All posts by Sarah Tully

Life is like a Really Messy Box of Chocolates

If you were alive in 1995 (which I wasn’t) and remember that year’s Oscars (which you probably don’t), then you’ll recall that Forrest Gump won not one, not two, but six awards. As the fifth highest grossing movie of its decade and, according to a quick google search, the most quoted movie of all time, the film easily won over the hearts of many Americans. People find the characters, most notably Forrest, to be lovable and the many events of the film to be both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. But if creating a successful movie is as easy as making a charming character and throwing in a few emotional twists, then what is stopping every other film in Hollywood from winning six academy awards?

The obvious place to start is with Forrest himself. If you were to describe the movie to someone who had never seen it, Forrest’s character would likely come across as a slightly less intelligent version of a stereotypical male character; he’s an athletic guy who is in love with his childhood best friend, he’s a war hero, and he starts a business that becomes successful. Sure, he had to deal with some bullies, but what relatable male character doesn’t? Anyone who has seen the movie, though, knows that he isn’t every other male in film. In fact, his masculinity, the very thing that defines many of Hollywood’s best-known characters, is shaky at best.

His intelligence, or better said, his lack of intelligence, is one of the first places we start to see his masculinity wobble. Historically, males have been seen as more capable and more fit for intellectual discourse. And beyond that, until recently it has been the case that girls, not boys, have been denied the ability to receive an education and have struggled to obtain this opportunity. But Forrest, a boy, gets turned away from school. And his mother fights to get him enrolled. So right off the bat, we watch Forrest become feminized.

Moreover, throughout the movie, we see Forrest open up about his emotions—a characteristic associated with being feminine—rather than keeping them locked up and trying to remain stoic. When he’s on the shrimping boat with Lieutenant Dan, his superior in the Vietnam war, and the storm hits, he tells us, “now me, I was scared”. Lieutenant Dan, on the other hand is the epitome of masculinity. He’s shirtless, he’s pumping his fists, and he’s got an American Flag waving behind him. And the no legs thing? No problem. He’s positioned himself so that he’s taller than anybody within miles and miles. But who do we relate to? Not Lieutenant Dan. He’s being reckless and irresponsible. Forrest, though, who is being cautious and has been feminized? We find comfort in him.

And when Forrest finds Jenny, the said childhood friend he’s pining over, at the strip club, he tells her he loves her. Again, he’s revealing his emotions. And despite being a woman, Jenny actually takes on many of the more masculine traits that Forrest lacks. Her response to his declaration is not only to brush away his emotions, as might be expected of a stereotypical male, but to actually explain that because he doesn’t “know what love is” he is wrong. Jenny is telling Forrest that he doesn’t know enough to even merit a conversation. Sound familiar, ladies? I would put money on it that essentially every woman has been told at some point or another that she is wrong just because a man doesn’t see something the same way as her and “she doesn’t know what she is talking about”.

Jenny and Forrest’s characters are constantly crossing (and uncrossing) the gender line. Sabine Moller discusses how discusses how “Jenny symbolizes ‘drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll’, whereas Forrest’s character is oriented towards ‘Mom, God & apple pie’”. And it doesn’t require too much explaining to say that society tends to associate “drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll”, which are adventurous and bold, with men and “Mom, God & apple pie”, which immediately evoke images of domestic life, with women. The characteristics of men that are often viewed negatively are put onto Jenny, while those of women that are seen positively (the tenderness and faithfulness) are given to Forrest.

This idea of “Mom, God, & apple pie” is especially prominent at the end of the movie once Jenny has passed away. As a single parent, Forrest is left with the responsibility of being the child’s caretaker, and thus he becomes the mother figure. In fact, the film urges you to notice the parallel between Forrest having a single mother and then taking on the role of a single mother himself. At the beginning, Forrest, as a child, sits in bed with his mother reading Curious George. Fast forward to the end of the film and once again Forrest is sitting in the same room, in the same house, with the same book, and with a child who has the same name. The implication is that Forrest has taken on the role of his mother.

But don’t let this fool you into thinking Forrest is entirely feminized. Thomas B. Byers reminds us that “at the same time Forrest is, by turns, an All-American football star, a Medal-of-Honor-winning war hero, a wildly successful entrepreneur, a spiritual leader held in awe and reverence, and a fertile and wise father”. Forrest is feminized, but at the same time he embodies the idealized version of American masculinity. While he does take on the role of a motherly figure, in the scenes directly following him reading a book with little Forrest we see the two of them playing ping pong and fishing and sitting on a stump talking. Because that’s what fathers and sons do. Because we (the viewers) can’t forget that he is still a man.

