still very beholden to the industry. One of the phenomena that Game of Thrones has revealed is the way it’s reported by mass media. In the Internet age, we now are subject to constant dialogue where everyone has a platform to express themselves. This manifests itself in the way media outlets now report on Game of Thrones. The day after a show is inevitably full of recaps, but more and more the first headlines are not about the narration but about the reaction of the consumers. After various season five episodes a quick Google search returns dozens of articles similar to Mashable’s The Internet’s gut-wrenching reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ finale or Time’s The Problem with the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene. [11][12] The media now focuses on the consumers’ reactions themselves, in particular their outrage and emotional outpouring that follows. Yes it manifests itself in videos and angry letters to the producers but every episode viewers come back once again, entranced by the show. The show has so perfected the emotional bond that half the entertainment seems to be the reaction of the consumer, yet they always lure them back for more.

It is from here that I come to the position that, in fact, the fan culture around Game of Thrones reveals consumers deeply entrapped in the culture industry. I still struggle to agree with Adorno completely; for example his claim that “Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand effort… No independent thinking must be expected from the audience” suggests that he hapless consumer consumes with no effort and no intellectual creativity.[13] This, as Caslin mentioned, is no longer the truth. Consumers are now active participants and part of the spectacle themselves. Furthermore, they also contribute to the marketing of the series with their dedicated creations, though they never succeed in actually influencing the show to a degree that it actually subverts the aims of the culture industry. Rather the culture industry itself simply shifts consumers into other positions of significance if they deem it necessary or worthwhile. While I truly want to believe that these wonderfully diverse fan cultures are a method of breaking away from the pull of pop culture and the culture industry, I do not see any proof for it in Game of Thrones fandom. That would require something that not only influences the show but rejects its current form of creation at the same time. The fans detailed in this piece embrace the current form of creation. Instead I see a culture industry that is using our modern technological tools to further attract consumers and tighten its grip on our collective consciousness.


Works Cited

  1. D’Addario, Daniel. “Meet the “Game of Thrones” Superfan Who Knows Westeros Better than George R.R. Martin.”com. Salon, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
  2. Lutes, Alicia. “So, George R.R. Martin All-But-Confirmed a Big Ol’ Spoiler-y Fan Theory | Nerdist.”Nerdist. Nerdist, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  3. McCluskey, Megan. “Game of Thrones Showrunners Say Fan Criticism in No Way Influenced Season 6.”Time. Time, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  4. Colbert, Annie. “The Internet’s Gut-wrenching Reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale.”Mashable. Mashable, 14 June 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  5. Young, Cathy. “The Problem With the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene.”Time. Time, 21 May 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  6. Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. [1944] 1997.Dialectic of
     London: Verso.
  7. Caslin, Sam. 2007. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”. Fast Capitalism. Issue 2.2, 2007. Web. 18 Apr. 2016
  8. Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
  9. Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”FiveThirtyEight. ESPN, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

[1] Jenkins, H. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. pg. 287

[2] Caslin, Sam. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”.

[3] Caslin, Sam. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”.

[4] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[5] Jenkins, H. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. pg. 287

[6] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[7] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[8] D’Addario, Daniel “Meet the “Game of Thrones” Superfan Who Knows Westeros Better than George R.R. Martin”

[9] Lutes, Alicia “So, George R.R. Martin All-But-Confirmed a Big Ol’ Spoiler-y Fan Theory”

[10] McCluskey, Megan “Game of Thrones Showrunners Say Fan Criticism in No Way Influenced Season 6”

[11] Colbert, Annie “The Internet’s Gut-wrenching Reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale”

[12] Young, Cathy “The Problem With the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene”

[13] Adorno, Theodor, Horkheimer, Max Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. 137

“Olympus Has Fallen” but the Culture Industry Still Stands Tall


2013 was a rough year for Washington D.C. Two movies, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, hit the screens within four months of each other. Both featured hostile takeovers of the White House. Olympus Has Fallen had a budget of $70 million, and White House Down $150 million. Today, movies’ production costs are barriers to entry for the film industry. Even independent films like It Follows, Juno, and Donnie Darko have budgets in the millions. What are the consequences when the cost of producing the art medium restricts access to all but an elite group? If elites control cinema, the art produced can manipulate viewers to sustain the status quo, and the associated distribution of power and wealth. In this analysis of the film industry, and Olympus Has Fallen in particular, I examine whether common culture or the culture industry more accurately explains film.

Cultural theorist Raymond Williams believed that common people, not the bourgeoisie, produce common culture (Williams 8). Williams’ beliefs stem from his rural upbringing and his observations of culture in 20th century Britain. He was born in Wales in 1921. His father was an uneducated railway signalman. He attended Cambridge University on scholarship where he studied under fellow cultural theorist Matthew Arnold (Brochu 1). Arnold thought that society could free itself from the oppressive elite if the majority of society read literary criticism; a solution to his perception of cultural woes. Williams disagreed with Arnold’s theory.  In his childhood, he experienced rural folk culture where community members told each other stories and fables, played folk music, organized community events, and helped each other in times of need. These experiences lead Williams to the conclusion that culture means two things: a whole way of life and “the arts and learning ‒ the special processes of discovery and creative work” (Williams 4). Culture is both the art that is produced and the way that society carries on in day-to-day life. All together, Williams rejected the notion that a special class holds a monopoly over the creations of “common meanings” and art. For Williams, culture is common and classless in the creation of meanings, values, arts, and learning. Common culture is art that is produced by average people, it is not oppressing society. Common culture is the music you hear at open mic night. It is the graffiti you see on walls and trains.

Today six corporations produce 90% of all of that we read, watch, and hear (Lutz 1); to say that all art is common culture is naive. We live in an era that reflects cultural Marxism. Williams drew his ideas regarding ideal cultural equality from Marxists but disagreed with the central existence of an elite, oppressing class that controls culture. He shouldn’t have, at least with regards to film. According to Marx, “ideology” describes how “dominant ideas of a given class promote the interests of that class and help cover over oppression, injustices, and negative aspects of a given society” (Kellner 1). During the capitalist era (present day America), these values are competition and dominant markets. Both are expressed throughout this movie.

Olympus Has Fallen takes place in a modern but fictional Washington D.C. The story begins with a meeting between the President and the South Korean Prime Minister. During the meeting, North Korean terrorists capture the White House and hold everyone hostage. Their goals are to kill the Prime Minister, force the US to remove troops from the Korean region, and destroy America’s nuclear stockpile in their silos. In the midst of this assault, a Secret Service agent, Banning, joins the fight against the North Koreans. He begins a campaign to rescue the President and save the world with brutal, ruthless efficiency. He appears to take pleasure in breaking necks and torturing people. After Banning takes out most of the terrorists, he fights their leader and violently stabs him in the head. With seconds to spare, he stops the entire American nuclear stockpile from detonating and turning the country into a dystopian wasteland.

