Home > Culture, Film, Navel-Gazing, Politics > Inspiration and Aspiration: Cultural Narratives and Income Disparity in Contemporary Capitalist Democracy

Inspiration and Aspiration: Cultural Narratives and Income Disparity in Contemporary Capitalist Democracy

In an age of a historic income disparity between rich and poor, wherein the owners of the means of wealth production and the labour necessary for its production are separated by a truly remarkable socioeconomic chasm, it is essential, from the owners’ point of view, for the cultural discourse to reflect and reinforce the terms of that disparity, to render that set of relations as fair and heteronormative. It could be argued that this rendering is also preferable from the more proletarian point of view, to make their marginalization by forces that they can barely comprehend seem more palatable or even escapable, which it can be, after all, in a system that still allows for limited amounts of social mobility.

This discursive imperative often finds its form in corporate-funded and/or –produced film and television narratives through the familiar “inspirational” genre. In these stories, the plucky, unlikely underdog, often coming up from the underclass or from some other oppressed or marginalized subculture, overcomes the “odds” (ie. the pre-established alignment of social class and success) to triumph in some unlikely sphere. You have Northern English working class boys becoming dancers (Billy Elliot), bountifully-boobed middle-aged women exposing corporate malfeasance (Erin Brokovich), gutsy, unrealistically moral Mumbai street kids winning flashy game shows (Slumdog Millionaire), and, of course, dim, plain-spoken Philly proletarians winning boxing championships (Rocky, in many ways the exemplar of the genre).

Must... surmount... metaphor...

Many bemoan the Hollywood dream factory’s remarkable weakness for these types of narratives, but the studios are merely reacting to the obvious popular appetite for them. In America, especially, where more and more citizens are scrambling for less and less available wealth and opportunity, such tales remain talismans for the broken-back masses who toil and strive and work themselves ragged for a mere fragment of what such silver-screen stories promise.

Even if regular working people may be lacking the essential talent or spark that allows such inspirational figures (fictional or partly not so) to succeed, they can certainly approximate the perseverance and determination that underscores their success. This feeds into the central lie repeatedly disseminated to capitalist labourers in Western democracies: with hard work and fortitude, anything can be accomplished. It cannot, not by everyone, certainly, but all that hard work and fortitude being displayed by those who make less money greatly benefits the quality of lifestyle of those who make more of it. Funding the entertainment of the masses by the feats of their supposed avatars thus has a positive, if indirect, value for the elites.

But a much more interesting and increasingly noticeable phenomenon in corporate entertainment serves a more direct need of those in the upper end of the tax bracket: the desire to experience their own stories on screens of variant sizes. Instead of the gutsy servants mastering spectacular obstacles, the relatively well-off are treated to overseers demonstrating their dominion over the world and are told that these people, the ones most like them, are the underdogs. Thus, millions thrilled at a monarch, encased in a cocoon of privilege, striking a putative blow against fascism by learning to suppress his stutter (Oscar-sweeper The King’s Speech), or a computer super-genius attending the continent’s most prestigious institute of learning surmounting numerous bothersome interpersonal entanglements to make billions of dollars (The Social Network), and they may soon likewise thrill at a well-heeled sports executive fielding a competitive team by pouring over mind-numbing stats and by spending fewer millions of dollars on players than some other talent managers (the upcoming Brad Pitt vehicle Moneyball).

Products of this type are proliferating, perhaps because they cut both ways, appealing not only to elite media opinion-makers and the comfortable upper-middle-class, but also to the aspiring lower-income consumers as well. We can call these not inspirational stories but rather aspirational stories. There is some overlap with decidedly less stirring entertainment that nonetheless glorifies wealth and fame as romantic ends in themselves, to be sure. But these usually take the form of traditionally-conceived notions of escapism, brief and desultory getaways from the daily competitive ordeal of keeping up with the Joneses by pretending to keep up with the Kardashians (as if anyone could, or would actually want to try).

What it truly illustrates in the American instance is the manner in which history’s purported watershed “classless” society is increasingly defined by minor gradations in income as it creeps into a period of unproductive post-imperial decadence (if America was ever anything other than post-imperial, or other than decadent, for that matter). Hairline distinctions in status are established through commercial consumption, while the truly deprived are effaced entirely; are identities really defined by whether you own an iPhone or a Blackberry when millions can afford neither (including those who make them)?

More than left and right, faith and reason, or East and West, even more than rich and poor, this is the definitive division of our time: those aspiring to more and those who have more and aspire to self-justification. The main thing they have in common is a mutual desire for the latter, however that may be delineated in individual cases. So perhaps aspiration cannot wholly be separated from inspiration: they are two aspects of the same post-modern human need for validation.

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