Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Pursuit of Bootstrappyness

So I watched this movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, and it was pretty gross. I don't mean Trainspotting gross, or Saw LXIV gross. In fact it's directed strictly at middlebrow sensibilities, competently directed and well-acted, hitting all the predictable beats of your standard Oscar-nomination-getting story.

And it's precisely because a story like this is seen as so innocuous, such gloopy inoffensive awards-bait, that we need to talk about why it's so gross.

Will Smith plays a father and salesman who is struggling to make ends meet. He takes on a highly competitive unpaid internship at a stockbroker's, but when his baby mama walks out on him and their five-year-old son he's left destitute. His only hope is to be the bestest intern the stockbrokers have ever seen, so that they will choose him over the other 19 interns to get the paid position at the end of the six-month internship. Calamity piles on calamity, and before long Will Smith and his son are homeless and sleeping in public restrooms and homeless shelters – well, the son is sleeping; Will Smith studies by night, and, because he is a superhuman with no need for such mundanities as sleep, manages to be the bestest ever intern and win the job. Happyness: pursued, caught, skinned, barbecued, and eaten.

How is this narrative gross? Let me count the ways:

1. Harpyness

Thandie Newton plays Will Smith's girlfriend and the mother of their adorable moppet Jaden (well, he's Smith's moppet IRL). Newton gets to do exactly two things in this movie:

  1. shriek at Will Smith over his inability to pay the rent; and

  2. leave town, never to be heard from again.

Now, Newton's behavior toward Smith is actually pretty understandable. She's been working double shifts at her job, but they still can't make their payments because Smith is unable to sell the transmogrifiers he's invested in. Yelling at him isn't right or helpful, but I sympathize because I imagine she's under huge amounts of stress (especially since, as is implied later, she never particularly wanted to be a parent). However, I sympathize only because I have years of feminist deprogramming making me hypersensitive to any portrayal of a female character; the problem is, we never actually see her work problems or her stress (or her doing anything other than yelling at him, really) – and because the entire film is focalized through Smith's character, we see the ill fortune that dogs his honest attempts to sell his transmogrifiers, we see Newton not giving him a chance to explain before starting to shriek, and so your average filmgoer probably just thinks, “Damn, what a harpy.”

Personally, I'm fascinated by her story. It sounds as though she didn't want to be a mother, and only carried her pregnancy to term because of baby daddy's insistence. The story of a reluctant mother assailed by the mounting pressures of family and financial concerns until one day she can't take it anymore would be an original one for Hollywood, at least if it were told sympathetically; but, no, the concept that a mother might find something in life more important than motherhood is just too radical for our Extreme Leftist Hollywood.

2. Crappyness

These characters are working class. I know you don't use that term in America, but they are. They live from paycheck to paycheck; perhaps at the beginning of the film they are hovering on or just above the poverty line, but as it goes on they slump into undeniable poverty. A combination of accumulated parking tickets, unsympathetic landlords, and the ultimate evil that is TAXES leave our protagonist utterly destitute. He and his boy have to go live in a homeless shelter; with no income at all, Smith has to pretend to all the high-flying stockbrokers that everything is just swell and dandy.

(Now I'm thinking about it, how does he pay his son's daycare fees during their homeless period? Surely the $25 from donating blood would go toward food and bus fares.)

The rich white people treat poor black Will Smith like dirt. They make him fetch their coffees and donuts, they make him park their cars, they generally treat him like their darkie servant. And yet the film feels no need to make any comment on this racism. In fact, once Will Smith accepts an invitation to attend a football game with a very rich stockbroker and his creepily Aryan son, he manages to keep crawling on up until the rich white people accept him as one of them. Congratulations, poor black man! Because you did what the rich white people told you and swallowed their humiliations, you've been permitted to ascend to their level! If you lick their boots some more, maybe they'll let you join the whites-only country club! There's no critique of this system. The rich white people's position is presented as the ideal – as the happiness Will Smith's character is pursuing – and the fact that he's had to crawl on his belly and let them treat him with total indignity is a mere inconvenience. Suck it up, boy.

3. Bootstrappyness

Just as there's no critique of the racist aspects of Smith's ascent, there's no critique of the class system. A story like this is the ideal avenue to explore class inequity in America: rich people swan around to their boxes and golf courses, oblivious of the fact that right in front of their eyes are millions of people who can't afford basic amenities, who can't lend you $5. I'd like to see the story of Smith's character building relationships with the other poverty-stricken people around him, building solidarity with others who have been screwed over by a vastly unequal society. But he never engages with those around him in any way (except to fight another homeless guy for a place at the shelter). He's better than they are. Unlike them, he doesn't deserve to be here. He'll haul himself out of there by his bootstraps. He'll claw his way to the top of the system that screwed him.

The myth of the “American Dream” is that anyone can do anything. Will Smith's character even speechifies at his son to this effect: “Don't ever let somebody tell you you can't do something. Not even me. ...If you want something, go get it. Period.” But the vast, vast majority of people living paycheck-to-paycheck can't do anything they want. There are just too many obstacles, a whole system twisted against them. By only telling rags-to-riches stories – never acknowledging the inescapable poverty that is reality for millions – Hollywood is reinforcing the idea that the underdog can always win, that if you're still poor it's because you didn't try hard enough, you didn't want it hard enough, you didn't have enough grit and daring: that it's your own fault.

At the end of the movie, Will Smith and his son walk down the street in their nice new rich-person neighborhood. The houses are huge, the street is clean, and the shuffling hordes of the homeless, among whom they not so long ago were queuing desperately for a night's shelter, are nowhere to be seen. Out of sight, out of mind. You hauled yourself up by your bootstraps – they can darn well do the same.


  1. I have some thoughts about this that I would like to share with you, if you're interested. Thoughts of a primarily disagreementatory (not a word) nature. I don't want to look like "that guy" or a troll, or really be the sort of person who writes gigantic, unsolicited comments on someone else's blog, and I'd really rather it be a conversation than me calling you out on your blog or whatever, so if you are at all interested in what I have to say, maybe shoot me an e-mail at

    Thanks much, and keep on with the thinking and the writing...


  2. I've not seen the movie, but some of what you said reminded me of this article I read on Cracked.

    5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor

    It may be a comedy site, but the author of this one writes from bitter experience/truth. I know.

  3. @Shadsie - I actually had that article in mind when I was writing this, and originally I thought of linking to it, but my internet was down at the time and when I got it back I'd forgotten.

    @Bill - I might take you up on that conversation at some point, but probably not right away, since on Saturday I am moving 5000 miles away and that is going to be consuming my life for the next wee while. Thank you very much for your courtesy. It takes a noble soul indeed to encounter something you disagree with on the internet and respond with such restraint and politeness.

  4. @Rainicorn: No, I demand a response now. Put your entire life on hold so you can argue with some guy on the Internet. Now. Seriously. Like, right now.

    In all seriousness, I'm pretty sure that's reasonable. Good luck with the move!

    And I always try to be nice to people on the Internet! It rarely helps to yell at someone else in a comment/forum/blog post, as much as it is sometimes super tempting.

  5. I love your post, even if I adore Will Smith (I might even swoon over him in a ... gaah... Ayn Rand novel adaptation... but this won't happen, no, no, no, I'm sure it won't). Your points are pretty much exactly the ones raised so eloquently by Barbara Ehrenreich, not only in Nickel and Dimed, but also in This Land is Their Land, Bait and Switch and, of course, Bright-Sided. I have to say when I read these things, I feel less alone in the world:)