This movie typifies the mainstream film industry as a whole. It negates the common culture belief Williams proposed. With a budget of $70 million, only Hollywood studios are able to create this type of movie. A common artist, disconnected from the industry’s elite, is unable to produce a film projected on 3,000 screens in the opening weekend. Movies require thousands of man hours to create, expensive equipment, connections, and professional skills that often require higher education. The director of Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua, has a net worth of $18 million and is one of the 54 richest black male celebrities (Riley 1). This work of culture is not classless. Millennium Films, the company that produced it, releases 5-8 movies a year with budgets between $20-80 million. It employs some of the richest artists in the world. When more than 90% of the culture we consume is controlled by an elite class, the commoner’s best interest will typically be overlooked. This monopoly lets the elite become richer and advances their political interests through the control of media images, stories, symbols and morals.

A closer look into the film’s storyline and values reveals its elitist values.  Noah Berlatsky argues that the film does not reflect American principles in his article “The Vile, False Patriotism of ‘Olympus Has Fallen’” published in The Atlantic. He states the film is “a shameless exploration of the worst aspects of the American psyche” (1). When the North Koreans attack D.C., the film shows a plane crash into the Washington Monument for no reason other than to evoke images of 9/11 (2).


The movie attempts to normalize ‒ even glorify ‒ violence. It depicts 130 violent deaths in all fashions: knives, guns, explosions, dog attacks, and hand-to-hand combat. We are entertained by the violence in action movies. In fact, some people even clap for it. It’s plausible that the culture industry has supersaturated movies with violence to numb audiences to the atrocities of war. We distance ourselves from the bloodshed, and, in doing so, allow for its repetition throughout society.

These mores, do not reflect the common values of American society: they manipulate them. The movie strokes backward-thinking nationalism imposed on society by the elite for millennia. Culture suggests that in order to be a global power, we have to fear foreigners. The writers hilariously overstate North Korea’s military power. The country where 84% of the population has “borderline” to “poor” levels of food consumption (Stanton, Lee 1) and a history of military failures. The United States spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined; North Korea isn’t in the top 20 (PGFP 1). North Korea could never conduct a coordinated operation like the one depicted in Olympus Has Fallen. The writers appear to make North Korea the villain because the country has an unstable government, potential for nuclear weapon production, and borders an ally in the region. The movie stokes the fires of nationalism and insecurity at all costs. It encourages the audience to support military spending to prevent our homeland from an imaginary enemy. The values this film advances are created by conservative cultural elements in certain sectors of the film industry.

The culture industry is not unified in its messages, values, and ideologies. While Hollywood is largely liberal, Millennium Films almost exclusively makes patriarchal shoot-em-up movies reflecting more conservative values.  Millennium films was co-founded by Avi Lerner: an Israeli-American who fought in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War and is worth $150 million. He made his money producing movies such as The Expendables franchise and Homefront. With a military background and roots in Israel, Avi has reasons to support military spending and nationalism in his movies.

I will not, however, mislead my reader into believing action movies exclusively have political motives. Action movies are supplied because they are demanded by society and profits are a powerful motivator. Maybe there is an element of common culture that begs for brutal entertainment. This sentiment is reflected throughout history: gladiators, wrestling, boxing, etc. The power of “bread and circuses” was understood as far back as Emperor Augustus as a means to satiate the masses.

The state of the economy in 2013 could explain the production of two action movies about an assault of the White House. Matt McCaffery writes that “popular art often mirrors common ideas about current economic affairs and reflects the conventional wisdom guiding public opinion” (1). It appears that Olympus Has Fallen uses the Great Recession and North Korean instability to appeal to the fears of the masses. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published an article in 2013 stating that US military preparedness has been undermined by the Budget Control Act (2011). The article states, “Regrettably, world events and potential threats to U.S. strategic national interests are not driven by the same forces that drive the political and budgetary gridlock in Washington. North Korea’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric and actions endanger regional stability in the economically vital Western Pacific” (Dunn 12). Conservatives see recessionary budget cuts as threats to our national security. What better method is there to nurture and ignite support for the military then to exaggerate a Korean threat in a major motion picture?

Maybe common culture is not expressed in film and television because individuals can change as they gain access to power and wealth and lose touch with common values. Williams himself started off as a commoner but once he received a scholarship to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world he became elite. He can reflect on his common experiences from his childhood, but can he really make a “common” claim now that he is educated? This area of ambiguity presents problems for the proponents of common culture. Antoine Fuqua appears to follow a similar change from common culture to elite culture. He grew up a black man in Philadelphia, a minority in the city. He lost his common identity once he created music videos for big artists and action movies for Hollywood. With a networth of $18 million and a degree in electrical engineering, does he really think about the common culture of his youth, or is he largely influenced by his new community of high-net worth producers, directors and megastars? I believe that money and elite education generally distance individuals from common culture.

Pierre Bourdieu states that to be able to analyze culture, culture has to be restricted to its normative, anthropological sense. The elaborate taste for the most refined objects is as natural as tasting food (1). When an audience looks at Olympus Has Fallen in this light, the film’s elements suggest that the elites behind the film capitalized on the financial and psychological insecurity of its audience during 2013, and promoted their values of military strength and economic dominance to keep conservatives in power.

The Incredibles and Utopian Dreams

The Incredibles, Pixar’s 2004 superhero flick, is not renowned for its originality. Nearly every superhero trope is reused. The main characters are essentially the Fantastic Four plus the Flash. But ideologically, this film is far more convoluted than I expected. It is a film concerned with society and how to improve it. I think it is fair to claim that this film is concerned with not only improved society, but also perfect, happy society. Utopian society.
Utopia is a strong word with two relevant meanings to this discussion. Many writers have constructed hypothetical Utopias, which are societies that are organized differently than our own and designed to maximize happiness. This genre is instructional; it is impersonal. On the other hand there is the will to Utopia. People possess an innate desire to improve society, and a desire to experience that massively better (how it is better is open to interpretation) society. The will manifests itself in many areas of life, but can be recognized clearly through film and cinema. Which brings us back to The Incredibles: not only does this film attempt to present a Utopia, it also presents characters’ individual wills for Utopia.
Let’s start with Mr. Incredible and Mrs. Incredible, the main protagonists of the film. Forced into hiding for being “Supers,” humans with extraordinary powers and abilities, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (now with the adopted surname “Parr”) have settled down and moved to the suburbs. The movie begins to hammer home a dichotomy between ordinary and extraordinary. Mr. Incredible is forced to contain his bulk between a tiny desk and an office cubicle at his job, frowning the whole time. Dash, the Incredibles’ second child who has the ability to run faster than anybody else, is refused the privilege to “go out for sports” by his parents as that would make his peers unhappy and draw unnecessary attention to himself. Mrs. Incredible’s most joyous moment in the first act is announcing that the Parr’s are “officially moved in” as she has finally unpacked the last box from their move three years prior.
The situations our heroes are in are not only subduing, they are repressive. The repression of Supers has made them incredibly unhappy. Unable to realize their full potentials, and limited to the capacities of their non-special neighbors, Supers are stuck in our dull world. And it’s not only Supers who are hurt either: regular citizens are impacted as well. In the movies opening scenes, a pre-ban world is shown. Supers are happy, as they can fulfill their desires and help people, but so are regular citizens who benefit from the Supers. They smile and laugh. After the ban, this all changes. Not one regular citizen is laughing or smiling in this world. The brief encounters with non-Supers tell this story: Dash’s teacher fills time trying to catch Dash putting tacks on his chair and Mr. Incredible’s boss lives in constant fear of the shareholders in his company.