Along these lines, Forrest is at once both more feminine than Jenny and the male hero to her damsel in distress. He fights the boy in the car who she was hooking up with. He fights the guy in the strip club who throws his drink on her. He fights her boyfriend who slaps her in the middle of the Black Panther Party headquarters. Forrest is, without fail, Jenny’s protector, as is the role of a true man (or so our culture says). But all the while he possesses the feminine qualities of innocence (both in the sense of being unaware of much of the bad in the world and in the sense that the first time he has sex we can assume that he is in his thirties), faithfulness (we can conclude that the only person he ever has sex with is Jenny), and compassion (he cares deeply about the people in his life and goes out of his way to help them). It is, after all, Jenny who successfully asks Forrest to marry her, and not the other way around, as gender roles would dictate. The film employs the volatile nature of gender to pick and choose the best traits of each gender and bundles them up into the lovable Forrest Gump.

It isn’t just Forrest and Jenny, though, that are subject to an unstable gender, it’s us too. We (quite obviously) experience much of the story through Forrest’s narration. He is telling us his memory of the many events. He is inviting us to see through his eyes. But those eyes, as I have established, aren’t so straightforwardly male. And if they aren’t consistently male, then neither are we. We are straddling the gender line right along with Forrest.

But it is just as important to note that we aren’t always in his point of view. In one scene, Forrest says that he thought about Jenny all the time, and then (unknown to him) we see her wiping away cocaine and standing on the ledge of a building. It is during this shot that our gaze is most voyeuristic and most masculine in that it “builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself” (Mulvey). The camera pans parts of her body and focuses on her face in a way that is distinctively male. But in this moment, we are most unhappy. We, as the viewers, are watching Jenny struggle with her cocaine addiction and potentially commit suicide. It is one of the more unsettling and dejected scenes in the movie. Certainly, the later death of Jenny and that of Forrest’s mother are both sad, but they are portrayed peacefully, and Forrest seems to come to terms with them. Here, we are thrown into an unexpected scene of drugs and danger. The purely masculine perspective is created such that viewers feel most uncomfortable in it. The scene is admitting that there are indeed issues with the traditional masculine experience.

Our perspective at the end of the movie changes again. Once Forrest goes to Jenny’s apartment where he meets their son, we are no longer listening to Forrest tell us the story. Now, while we still sometimes associate with Forrest, we are not bound to his perspective. We often find ourselves in Jenny’s point of view too. But not the “drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll” Jenny that we knew before. Oh no, this Jenny is entirely feminine. She takes on the role of a typical woman with a son and a husband, she’s a waitress (a very common job for a woman), and she dresses in the mainstream feminine way. No more hippie outfits or sequin tops with platform heels. She wears her uniform and sweaters and turtlenecks. And with her transformation comes the accepting of her love for Forrest. We watch affectionately from Jenny’s position as Forrest goes to meet his son. And after her death, Forrest is looking directly at the camera when he addresses Jenny’s grave and tells her about how things are going. In this way, he tells us how much he loves us and we are inclined to reciprocate that feeling. Now that Jenny has learned to accept her love for Forrest, we get to experience that love for him through her.

Not putting us in Jenny’s point of view until she has reached a place where she is a “normal” female and has embraced her love of Forrest is very intentional. Up until this time, we want something more for Jenny, but do not identify with her. In making Jenny more masculine, we learn to dislike women who don’t fit the normal gender roles. Then, when she does fit our desired mold, through her perspective we feel loved and content that we are back to being completely feminine. By throwing the audience around in our gender role, the movie allows us to experience the good and bad of many different perspectives. And we find that we desire to be the perfect female.

Now Forrest on the other hand, we like that he isn’t entirely masculine. By projecting some feminine traits onto him and ridding him of the unpleasant male qualities, he becomes an idealized version of a man. But he is still just that. A man. He is, though, a man that we love, especially once we are in the point of view of a feminine woman. So the movie is telling us that women should be perfectly feminine, which by definition means being inferior to men. But it makes this desire easy to swallow because it implies that if a woman becomes perfectly feminine, she won’t actually need to worry about being completely dominated by a man because he will be a feminized man—one who will still be her Prince Charming, but will also lighten the burden of the feminine role. The film admits that the most masculine of men have flaws, and in doing so gets the female to accept the better version of a man. This, I would argue, is what makes the film so impressively popular—women feel as though there is a better solution for them, while at the same time men feel comfortable that they aren’t stripped of their dominant role in society.

