May 5 2014 – Cultural Bias

Click Here to Listen: The BS Underdog Story Americans Believe Over and Over

Cultural Bias


This podcast featured Jason Pargin and Jack O’Brien talking about the cultural bias Americans have for underdogs. The podcast covers two kinds of stories Americans idolize underdogs in; Hollywood or Disney movies as well as the tales of how famous people came to be successful. The idea is that every timeless story involves someone who’s an underdog, either financially, emotionally or skillfully but against all odds (even when no one supported them), they succeeded. Obrien and Pargin argue that in real life this just isn’t the case. Most of the heroes we love for having resilience actually had a lot of help and natural skill that they utilized to get to where they are. Americans like to believe that hard work and determination can make anything possible, yet as the pod cast points out most people who are successful, whether they be famous musicians or wealthy businessman, started out with an incredible amount of talent and somewhere along the way the right people supported them.

I would argue that in order to meet the right people, it still requires an incredible amount of handwork and that talent is not something in rare supply. I know plenty of liberal arts students who are talented musicians, actors and entertainers. These students have become so successful in the small college pond, that they become ego driven narcissist from one too many compliments. Then when they leave school they aren’t prepared for the hard work that it takes to get noticed in the ocean of the real world. If so many talented underdogs don’t manage to find the right person there must still be something genuinely admirable about the ones who do.

Obrien and Pargin both acknowledge that there are exceptions and that real life heroes still work hard; they insist that the issue is that the amount of focus Hollywood emphases about these heroes making it on their own is extremely unrealistic. In my opinion this podcast is just stating the obvious about the art of story telling. When we go to the movie theater we use suspension of disbelief, many of these characters are just fun to idealize and identify with. Being a writer who personally puts a lot of stock in three-dimensional characters, I can speak to how important it is for characters to feel real; they need motivations and struggles. We want to see our characters behave the way they do based on their beliefs and values, furthermore we want their beliefs and values to be based on their experiences. So of course there could be a very realistic protagonist who had two wealthy loving parents that allowed said protagonist to grow up, become wealthier, accomplish their dreams and never change but there isn’t much of a story there. Pargin even points out half way through the podcast that stories without underdogs would be extremely boring. To me, there seems to be nothing alarming about the fact that Batman seems more human when we look beyond the costume and gadgets at his traumatic experience with bats and dead parents.

We don’t love these classic stories because the heroes have no support and are thankless. In fact several stories listed in the podcast have a plethora of supporting characters and not all them are dead parents either. Batman is raised by his butler, Simba is raised by Timon and Pumba, Aladdin would be nothing without his monkey and later reaches his goal because of genie; these are just a few of many characters mentioned who showed hardship and hard work not a lack of support.

The podcast claimed that there is a specific formulaic approach in American Movies, but really the only thing formulaic about it is story arc and midway point because of typical time constraints. The aspects of underdogs listed in the podcast are that their parents die and then thier mentor dies, they goes from rags to riches and they don’t have people who help them reach their goals. However these stereotypes aren’t just true for American movies, it’s simply true of stories in general. One of the examples used of a typical Hollywood movie is Harry Potter. Not only is a this originally a novel, it’s actually a British novel, moreover it’s the third most read book in the world. Yes Harry Potters parents are dead and yes his mentors Dumbledore and Serious Black also die but harry consistently has dozens of people who help him along the way. Harry would of been lost without Hagrid, Ron, or Hermonie, not to mention had dozens of characters not risked their lives and died to protect him he would have never made it through his journey. Harry is the boy who lived not because he chose to be but because of the protection his mothers left him. Yes people doubted him and he had different things working against his favor but he also had a tremendous amount of help. All of the stories mentioned in this podcast are essentially just stories that contain struggle. Struggle is all any person (American, or not) wants to see in a good movie. If everything happens easily then there isn’t much of a story.

The podcast also reads too far into real life success stories. Obrien talks about impressionism and how no one wants to talk about the fact that it came about due to artists with poor eyesight. I think people would love to talk about this misconception it’s just apart of art history that isn’t well known because we had the facts wrong for so long. Obrien also talks about how no one likes Kayne West because he worked hard to get to where he is and had a great mom, so therefore he has to be tough in the public eye to compensate. I don’t think anyone dislikes Kayne because he had a great mom. I’m willing to wager based on his success that more people like him than not and it has very little to do with his relationship with his mother. Real life success stories may be boring and over simplified but if we’re looking to elaborate these stories we should turn them into documentaries. Details will always be lost and mistranslated by word of mouth.

The one part of the podcast I did find valuable was the end in which Pargin and Obrien talked about how much “risk taking” is pushed onto young people. Very successful people make very well calculated risks and even when they aren’t well calculated they are never very dangerous. It’s unfair to spread the mentality to young poor college students that they can’t be successful without risk when they don’t have any chips to gamble. As the podcast points out most people have too much too lose to be playing on the board at all. The first step to success should be more about meeting the right people and knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Once you get that far the key is learning how to calculate and mitigate risk, not to take gigantic leaps of faith without a second thought and cross your fingers for sucsess.

Importance/ Relevance: This podcast talks a lot about the sensationalism of Hollywood and how unrealistic the American underdog principle is. Underdogs are a fantastic example of character identification. We see someone who isn’t perfect and we think of our own imperfections, then when we see them succeed and over come their imperfections it gives us the gratification of feeling lil we can do the same thing. If we look at Image/character as a critical framework, underdogs represent strong values of resilience, hard work and most important equality. Underdog in our society remind us that no matter who you are and where you come from, you are just as good as everyone else, or at least you have the opportunity to be just as good as everyone else. What I find almost funny about this podcasts complaints of over sensationalizing Hollywood underdogs is that the podcast itself seems extremely sensationalized. The podcasters should know more than anyone one how uninteresting things are if you don’t exaggerate them. The almost seem outraged or surprised that no one else is talking about this elaborate underdog conspiracy but the truth is most of us know thing don’t usually work out for underdogs. It’s just because of dramatic license and suspension of disbelief that these things don’t bother us.

Trilogy: Information Persuasion Entertainment


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