Mr. Incredible sits in his office.

The worst part, as the movie would have you think, is that regular citizens’ unhappiness is their own fault. After Mr. Incredible saved a suicide jumper, the jumper sued Mr. Incredible for “ruining his death.” Soon after, nearly all Supers were involved in legal cases. The government was forced to put them into hiding, with one spokeswomen announcing, “it’s time for their secret identities to be their only identity.”
To recap, the unextrodinary masses, and the oppressive capitalist systems, have forced our special heroes into submission, mediocrity, and dejection. The viewer sees an unhappy society, not entirely unlike the one the viewer inhabits. Let’s return to Mr. Incredible, and his will for Utopia. His solution is to “bring back the good old days.” Important to note is that he is not selfish: Mr. Incredible is truly concerned with the stakes of society, rather than only his own life. Repeatedly we see him demonstrate this desire: going the extra mile to help an elderly lady file an insurance claim, attempting to help a man being mugged while Incredible’s boss threatens to sack him, and even resuming illegal hero work to save a family from a burning building. It seems Mr. Incredible wishes for a world where Supers regain their power.
This Utopian world is ideologically aligned with the Nietzschaen superman. Put simply, Pixar is implying that “we are all created equal, but some of us are more equal than others.” (Booker 93) Those who are not special are treated “contemptuously … as a crowd of ignorant rabble.” (Booker 93) Mr. Incredible, and all Supers, are supermen in this sense. Their frustrations are a result of their inability to self actualize because of the constraints of the masses.
The Incredibles seems to follow this ideological base. The efficacy of non-supers to achieve anything meaningful is laughable. Towards the end of the movie, the army attempts to destroy antagonist Syndrome’s robot. Their actions are meaningless, and they are obliterated almost instantly. This ideological view is also supported by the way death is treated. To test his Omnidroid, Syndrome baits various Supers into fighting it. When Mr. Incredible discovers this fact, he freaks out, shocked to find so many Supers have died. This informs the viewer that great emotional weight is placed on the Supers’ deaths. Yet, as the Omnidroid rampages through the city, destroying cars and buildings, not one death is shown. Yes, this is a children’s movie; however, it is important to realize that the “contentious rabble” do not receive even a polite nod when they die. The division between Super and regular is reinforced. Therefore, the Nietzschean Utopia is clearly distinguishes between supermen and regular people. The supermen should be allowed to behave and act without restriction by the rabble.
But the movie’s conclusion offers an alternative interpretation. At the end of the movie, after Syndrome is defeated, the Incredible family are still in their regular clothes – fitting in with society. Dash is allowed to compete in a track race, but he is only allowed to match the speed of his competitors. The family is allowed to resume hero work, but the aspect of full self actualization is absent. Supers still split time between being Super and being normal. This is not the Nietzschean Utopia where the great are unimpeded. The Utopia here is the Utopia Mr. Incredible dreamed for. It seems that this careful limitation of excellence is what the movie strives for. (Anton 227)
To fully describe Mr. Incredible’s, and the movie’s, Utopia I have to incorporate one aspect of the movie that I have mostly ignored until now: the story and character arc of Buddy, who later becomes Syndrome. Buddy is not a Super and has constructed devices and technology that mimics superpowers. Buddy also has a will for Utopia, contrasting to Mr. Incredible’s. Buddy wants everybody to be Super (of course, this is only after he can be super on his own for a few years), and he claims he will share his inventions with the world. The result of his evil: “when everybody is Super, no one will be.”
Buddy’s Utopia is far more egalitarian than Mr. Incredible’s. Buddy wishes for everyone to be equal and elevated to the same power level as the Supers. The movie has made a powerful statement in opposing this point of view, and the movie has opposed this view. At the end of the movie, Mr. Incredible’s Utopia, not Buddy’s, is realized. Ironically, the audience is cheering for the Utopia which least benefits them. The movie makes it clear that being a Super means being born a Super. This is true of the audience as well; none of us are supers. Our idol should be Buddy: he is the person who can empower us. Yet the movie has us cheer for a situation that makes us dependent on the powers and wills of other people.
That scenario is not what I would imagine most Americans envision for their Utopia. It is American, in a traditional sense, to be responsible for yourself, to achieve by yourself. The Incredibles has attempted to convince audiences that the Utopia where they are better off is one where we are less powerful than the institutions surrounding us. It seems like the movie describes our world, but it does not. Instead, The Incredibles is saying that a massively better world is one governed by religion.
It has to be religion too. The government was the primary tool with which Supers were repressed. This implies that the government is not one of the higher powers we should adhere to and, in fact, the government limits the higher power. Capitalism and corporate power is not the solution for much the same reason. That leaves one major institution that fits the description we have. Most religions require a belief in a higher power. Often times, this higher power has smaller deities which do its bidding. Most religions require submission to this higher power, and acceptance of your place below it. These traits are all correlated with behaviors encouraged by The Incredibles.

The Incredibles are crucified like saints.

In particular, Catholicism seems to match better than other religions. All requirements of power, submission, and sainthood are represented. People are not powerful and can never be as powerful as the deities they worship. Regular people should submit to the Supers who will protect them if they do so. Supers are essentially saints: they demonstrate incredible selflessness and capacity to help and are endowed with “otherworldly” power.
The correlation is not perfect. There are ways to become priests, bishops, and the Pope but not Super. But the power dynamics and message remains the same. The movie encourages acceptance of your place in reference to power in a Utopian context. The movie says that if you and everybody else accept religion, the world will be massively better. On impulse, I disagree with this Utopia. But how can I argue, when I just saw how much better off I would be if I let Pope Incredible save me.


Works Referenced
Adurey Anton. “The Nietzschean Influence in The Incredibles and the Sidekick Revolt.” The Amazing, Transforming, Superhero: Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film, and Television. Ed. Terrence R. Wandtke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. Print.

Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Praeger, 2010. 25 Nov. 2009.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. 3rd Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.

The Incredibles. Dir. Brad Bird. By Brad Bird. Walt Disney Pictures, 2004. Online.

Rihanna: Defying Cultural Norms?