To make things even more complicated, Steven D. Scott argues that because of his honesty, bravery, and loyalty, “Gump, in effect, becomes America in this movie”. Thus, the idealized version of a male is also the idealized version of America. And if this is true, then being entirely feminine is equivalent to being the nation’s subject—a devoted American. The film encourages us to want to stay in line and be the perfect American because it says the country will love us back in return. All of this is not possible without the fractured nature of gender roles. It is these transgressive gender roles that tell us to accept (and thus not stand against) the problems we see in our nation. So if you are one of the millions of Americans who love this movie, then you are admitting that you love the idea of embracing every action of the government and every aspect of culture, including the racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia that comes along with it.

Singing Away the Fascist

I’m sure that you can think of countless films that draw upon World War II and the fight against fascism. The Nazis are a recognizable evil against whom protagonist can fight. And while this fighting normally presents itself in the form of combat or military action, The Sound of Music comes at it with a different approach. As the name implies, The Sound of Music relies on song and dance to work through its problems. But then the question becomes, how can something so gentle as singing overcome the evil of fascism?

Let’s start with the obvious: in the film, the Nazis try to force Captain Von Trapp to take a place in their military forces, but he refuses and manages to evade their demands by escaping from the country. This is effectively defying the Nazi forces that are overtaking the rest of the nation. The foundation of this escape, though, is the Von Trapps’ performance at the folk festival. Had they not had the excuse of singing in the festival, the captain would have been taken away immediately to fulfill his duties. In contrast to the success of this plan, which was all about singing, their original plan, which involved sneaking out quietly, was a complete failure. This distinction of singing having a positive outcome and silence having a negative one communicates the idea that song will save you.

Possibly more impactful than their actual escape though, is their defiance of the Nazis in the performance itself. Despite Herr Zeller saying that the family was singing “only because that is the way [he] wants it to be”, he is visibly unhappy that they are performing. And Edelweiss, which Captain Von Trapp performs, is not just any song, but is meant to evoke feelings of love for the old Austria, that is, one which is not under control of the Nazis. In this way, not only is the very act of them being there an unhappy sight for the Nazis, but the song being performed is outright bad taste in their view.

One particular moment of interest in this song is when the Captain, singing alone, chokes up, presumably because he is either so sad that the nation he knows and loves has been lost, or fearful that he won’t be able to escape and will have to submit to the Nazis. Either way, he is visibly overwhelmed by the outcomes of the Nazis’ actions. But Maria steps in to sing along with him, and they get not only the children to join in, but also the entire audience (excluding of course the Nazi leaders). Here, the performers and the observers become one and have joined together to sing a song that disregards the Anschluss and temporarily unites everyone into the non-fascist nation that they previously were. Maria joining in allows the Captain to rebel against the threat of the Nazis just as the unification of the audience and the Von Trapps allows everyone in the theater to temporarily break free from the hold of the Nazis. It is through the collective effort of ordinary people that they are able to rebel.

But it is no secret in the film that the Von Trapps were rebelling against the Nazis. What is subtler is the fascism, which is ultimately destroyed through singing, that exists within the family itself. When Maria shows up, the family embodies a fascist regime. As Raymond Knapp describes, it is “run by an autocratic, militaristic captain blind to the individual needs of his own children”. But Maria’s arrival changes all of that. It is through teaching the children how to sing that she is able to help liberate them from their unhappy life under the demands of their authoritarian father.

The first thing she does is ensure that they are all on the same level. She does not demand that the children see her as their superior. Right off the bat she tells Liesel that she will just be her friend if she would like. And when the thunderstorm strikes, they all climb into Maria’s bed together and sing. When they are sitting in the bed, they are physically all at the same eye level and act as though they are all friends. It is in this first song, “My Favorite Things”, that Maria establishes a collectivity and begins to tear down the fascism that this family is drowning in. The children get a taste of what it is like to play and they recognize for the first time how freeing music is. Maria is teaching them that through singing they can overcome their fears and get through tough situations.

And she isn’t just teaching the children this, she is telling the viewers as well. It is nearly impossible, at least for me and those I have watched it with, to see this scene and not want to sing along too. It makes the viewer feel like they can be a part of it and it allows them to be temporarily freed from their own anxieties and fears. The songs in this movie make those watching want to be “active participants and not merely observers” (Flinn). In this way, everything that is happening in the film is more directly influencing us because we are so tightly drawn in through the music. The music liberates both us and the children. When Maria teaches them to sing, she is giving them a tool that they can use to break the ranks as soldiers in the house and just be kids, while at the same time teaching us to similarly deal with our own problems.

