FEATURE: Bad Apples Up On Top

20 01 2013

NOTE: This post was originally published on Dead Politics Society, a blog for my Political Sociology class in the spring of 2012, as my final paper.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they are different from you and me.” If you look at eight movies that specifically tackle economic malaise following the 2008 recession, you would find that Fitzgerald rings true still today. They have Degas paintings in their office (The Company Men), expensive sports cars in their garage (Margin Call), and pools with a $100 bill painted on the bottom above their penthouse (Tower Heist).

Never mind that hundreds of feet below their offices and miles from their mansions, the unemployment rate swelled to 10% and 2.3 million Americans had their homes foreclosed. These films depict the fat cats of corporate America thriving off the misery of the middle-class, setting up two powerful frames for moviegoers to view the tough times. To borrow terms from Diana Kendall (2011), the upper crust is repeatedly portrayed through “bad apples framing” while the middle-class is seen through “victimization framing,” a clash which sets up audiences to view the post-recessional landscape as a class conflict.

Each of these films represents a frame that is episodic in nature since they are limited, unrelated narratives dealing with the financial crisis in some way; these reports attribute individual responsibility to large societal problems (Iyengar 1996). So rather than closely scrutinizing how capitalism itself might be responsible for middle-class woes, post-recessional cinema endorsed a theory of “bad apples capitalism.” This belief, rooted in the idea that a few people who refuse to play by the rules can ruin an entire system (Baum 2011), allows viewers to direct their anger at a person rather than an abstract concept (Kendall 2011).

Indeed, it is much easier to blame Gordon Gekko, the banker who refers to money as a “b*tch who never sleeps” (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and John Tuld, the CEO who calls money “made up” (Margin Call) than to find the entire capitalistic system guilty for the current American misery. The “bad apples” emphasis allows the movies to rile cages and stir anger without inciting revolutionary sentiment. They villainize the products of corporate America without actually attacking corporate America. (Corporate profits make these movies happen, so “bad apples” is about as close as they can get to critiquing the system.)

To emphasize the corruption of the rich corporate moguls, the movies shower us with lavish descriptions of their lifestyles. They chat about their million-dollar paychecks while the financial system teeters on the verge of collapse (Margin Call), and we hear about their private islands in Belize (Tower Heist) as well as how they make 700 times the salary of the average worker in their company (The Company Men). And all of this has blinded them to the plight of their workers – they claim to work for their shareholders instead of their employees (The Company Men), rob hardworking staff of their pensions (Tower Heist), and claim that massive layoffs present an “opportunity” for those left at the company (Margin Call).

Meanwhile, the middle class, out of their sight and most definitely out of their minds, is shown as trying to preserve their virtues and lifestyles amidst the turmoil. They have to sell their car to get by (Larry Crowne), take on a bartending job at night to put food on the table (Win Win), and move back in with their parents out of necessity (The Company Men). Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air takes the most wrenching look at their economic woes, putting real downsized workers in front of the camera to reenact their firings and rehash their financial fears. Current cinema has, in other words, provided a fresh set of faces to fit the bill for the “new poor” archetype that first came to prominence during recessions in the 1980s (Gilens 1999).

(NOTE: Both of these clips show firing scenes with staged actors, but they echo the general sentiment of the truly unemployed.)

However, the middle class is normally defined by their values rather than income (Kendall 2011), and post-recessional cinema makes its depiction go further than just merely downward mobility: the crisis threatens to break the country’s moral backbone. The economy forces them to contemplate taking money unethically from the elderly (Win Win), relapse into alcoholism (Everything Must Go), and launches them into depression that ultimately proves suicidal for some (Up in the Air and The Company Men). In the extreme case of Tower Heist, a comedy that borders on farce, fired workers even hire a convicted felon to help them steal $20 million from a rich man who conned them. Sadly, Hollywood showed through this recession that the squeeze forced them to budge on their values.

Ultimately, a hopeful Hollywood ending comes for the middle-class that allows them to reconnect with their values and inherent goodness (Kinkle and Toscano 2011). Yet most films provide a pass to the people who caused the suffering as well. They make over a billion dollars off the crisis (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), walk out the door with a $90 million severance check (The Company Men), and giddily look forward to profiting from the meltdown (Margin Call). So why do they get off easy? Honesty.

In real life, these executives not only escaped punishment but also saw their fortunes grow. The filmmakers want us to be angry when the movie ends. So far, it has worked. Polls show that 60% of Americans supported cutting payroll taxes, and over half support raising taxes only on people who make more than $250,000 a year. If Obama ever gets the Buffet rule passed, he owes Hollywood a debt of gratitude.

For full bibliography, see the original post on Dead Politics Society.

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