In 2011 Rihanna released a music video for her song “S&M” that was subsequently banned in eleven countries and restricted on YouTube, and some radio stations listed the song under the alternate title “Come On.” The video provoked general shock and outrage for its suggestive content about sexual sadomasochism. This reaction is understandable, at first. People are shocked by Rihanna’s vulgarity, and our society is uncomfortable with the concept of nonstandard sex existing in the mainstream. However, we should look past the shock novelty of her “chains and whips,” and consider her message, which isn’t bad. It might even be liberating.

Popular culture has often been a kind of carnival, like the medieval romps Bakhtin describes in Rabelais and His World:

“Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.”

Ordinary people set aside the usual rules and hierarchies and, in fits of liberating bad taste, rebel against (or temporarily take the place of) their kings and bosses and masters. There is no distinction between performers and audience members. Semi-lawlessness and debauchery rein. Social norms—beauty standards, etc.—are disposed of. In two words, Mardi Gras.

Oftentimes, popular culture is not a depiction of carnival. Sometimes it is a depiction of an anti-carnival where even in 2016 artists can make millions perpetuating social hierarchies through racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Just take Selena Gomez’ “Good For You.” Gomez sings “I just wanna look good for you, good for you” and A$AP Rocky then raps “You look good, girl, you know you did good, don’t you?,” unabashedly marginalizing women as objects men can show off by suggesting a woman’s purpose is to look good for her man.

Or take “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony. Each of the five girls is singing to persuade a guy to stay home from work to have sex with her. “I know you gotta/Put in them hours, I’mma make it harder/I’m sending pic after picture, I’mma get you fired.” In addition to enforcing the stereotypes of men working and women staying home, the song dives further into the traditional gender roles, saying, “baby you’re the boss at home,” indicating that men are the heads of households. And if that isn’t enough, watch the video. It goes so far it’s a parody of itself. Both the men’s and women’s outfits would not be out of place in a costume shop under the label “sexy construction worker.” It’s actually funny. Men work a construction scene, with plenty of slow-motion shots that show off their oiled-up abs. The women of Fifth Harmony sing the melody, moving their hips provocatively, presumably there to distract the men. Innuendos abound: one of the girls unwinds a tape measure several inches and looks suggestively at one of the workers.

Back to Rihanna—specifically, her new single “Work” (which, as I write this, is sitting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100). Almost nothing she sings is discernible but Drake, her feature, auto-tunes these gems: “You need to get done, done, done, done at work, come over/…/Now you need to forward and give me all the/work.” It’s possible different listeners will have different interpretations of the word work here, but I think it’s reasonable to assume it’s not work like work it, and there’s no escaping the fact that a man telling a woman to give him all the work is currently at Billboard #1. And how about “Take a Bow”? At first listen it’s a female empowerment anthem; she’s asserting herself and standing up to a guy who cheated on her. In the meantime, though, she manages to further drill into our heads traditional male stereotypes, this time about how men should not express emotion: “You look so dumb right now/Standin’ outside my house/Tryin’ to apologize/You’re so ugly when you cry/(Please)/Just cut it out.” We hear a strong, independent woman, but we hear her telling us men look dumb when they cry and apologize.

Rihanna is baffling because many of her numbers are indeed carnivalesque, and some of the songs even contradict themselves! I’ll take a step back. What counts as carnivalesque? If the central qualification is the concept of the ‘king fool,’ of the dissolution of the usual hierarchical boundaries and social norms, then who are the kings who become fools and the fools who become kings? In Rihanna’s case, it’s usually a matter of race and gender. So white people, and men, and white men, are her oppressors.

“Hard” is one of these contradictory songs. The carnivalesque messages are more involved: the hook, “I’m so hard,” is unique in itself because a woman wouldn’t normally sing that line. The video (set at a military base) portrays Rihanna as a drill sergeant with the infantrymen snapping to attention, doing her bidding. She sings, “They can say whatever, I’ma do whatever” as men submit and snap to attention. The rest of the video includes scenes of Rihanna participating in activities stereotypically masculine, like playing poker with the guys in the barracks. She also sings about being at an “all white party wearing all black,” a metaphor for race. The song/video combo is not perfect—Rihanna’s expected sexualization, and the possibility exists that a sexy woman taking control could be viewed as a fantasy—but it’s a step forward.

“Bitch Better Have My Money” takes another step toward blurring social boundaries. Margaret Corvid of New Statesman writes, “Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy.”1 Before Corvid gets into the sexual aspects of the video, she describes how this song intimately depicts Rihanna’s anger, set off by the accountancy firm that cheated her out of millions, at the patriarchy’s “financial violation” of women, and the fact that critics were disgusted because society does not take well to female revenge. The video is based around the kidnapping and submission of an elite white woman by a diverse trio. There’s Rihanna, there’s another white woman, and there’s another who could possibly be described as a biker chick, but she isn’t sexualized, she’s overweight, and her outfit includes many piercings, tight black clothes under a trench coat, and a spiked choker. All three look like thugs. They tie up the elite white woman, strip her, and take her to a barn, a yacht, and then a house and force her to binge drink, smoke marijuana, and participate in a variety of degrading acts. But Corvid’s (and my) point is that she seems to like it. She never fights back. She hides from the police when they show up. So in “BBHMM” Rihanna advocates lawless deviant sex between four women, and the placement of that high-class white woman below (the case could be made for equal to) the thugs. The king (queen?) is willingly made a fool.

The best example of Rihanna’s carnival side is S&M. If “BBHMM” is an implicit BDSM fantasy, “S&M” is an explicit one. The first lines of the song are:

“Feels so good being bad

There’s no way I’m turning back

Now the pain is for pleasure

‘Cause nothing can measure”


And if the lyrics aren’t overtly carnivalesque (BDSM is not inherently so), the video sure is. There are three alternate settings, the first being Press v. Rihanna: men in suits drag her through a door into a pressroom. The journalists are ball-gagged and Rihanna is wrapped in latex, and it’s not too far of a stretch to see the separation between them (she’s standing on a stage, they’re sitting facing her) as that divide between the performers and audience that’s so anti-carnival, and the subsequent participation of the press in Rihanna’s fantasy as the wiping away of that divide. The journalists aren’t attractive, either. There’s a fat balding white guy, a fat black woman, and less overweight people of all flavors. The second scene includes as good of a ‘king fool’ representation as I’ve seen: Rihanna dressed as an aristocrat walking a dog, except the dog isn’t a dog, he’s a tied up white guy (Perez Hilton, a celebrity), and he likes it. The third scene is a costume room, and again, there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors dressing up in weird clothes doing sexual things. In a particularly illuminating split-second, Rihanna is dancing on the lap of a fat white man with tape all over his body, and he has an excited grin on his face. All three scenes present fantasies of bridged divides and blurred lines.

Are society’s values carnivalesque, though? Sure, culture sometimes portrays that scenario, but why, then, are so many of the best-selling, top-rated, and most listened-to songs out there so abhorrently misogynistic or racist? S&M was restricted and even banned in some areas.2 Also, so many of these songs are so catchy that catchiness alone isn’t a good enough excuse for liking one. If someone is offended by lyrics, they have hundreds of other catchy songs to choose from. We listen to the marginalizing stuff, so in some sense we must hold those values, but we also listen to songs like S&M—it’s one of Rihanna’s top hits of all time. We as a society are undecided as to whether we support the concept of the carnival.