But they aren’t just singing and playing, they are singing and playing in bad taste. This bad taste largely originates from Maria. Everything about her reeks of it. As a nun, she is constantly late and doing things she shouldn’t. An entire song is dedicated to a debate about her disobedience. As a governess, she stands up to the Captain within the first few minutes of meeting him and criticizes the way he runs his family. Considering that this was the 1930s, this would have been particularly poor taste, as it is a low-class woman condemning an elite naval officer. She couldn’t care less what other people think about her actions. She sings “I have confidence in me”, demonstrating that it is through songs that she has the courage to rebel against her superiors.

Similarly, once the children begin to sing, they act in fits of liberating bad taste. Not only are they wearing clothes made from curtains, an idea that is absolutely appalling to the Captain, but they also act in ways that aren’t conducive to their regimented lifestyle. When the Captain drives by kids hanging in trees, oblivious that they are his own, he states that they are “just some local urchins”. By urchins he means mischievous, raggedy children, i.e. kids who he thinks are acting in bad taste. From this it becomes clear that singing liberates you to act in ways that defy your superiors and disregard the social norms that they value.  In fact, in one scene, Maria doesn’t just rebel against the captain, she switches roles with him entirely. When Maria again acts in bad taste and argues with the Captain about his relationship with his children, he actually calls her “Captain” by mistake. It is clear that he didn’t mean to say it, but interestingly he never takes it back.

And right after they have this argument, he goes in and sings with his kids for the first time in many years. This act of singing together is a pivotal moment for the structure of the family, for when the song is finished, the Captain hugs all of his children. The embrace is something that was inconceivable only a little while before and altogether destroys the fascist environment of the house. It would not have been possible though, had the song not acted as the means of overturning the relations within the household.

Thus, just as song is used to rebel against the Nazis, it is used to rebel against the fascism within the Von Trapp family. To clarify though, the film is not trying to convey that fascist regimes can be completely toppled by everyone singing and dancing through fields. Instead, it is saying that fascism on the individual level can be overcome through song. A person or group of people can push out the fascist within them or individually defy greater fascist powers. Maybe, just as with the crowd at the festival, song can even allow an entire crowd to temporarily revolt against fascism. What’s more, if this is true with fascist ideas, the same can just as easily apply to all forms of evil. The film, by drawing the viewers in through song, is providing you with the tools to overcome any demon in your life, at least temporarily. And these tools don’t require you to be high class, wealthy, or well educated. If you can sing and have confidence in confidence alone, The Sound of Music argues that you can overcome anything.

Bears. Beets. Bullshit Jobs.

Do you like your job? Do you think that it has meaning or significance? Do you relate with your company’s mission? If you responded “no” to any of those questions, you are far from alone. Forbes reports that 52.3% of Americans are unhappy at work (Adams), and a study by the Harvard Business Review of 12,000 professionals found that half answered “no” to each of the latter two questions (Bergman). So, what’s going wrong? We tell our kids they are going to be successful and change the world, but by the time they enter the workforce, they don’t care about their jobs and aren’t dedicated to bettering themselves or society. How, then, can they be convinced that their work does matter? One solution is to sit down and watch The Office.

David Graeber argues that much of people’s unhappiness at work can be attributed to “bullshit jobs”, which he says exist “as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working”. What, specifically, are these jobs, you ask? They are “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service” positions, and I would wage that if you answered “no” to the questions earlier, your work is included in this list.

Enter The Office: a fictional documentary of people doing the bullshittiest of bullshit jobs. Within four minutes of the first episode, Jim tries to describe his work, but says that he’s “boring himself just talking about this”. Right off the bat, it is clear that this show is meant to epitomize the crisis of employees feeling unhappy and useless in the American workplace. They have an annoying boss, work in a branch that is likely to be shut down soon due to downsizing, and are doing work that can be done just as easily by machines.

This fear that robots are going to take away our jobs is one that has been around for decades. But more recently, the technology has become so advanced that this is no longer just a fear but an imminent reality. It is estimated that at least 47% of all American jobs are at high risk of being overtaken by machines in the next 20 years (Bregman). And you guessed it, the jobs that are most likely to be taken over by computers are none other than the “bullshit jobs”. But the fear that machines will take over our jobs doesn’t just make us afraid of the future, it also reinforces the idea that the work we are doing right now is pointless.

The Office recognizes the enormous weight of this and in a comical way, challenges its validity. The most blatant example of this is during the episode “Launch Party”, in which Dwight takes on the company’s new website, Dunder Mifflin Infinity. The site makes and records its paper sales, just as a salesperson would. Dwight, refusing to bow to machines, takes on and succeeds at the challenge of selling more reams of paper during the work day than it. Sure, the episode was hilarious, but whether the viewer realized it or not, it also left them with the idea that ultimately, machines can’t do what people can.

