Little Miss Sunshine and American Optimism (June 22, 2007)
This Week's Theme: Context
Is the incredibly wicked satire of last year's independent film hit Little Miss Sunshine accessible to non-Americans? I wonder.
Do other cultures breed a hyper-competitive drive for "number one" rankings in everything from piloting USAF jets to talent contests to wealth and recognition on the motivational circuit to academic studies of Proust? Do other cultures quickly label everyone who competes but doesn't win "a loser"? Do other cultures heap such lopsided praise on "winners" and offer so little to the "rest of us" that suicide (at least in this film) seems like a better alternative than slipping in the rankings? I honestly don't know, but I suspect not.
In the event other cultures may be mystified by the dark humor and rapier-like parody in this film, I offer up the following as context for understanding this justifiably popular movie.
I am not immune to competitive juices, so I say this not as a smarmy putdown of competition but to draw the distinction between the honor implicit in competing and the pathological emphasis now placed on "winning" "the top spot" in American society. I played on basketball teams for five years in junior and high school and a year of football in 10th grade (hard-working talentless benchwarmer, but hey, I had fun being part of the teams), and I was a contractor/carpenter in the deep recession of the early 80s.
You want a "Darwinian fight to the death?" That was the "interest rate is 16%, nobody's building anything" reality then. And if you want a competition where winning is literally one shot in a million--try writing. 30 million blogs (or is it 300 million?), 5,000 novels published each year, 100,000 books in print, blah blah blah. The point is: has our society veered into a pathology of winning, in which parents are punching Little League coaches and screaming at little kids for not scoring more than their opponents?
This film says yes, definitely, categorically, yes.
Critics generally describe this as a comedy about a dysfunctional family. It isn't that at all; it's a biting critique of a dysfunctional society.
The family is actually the only source of support and solace available to the beleagered individuals depicted in the film as they each strive--and painfully fail to reach--the pinnacle of the American Dream: success through hard work and meritocracy.
The banality of this goal is ruthlessly satirized as the movie progresses. Every conceivable form of American Success with a Capital S is savagely revealed as distorting and empty.
The daughter's painfully bawdy routine--a searing exaggeration of the contest's subtext of pushing adulthood onto little girls--draws predictable howls of outrage from the contest authorities, and rallies the family to her side.
Though other bits of American life get similarly skewered, the key satire is of The American Dream: wealth and recognition achieved via hard work and "pursuing your dreams." As the wheels fall off the U.S. and global economies, I have to wonder how Americans will adapt to the narrowing of opportunities and the ever-tightening strictures of debt and job losses.
I wonder if they will begin to understand the myths they bought into and clung to so tenaciously as their plight deepened, ("the Ownership Society funded by leveraged debt", for instance) and realise that if they bothered to vote (recall that U.S. voter turnout is a miserable 40% compared to 80% in France and other well-established democracies), they might regain the political power which they have so passively ceded in their individual obsession with competitive triumph and public recognition.
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copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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