Don’t think for a second that this stuff doesn’t matter. Music is central to society and culture. The average teenager listens to music for almost four hours per day. 84% of American adults use the internet. Running through poor, rural Vermont, I passed two guys sitting on the porch of their trailer listening to Flo Rida. Song lyrics and YouTube views matter: the small amount of research that’s been done on the effects of these media has suggested that the media do affect behavior,3 and we are being desensitized to concepts like white male supremacy.

Rihanna is in a position of wide influence, and she’s giving us the hint of a message that destroying hierarchical boundaries is the way to go. If she really believed and cared about our supposed deep-down desires to break those boundaries, I doubt she’d let Drake tell her to give him all the work. She’s giving us both sides of the coin, and she represents our society’s indecision about whether to break down our hierarchies. Yes, much of her output is decidedly anti-carnival, but so is everyone else’s. As morally questionable it is, anti-carnival messages are the norm, the baseline, just as marginalization has been central to society for as long as it has existed. Rihanna’s attempts to go against that trend are breaths of fresh air. Bluntly, they’re worth the other garbage.



1 Corvid, Margaret, 2015. Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy. New Statesman.


2 Niemiec, Charlsie, 2011 for CollegeCandy.com. What’s the Big Deal About Rihanna’s S&M? Huffington Post.


3 Inappropriate Content in Music. Media Smarts.



Laughter: The World’s Worst Medicine?

We have all been told that laughter can be the best medicine. Researchers have connected laughter with a physical response that significantly improves your mood, and have concluded that if we laugh more, we’ll be happier. But the research can also be interpreted to support the opposite claim. Laughter cheats happiness because it temporarily tricks your body into thinking you are happy; it is a vehicle that enables you to avoid confronting pain and suffering. Adorno claims that the mass production of consumer culture “replaces pain, which is present in ecstasy no less than in asceticism, with jovial denial. Its supreme law is that its consumers shall at no price be given what they desire: they must laugh and be content with laughter.” Adorno’s claim is devastating. Laughter – what we take as an outward expression of happiness – actually indicates unhappiness. What does this mean for those of us who have laughed – as I presume many of us have – at least five times today, and expect to laugh at least five times tomorrow?

Laughter and misery can converge in the form of stand up comedy. Comedians utilize their ability to reach a wide audience to present social commentary, drawing on historic and contemporary social patterns and inequality for material. Dave Chappelle’s famous comedic commentary on racial and gender inequality in America repositions the interplay between laughter and misery: he tries to use laughter to attack suffering head on. What does it mean to laugh at a joke rooted in misery and unhappiness – both for our society and our own personal happiness?

In his stand-up routine “Killing Me Softly,” the audience’s laughter validates the truth to Chappelle’s social commentary, acknowledging the general unhappiness present in our society. During one bit, Chappelle describes how his white friend has no fear of the police – and has even asked a policeman for directions while completely intoxicated – while Chappelle hides out of fear of persecution. The audience laughs because they can, in some capacity, imagine this happening; we understand that racial inequality manifests in police treatment of civilians, and we laugh. Our laughter exposes Chappelle’s commentary as rooted in some real reality – if the joke is so out of left field that it is incomprehensible, we wouldn’t laugh. So what moves us to respond to this commentary by laughing? If we are laughing at an expression of unhappiness and pain, then this laughter cannot be an expression of happiness. Can it be possible that we are actually deriving pleasure from suffering and misery?

John Limon offers a different reason for why we laugh at pain in his book “Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America.” He argues that the art of stand-up revolves around the abject, or the incorrigible parts of our identities that strain our sense of self. However, another layer of abjection emerges from his analysis: Limon describes laughter as the “social equivalent to pain” because it minimizes the weight of your abjection. Laughter can temporarily relieve your incongruous understanding of yourself, or your desire to rid yourself of the role in your life that you believe has become your only character.[1] In other words, comedy and laughter – by revolving on the subject of the abject – abjects, or casts off, pain. Furthermore, “the specific benefit of laughter is obliviousness. In this respect, laughter has a strange intimacy with pain…the use of laughter to combat disease must have something to do with the capacity of pain and humor for creating exclusive, hence mutually exclusive, worlds.”[2] Humor and pain are spheres that push each other away – so using humor (which we are inclined to do because it feels better than pain) – keeps pain at a distance.

The argument that laughter pushes pain away does not necessarily place laughter in a negative context – trading laughter for pain seems like an obviously easy trade to make. However, laughter in the context of stand-up comedy and social commentary has negative implications because, as Limon explicitly says, it makes us oblivious; laughter allows us to brush away specific ideas that are too important to ignore. It allows us to push away pain that cannot just be pushed away because it is so deeply systemic and important to understanding the individuals and communities of our society. The pain and suffering that Chappelle draws on for material should not be ignored because it the pain of ourselves and the pain we feel for others.

So how does humor distance us from our pain and what implications does this have for our happiness? In their research entitled “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter,” Julia Wilkins and Amy Janel Eisenbraun explore the physiological basis of the humor theory – which can be broken down into three main segments: the relief theory (humor is outlet for tension in order to provide relief), incongruity theory (laughter from contradictions between expectations and experiences), and the superiority theory (laughter derived from sense of supremacy over others).[3] Their research supports the relief theory and suggests that one of the main reasons we value humor is for its physiological relief of tension: laughter is a social coping mechanism that allows us to distance ourselves from pain and unease.

Stand-up comedy has many moving parts: the comedian on stage, the audience comprised of individuals, and future viewers. Laughter in the context of stand-up is social. Dave Chappelle described a situation about being brought “to the ghetto by a cab driver” and finding himself in the middle of a drug deal. I (watching on a computer), along with the audience, laughed at this segment, even though I have definitely never been in that situation, and I would guess other audience members could also not explicitly relate. The joke creates a divide between those who share this experience with Chappelle and those who don’t. I found myself laughing because the joke repositioned me in relation to Chappelle and other audience members: I was made aware that my privilege has kept me out of this situation, but that the same could not be said for Chappelle, or likely other audience members. The joke exposes a division of experiences and privilege, which creates tension. Each audience member may each be partaking in complex laughter for different reasons, but we are laugh together in order to release tension.

Laughter can also distance us from pain felt by our society by marginalizing our role in the specific issue of the social commentary. During his routine, Chappelle often switches from playing caricatures of stereotypical black and white men. The humor theory’s third facet – the theory of superiority – would suggest that audiences laugh at his attempt to satirize a classically racist white male out of a sense of superiority. The racism portrayed seems so explicit that it seems impossible to fathom acting that way yourself. The group laughter denotes Chappelle’s portrayal of racism as ridiculous – we laugh because we think it’s just an exaggeration, and hold ourselves to a higher moral standing than the actions and attitudes of the caricature. We believe that racism as Chappelle portrays it is not a real issue for us because we are above it. The distance between us and the reality of suffering grows.