In fact, the whole show highlights the importance of people, and more specifically, their relationships with one another. The overarching plot through the many seasons is about how the characters on the show are growing and becoming happier. At the beginning, Michael Scott is pretty unlovable. He makes crude and insensitive jokes and seems to care little about his workers. In response, the employees dislike their boss and try to avoid him as much as possible. But throughout the show, we see that he really does care for his employees. In “Goodbye, Michael”, which is about Michael’s last day before he moves to Colorado and leaves the show, he says, “the people you work with are, just when you get down to it, your very best friends”. Because of this, both we, the viewers, and his employees, have a change of heart for Michael. This is well represented by his relationship with Pam. At the start of the show, she found him annoying on a good day and downright offensive on a bad one. But In “Goodbye, Michael”, she chases him down at the airport to tearfully say goodbye to him before he leaves. It is clear that her attitude towards him has shifted and she cares deeply for him.

But Pam changes more than just in her relationship with Michael; she changes her entire person. Initially, she is insecure and easily pushed around, especially by her fiancée at the time. She seems to have no purpose in life and has no hope of future success. But throughout the show, she takes control of her life: she dumps her fiancée, marries Jim, pursues her love of art, and after trying her hand at being a saleswoman, convinces her bosses to give her the position of administrative assistant. Though it is not a high-level title, being administrative assistant gives her power and allows her to make herself more essential to the company. By the end of the series, Pam is visibly more confident, more productive, and more content in her role at the office. Note also that she is able to find a position she likes within the company rather than going elsewhere like many people would think to do if they were unhappy.

This relationship between the company and its employees is very important. Even though at times it seems like Dunder Mifflin doesn’t care about its workers, the employees ultimately have a positive attitude towards “corporate”. David Wallace, the chief financial officer, is the most consistent character to represent corporate and seems to be liked by most of the Scranton branch. He’s easy to talk to, as can be seen when he’s chatting and shooting hoops with Jim, and comes across as a wholesome family man. Despite losing his job during season six, Wallace returns in season eight to buy back the company and save it from the crazy CEO. He has an individual relationship with each of his employees and through him, it is implied that the entire company cares about the workers. Yes, it has temporary failures, but in the end, Dunder Mifflin comes across as a corporation that values its employees and treats them well.

One time in particular that Wallace fails an employee is during “The Deposition” when he says that he was never seriously considering Michael for the corporate job, which is incredibly upsetting to Michael, who believed he was being “groomed” for it. Even so, when Michael is asked if he agrees that the company “exhibits a pattern of disrespect towards its employees”, his response is “absolutely not”. And this response is not an easy one. If he had said yes, his girlfriend, Jan, would have won 4 million dollars in a lawsuit against Dunder Mifflin, but because he ultimately trusts the company and believes that it has his best interests at heart, he sides with it. But where Michael normally seems foolish and silly, his loyalty to the company is framed in a way that makes him seem noble and causes the viewer to respect him more.

But what does Michael standing up to his girlfriend have to do with believing your work matters? The Office is telling you that even if your company seems to be screwing you over and your boss seems like an asshole, they ultimately do care about you and you should care for them in return. When Michael sides with Dunder Mifflin in the lawsuit, it is sending the message that believing in your company is a good thing. These people are in as bad of a position as it gets when it comes to useless jobs, but ultimately, they still find their work to be a positive place. They can see that Dunder Mifflin does indeed want the best for them, and they are seen as better for caring about the company in return. They find that there is a mutual love between them and their boss, and as they discover this good relationship they also become happier. Pam’s improvement as a person coincides directly with her finding meaning in her work through good relationships in the office and a position that she likes. And forget about machines replacing your jobs. The show is saying that you are more capable than a computer and are valued as so. In the end, Dunder Mifflin Infinity gets shut down while Dwight persists through entire series, so it is clear that even if your job feels mundane, you are necessary not just to the company but to the functionality of society.

Through its story, The Office is trying to get its viewers to believe that they have a valued spot in the workplace. It is attempting to soothe American’s fears that their work is mundane and they are replaceable. It is telling you that even if it seems like you have a “bullshit job”, you should care about your work because your boss and your company and the people around you care about you. So, what may seem on the surface like mindless humor is actually teaching you to be content with your deadening job. Don’t even try to do something else, it’s telling you: you will fail like Michael and his startup or Pam and art school. You will end up right back at the company where you started. You belong at your company and you will be happiest there, or so they want you to believe.