In this sense, humor positions negative situations in a more positive perspective, and thus it also enables us to hide from the truth of the social commentary. Although comedians like Chappelle try to utilize the lightheartedness and inclusivity of comedy as a platform to address important social issues, comedy actually pads the issue because we as a society are not ready to just address them head on. In the police-officer routine mentioned above, Chappelle says with a straight face, “we, as black people, have very legitimate reasons to fear the police.” Cue audience laughter. The cold and simple truth – sandwiched in the context of a stand-up comedy routine – produced laughter; if the statement had been delivered in a different arena, it would be considered far from funny. Laughter takes away the sting and discomfort of seeing the truth in plain sight because the truth.

Another avenue to humor and pain is asking what would happen if we did not laugh. If we don’t laugh at the joke that satirizes racism – if the room just has an air of solemn silence – then the weight of that joke and it’s roots in real suffering crash down on us. The realness of the issue hits hard and fast…unless we laugh. Our laughter instead reduces the heaviness, acknowledging the situation as “not that bad” – we detach ourselves from the responsibility of actually trying to do something about changing the issue. Even if we were ready to see the truth of the joke, laughter enables complacency in the face of social inequality. And so it becomes even more evidently clear: laughter – even as a means of attacking pain straight on – cheats us out of happiness by distancing us from our pain and enabling us to not put in the work to make ourselves happy.

But we never have to face these truths head on because we have laughter. Chappelle seemed to come face to face with this realization when he decided to cancel his show Chappelle’s Show in 2005, during the peak of its success. He realized that his show – and caricatures of black stereotypes – gave audiences permission to laugh at real suffering. He revealed on Oprah that he felt like “some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy…while others got the wrong idea.”[4] When he puts a line or joke in his show, it is immediately released into the public hands; using humor for social commentary can have effects out of the comedian’s control. The joke or caricature can be taken out of the context of the comedian’s greater social commentary and lose its greater significance. It becomes relegated to the comedic realm with very little chance of having any real agency over social change. The very real suffering that served as the basis of the joke is marginalized and allows people to be complacent about the misery.

Comedy has become a socially acceptable platform to present grievances with social orders and hierarchies; but why can’t an explicitly bold and polite presentation of social commentary be just as acceptable? Sure – it is tense when someone comes out critiquing and exposing privilege – but maybe if we resisted the (natural) urge to diffuse the tension and just sat with it, we could actually be moved to make changes. Now seeing that Adorno’s arugment holds truth, are we going to remain content with laughter as a consolation prize for happiness? Perhaps we prefer the immediate (physiological and psychological) gratification of laughter – and pushing pain away – over putting in the effort and hard work it takes to reconstruct and initiate social change. So, are you ready to give up laughter for the sake of a life worth living – for yourself and generations to come?



Works Cited

Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

Wilkins, Julia, and Amy Janel Eisenbraun. “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter.” Holistic Nursing Practice 23.6 (2009): 349-54. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

“Chappelle’s Story.” Oprah.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Chappelles-Story#ixzz46WSC4qTH
















[1] Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

[2] Ibid, 104.

[3] Wilkins, Julia, and Amy Janel Eisenbraun. “Humor Theories and the Physiological Benefits of Laughter.” Holistic Nursing Practice 23.6 (2009): 349-54. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

[4] “Chappelle’s Story.” Oprah.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Food for the Active Consumer: Napoleon Dynamite and the Creativity of Pop Culture

It is easy to take for granted the notion that our interests in movies, music, comedy, and entertainment of all forms are a reflection of our “personal tastes”. But this idea is far from settled. There is compelling, although not immediately apparent, evidence that trends control us – the consumers. Put more precisely, producers of those trends control consumers by setting a trend, which then shapes and homogenizes society’s interests. This notion is not a new one, and it was most famously summarized by cultural theorist Theodor Adorno in the middle of the twentieth century. In his view, people’s interests are not a function of anything unique to themselves. Rather, their “tastes” are forged by the producers of the cultural artifacts. As Adorno put it, “The autonomy of works of art, which of course rarely ever predominated in an entirely pure form, and was always permeated by a constellation of effects, is tendentially eliminated by the culture industry, with or without the conscious will of those in control.” (Adorno and Rabinbach, 1975) If culture producers set and manipulate society’s tastes, then people are passively engaging with their culture instead of actively shaping its contents. Their tastes are being controlled by the “culture industry.”

To find that this compelling view is not the case we need to identify the trending themes in our culture. Then we must show that popular cultural artifacts exist which differ markedly from those trends. If such artifacts exist apart from the mass produced cultural products, then they have become popular because of people’s independent tastes, not because of influence from the existing cultural trends. This would imply that consumers are not just passively receiving their culture and accepting its mainstream products. Rather, they are actively shaping it based on their own interests. As it turns out, there are many examples of popular artifacts which differ from cultural trends. One such example is the film Napoleon Dynamite, which became popular because consumers found something unique that they appreciated in it, not because it fit in with any mass produced cultural pattern.

To see how consumers deviate from the cultural trends, we must first establish what those trends are. One major trend in film is toward big budgets. Big budget movies put their names out with extensive marketing efforts. They often involve fantastical scenes with violence, complex settings, or extraordinary stunts intended to wow the audience. Examples of such movies include: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Avatar, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. These movies all feature significant use of graphical modifications and computer adjustments. These features drive up the cost themselves, but also facilitate the other aforementioned commonality among these movies that makes production expensive: extreme action and stunts. Movies with such characteristics all have a commitment to leaving the audience awestruck by portraying physically extreme events: explosions, chases, duals, etc… This feeds a culture where a movie series like Fast and Furious, an action packed series absent complex messaging or markedly different plots, can be on its eighth film. These movies are consistently reproducing the same type of film, a type that people evidently enjoy despite its lack of complexity.

Another major trend is that most movies have some clearly established purpose or conclusion that they are driving toward. In many cases, this comes in the form of a conflict/resolution structure which is fundamental to much of storytelling. An excellent example of this is present in The Breakfast Club, a film renowned for addressing topics of adolescence and social adjustment. In bringing together five students of different social swaths for Saturday detention, the film highlights uncomfortable, but accurate features of teen social structure. This was, unequivocally, a component of the film’s purpose. As Harold Foster put it:

For many of its viewers, the film has that ‘this-is-real, slice-of-life’ quality. You can just hear its teenage audience saying, ‘That’s me.’ I contend The Breakfast Club was much like The Big Chill in that the makers of this film knew what buttons to press to get the intended audience into the shopping mall theaters. Like the old World War II movies, each person represented one stereotype. There was the popular girl, the brainy nerd, the flake, the jock, the troubled rebel, and the dumb, authoritarian teacher. Characters spin their stories predictably with the same superficiality that characterized characters in A Chorus Line. To many viewers, this is a realistic, sensitive portrayal of troubled kids. (Foster, 1987)

The filmmakers intended to use the set of stereotyped characters they created to bring to the surface some of the key challenges of adolescence. Not only films with serious subject matters, but many other types such as comedies and fantastical action films operate with a similarly clear sense of purpose. For instance, it was hardly ever ambiguous what the conflict or resolution was in any Spider Man or Batman film ever made.

While cultural trends are captured and magnified in many movies, this is not universally the case. Napoleon Dynamite exists as a popular artifact removed from mainstream productions. When we search for a purpose in this film, we’ll find only a few vestiges of mainstream appearance. Initially, the movie presents as if it may show the evolution of a kid who struggles to fit in. Napoleon is harassed at school for his tater tots, gives an embarrassing current events report on the Loche Ness monster, and has only one friend, a quiet new student named Pedro. On top of this, Napoleon has trouble getting along at home. With no parents, Napoleon lives with his grandmother, has a poor relationship with his unemployed, chatroom-obsessed, older brother Kip, and cannot get along with his strange relative, Uncle Rico. Toward the end of the movie, there are some suggestions of solutions: Napoleon gives a legendary dance performance in front of his school, Kip finds happiness with his new girlfriend, Pedro wins the school presidency, and Uncle Rico reconnects with an old friend. But the semblance of a mainstream story in this movie ends there.

Despite the humorously negative events that the film shows many characters going through, chiefly Napoleon, there is no illustration of a clear conflict. Napoleon seems largely blind to the degree to which he fails to fit in. Although he is often ill-tempered, this doesn’t appear to have its roots in his lack of popularity, but rather, simple things, such as chapped lips, or a lack of steak in the fridge. Kip also seems perfectly content with his chatroom and television filled lifestyle. While his failure to engage in any conventionally meaningful endeavors may paint a depressing picture for the audience, it fhardly appears to phase him. And then there’s Uncle Rico, whose extreme nostalgia and desire to live in the past leaves viewers painfully chuckling at his extreme delusion. Yet, he appears fairly pleased with his life. Each of these examples demonstrates that the problems with the characters as the audience perceives them, are not challenges that the characters themselves feel. In essence, the movie does not present any clear conflict, even for Napoleon.

Beyond not presenting any clear conflict, Napoleon Dynamite does not outline any substantive solutions to the minor challenges it suggests that the characters face. While the movie ends with a series of positive events for each character, these illusory solutions don’t actually address what viewers likely perceive as the fundamental problems in the characters’ lives. Specifically, Napoleon’s success dancing in front of his school, while it may provide momentary gratification by temporarily impressing his classmates, fails to fix the underlying personality traits that serve as barriers to his social acceptance. It also fails to address his dry life at home and strained relationships with his family members. For Kip, finding a girlfriend, who he quickly declares to be his “soul mate”, provides him considerable happiness. But it does not alter his otherwise dismal future prospects given that he is jobless and devoid of any apparent skills or meaningful resources. For Uncle Rico, meeting what may be an old girlfriend at the end of the film does not fix his persistent disillusionment and nearly nonstop obsession with the past. With no clear problem, the movie provides no clear solution. And beyond this, the movie does not offer any escape from what viewers would likely take to be mildly depressing lifestyles.

At this point, it is apparent that Napoleon Dynamite is certainly not a mainstream film. It has no identifiable purpose, particularly not one which relies upon a conflict-resolution structure. We know that what made the film popular were not its trendy, mainstream qualities. But then what features did cause viewers to flock to it? While answering this question is not essential to demonstrate that Napoleon Dynamite exemplifies active consumer culture, it can provide positive affirmation of this point. The main unique aspect of the film which seems to garner viewer interest is the way it attempts to characterize reality without signaling to the audience that it is doing so. Viewers are left, after the film, wondering what the takeaway was, searching for something in a plot that appeared to be about nothing. But then it becomes clear how, in telling a story which entertained by focusing humorously on the eccentricities of reality, the film captured reality so perfectly. The vast majority of the time, reality does not have violent chases to defeat a villain, or a relationship that goes awry but eventually falls magically into place. Reality is far simpler than that. It has far more bike rides, farm animals, and tough days at school than it does car chases, explosions, or scandals. And there is humor in it. The film’s critics complain that Napoleon Dynamite is about nothing. These viewers have been conditioned by the mass media to enjoy that which is dramatic or clear in purpose. The film is proof that pop culture can be creative. It is proof that, even in a culture dominated by big budget dramas, a film can be made which subtly, but humorously characterizes reality and still gains popularity. And that can only happen in a society with active consumers, not passive ones.



[1] Adorno, Theodor W., and Anson G. Rabinbach. “Culture Industry Reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 21 Apr. 2016.

[2] Foster, Harold M. “Film in the Classroom: Coping with “Teenpics”” The English Journal 76.3 (1987): 86. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 21 Apr. 2016.

Image Sources:

[1] http://www.playbuzz.com/celebmix/who-said-it-napoleon-dynamite-edition

[2] http://chubbycat543.blogspot.com/2012_11_01_archive.html

[3] http://gtaforums.com/topic/825375-declasse-moonbeam-appreciation-thread/page-3



Encoded Shadings


When the word “dystopia” is thrown around during a debate, most people’s minds jump to thoughts of 1984, The Hunger Games, or The Matrix. Normally, the visionaries, who portray such societies, pit a revolutionary protagonist against a seemingly indefatigable, fascist system. There is always this sense of absolutism that equates dystopia with totalitarian repression. Such is the message, that cultural pieces, like the ones mentioned above, seem to show us. In The Matrix, yes, there is clearly a struggle on the part of the “enlightened, real-world minority group” to overcome the prescriptive, coaxing, materialistic world of the matrix, controlled by the agents. It’s the modern reinvention of David and Goliath, where a charismatic, weaker force overcomes a dominant one. This, however, would only be a simplistic, with-the-grain reading of the film. Let us not overlook the fact that Morpheus’s crew, namely Neo, only overcomes the antagonist, Smith, so that he might replace him as the alpha in the matrix. My point being, the matrix actually has some redeeming intrinsic values. The matrix may support a dystopia of sorts, but it has utopian qualities. Even those individuals, who have been brought out of the matrix to the real world, appreciate the seductive possibilities when jacked-in. The matrix offers entertainment and culture, which, even, regretfully, in the eyes of the protagonists, holds promise of a better life. Ernst Bloch, the renowned Marxist academic, maintains a similar line of though, “seeing utopian potential in cultural artifacts ranging from advertising and display to Beethoven and opera” (Kellner 5). Though very anti-Adornian, Bloch seems to uphold that, what one may see as, “controlling” aspects of the culture industry might actually offer utopian qualities.

Much like critics before me, we can settle on the fact that the world of the matrix is fundamentally dystopian. People within society follow through with their lives under the assumptions that consumerism puts before them. They work, they buy, they work more…the cycle continues. This is the way in which Lilly and Lana Wachowski, the film’s directors, lead us to believe life in the matrix persists. Essentially the agents, the human-like subjects of the machines that control the matrix, act as the Big Brother authority figures that, ever so inconspicuously (to the everyday citizen’s eye), manage everyone’s lives. One might subsequently pair a conception of rigid control with dystopia. Jill Dolan, English department chair at Princeton, professes, however, that, “Fascism and utopia can skirt dangerously close to each other” (2). By this token, one might find parallel qualities in both dystopian and utopian societies. Hence my claim, though The Matrix depicts a dystopian society, it has shadings that give it utopian qualities.


Cypher, a proven villain of the film, finds resolve in the world of the matrix. It is important to note that Cypher, like many other characters of the film, is a human, brought from the world of the matrix to reality. Having experienced both worlds, Cypher cuts a deal with Agent Smith to live a better life, within the matrix, as a famous actor. Fully aware of the “dystopian” consequences to which he is sentencing himself, Cypher voluntarily seeks out Smith. A critic might choose to ignore such a plot detail, or merely dismiss it as the action of a thoroughly materialistic antagonist. Cypher, however, is not the only one coaxed by the promise of the matrix—I will discuss that later. The intent of the rebel group, who lives in reality, is to enlighten people and pit them against the matrix. Once they are brought over, the assumption is that they will see the poison that seeps ever so quietly into the minds of those that live within the matrix. Having seen both worlds, Cypher decides to go back. Logically speaking, only an utter fool would choose something truly dystopian over something as liberating as reality. Cypher, however, through his systematic destruction of Morpheus’s crew, proves he is no fool. Why then, would he choose to go back? The matrix has certain utopian qualities that offer something reality cannot: limitless possibility.

Neo, our protagonist, only has the ability to be a kung-fu master, a parkour legend, a weapons expert, and a bullet dodging superhuman when he is jacked-into the matrix. Similar abilities go for other characters in the film, like Morpheus and Trinity (disregarding the last, god-like ability to dodge bullets). When cops come after Neo and Trinity, police prove no match for the martial arts masters. Furthermore, in the conclusion of the film, where the all-powerful agents are obliterated, Neo exercises divine powers. His abilities are only possible when he has entered into the matrix. In the real world he is a weak, unconfident, pasty man. Contrastingly, when in the matrix, Neo is, as we see in the film, nearly invincible. The matrix may in fact be dystopian, but such abilities and changes in character present viewers with a problem: the matrix is almost too good to be true. When Neo jacks-in, he’s hooked. What he can do in the matrix makes him worth something to the crew, and it gives him character. Douglas Kellner puts it quite well, in that, “many people wear masks…to get a new and more satisfying identity through immersion”(5). One can’t deny that Neo, along with Trinity, appreciates the matrix more because of what he can do in it. It makes grey, listless people great. Everyone, who enters the matrix from reality, becomes super-human. Given, these abilities they are granted are materialistic, but they shape the development of the film’s characters so much that they seem to scream utopia. What in fact gives us our identities is a combination of what we do and how we reflect on what we do.


Not only does the matrix give one superhuman abilities, but also one can have most any skill uploaded to their mind. Nearing the end of the film, Trinity desperately needs to know how to fly a helicopter in order to save the day. Within seconds a file is uploaded to her animus and she is a professional pilot. Similar things happen throughout the film, from learning advanced martial arts to speaking several languages. Essentially anything that our protagonist and his crew need can easily be provided. This aspect of the matrix is borderline comedic. When a problem arises, a solution is almost always within reach. Oddly enough, in such a cruel, repressive world as that of the matrix, one can find effortless perfection. This persistent deus ex machina aspect of the film sheds light on the utopian characteristics present.

Let us also not forget that the romantic relationship between Trinity and Neo was sparked in the matrix. The eroticized excesses of tight leather clothing, slicked back hair, and promiscuous shades that Morpheus’s crew bear far outweigh the grey, tattered, sub-thrift rags that the crew wears in reality. They could wear whatever they wanted, but they choose to wear sexy, tight clothing. Even though they have all left their former lives in the matrix for a promise of something better, it is evident that they still appreciate the clothing they wear in the matrix. Though speculative, one might add that Trinity’s seductive outfit played a large part into why Neo even listened to her in the first place. Jill Dolan goes as far as describing aspects of utopian unity as “clinging to the fleshy seductions of old-fashioned primal emotion and presence” (3). Clothing enhances physical attraction and image. The tight leather garb Trinity wears simulates her wearing no clothing whatsoever. By this token, the matrix offers solutions to primal urges. The clothing Neo and Trinity wear in the matrix plays very much into their relationship, affecting their sense of character. Neo goes from being a low-life computer hacker to being a decked-out badass. Such sexually amplifying materialism makes even those that have been enlightened (the crew) more intimidating and cohesive. If the “pure” specifically appreciate what they wear, there must be a certain degree of utopian qualities to clothing. In no doubt is flashy clothing consumer culture. Obviously, however, it has benefits in the eyes of those, who ought to know better.


If you want to become “aware” and leave the matrix, essentially you have to trip on drugs. Morpheus offers Neo a choice, roofies or DMT, a blue pill or a red pill. The blue will make him forget and the red will make him essentially experience the most vivid trip anyone has ever had, thus “awakening” him. It’s kind of ironic that one can leave the matrix, a dystopia, by taking a drug. One might suppose that Morpheus’s choice of narcotics as a solution to a system of oppression isn’t quite so favorable. It makes one question whether “finding reality” through vices is really all that genuine. Within the matrix, at least, you’re not about to be drugged by some cult-leader who claims he has answers. I digress.


The dystopian nature of society in the matrix must not be seen as an absolute. The matrix has several utopian qualities that provide our group of protagonists with various popular cultural choices. As it seems, even though our group of protagonists have made it their goal to undermine the power of the matrix and its subsidiary agents, they cannot seem to evade the luring utopian qualities that permeate from the lines of code. Neo, among others, enjoys the feeling of invincibility. Cypher recognizes that the matrix is full of culture and vibrancy that gives one a sense of identity. In the visceral minds of each crew-member, there exists this burning desire to advance beyond a reality of grey, cold, faceless monotony. For this exact reason, even those that have seen beyond the matrix choose to live the better part of their lives in the matrix, where power is transcendent. Unbridled potential lies in the dystopia critics call The Matrix. Why would the forces so deeply pitted against a dystopian regime be so coaxed by its influence? What appears to be a dystopia, in the absolutist sense of the term, actually has various shadings of utopian qualities. Such can be seen in all that our utopian-oriented protagonists, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, etc, strive towards.


Works Cited

Dolan, Jill. “Performance, Utopia, and the “Utopian Performative”” Project MUSE. Oct. 2001.     Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Kellner, Douglas. “Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique.” Illuminations: Kellner. Web. 20    Apr. 2016.