films and cartoons in social theory classes

My undergrad social theory class is organized around a modernity => postmodernity schema, with modern social theory merging to postmodern social theory. I like to show a movie or two to demonstrate elements of these themes; in the past I’ve used Star Trek for high modern theory and Blade Runner for postmodernism (pace David Harvey). Warning: some danger of spoilers after the break on Bee Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

This year, though, I decided to use Bee Movie for the modern social theory movie. Without trying to be a spoiler, there’s a strongly modernist theme in which big systems work well, playing one’s part is a good thing, and identity politics backfires in favor of organic cooperation instead. I considered using Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs for the postmodern movie, but ended up back on Blade Runner partially because I’ve done it before and partially because Cloudy isn’t out on DVD yet! But Blade Runner is pretty alienating to the students, and somewhat dated. So here are some thoughts on postmodernism in Cloudy:

  • the old-fashioned social ostracism of the smart guy followed by his getting the girl is here, with the twist that the ditzy girl is also smart and is putting on an act
  • science “bites back” in a big way, suggesting a kind of paranoia over the lack of control over our technological trajectory.
  • Portrayal of genius is interesting in terms of the inborn vs. enacted question.
  • The most genius-like character (the boy) is also portrayed as not quite in control. This is a sort of postmodern paranoid stance toward science as juggernaut. See for example the “dangometer” which meters something (“Danger”) but we don’t know what; the idea of “overmutation” or something like that;
  • treatment of human desire as insatiable and as driving the frankenstein of science
  • Wertrationalität in that the hero works partially to gain emotional payback, e.g.,  approval from the town, love of his father, attention of the girl
  • original reason for the transformation is the industrial decline of a sardine-dependent island as the world moves  on, but because of taste: they discover that “sardines are really gross,” as a newspaper is shown declaring early in the movie.
  • The mayor tries to  repackage the island as a sardine-themed tourist destination, with obvious results, before  the hero saves the day. The hero’s dad is the last holdout for the old way of life
  • “Dad, I don’t understand fishing metaphors.” (recurring phrase)

I’ve also used examples from The Simpsons before. One concern I have with all of these is that many contemporary students already don’t have a strong idea of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction–do these illustrations just make that worse?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “films and cartoons in social theory classes”

  1. I’m biased, but I think you should *definitely* use “Cloudy” for your postmodern movie next time. I know my sister (the voice of the ditzy/smart girl) will get a kick out of your analysis!

    as to your question, I think that movies and fiction are often more clearly illustrative of a given phenomenon because they are often created explicitly in order to wrestle with that question. They highlight and exaggerate ideas without the messy clutter that accompanies nonfiction. I have a much easier time illustrating breaching with Curb Your Enthusiasm clips than I would with “real” youtube clips of similarly embarassing moments.

    Cheers,
    bob

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  2. This year, though, I decided to use Bee Movie for the modern social theory movie. Without trying to be a spoiler, there’s a strongly modernist theme in which big systems work well, playing one’s part is a good thing, and identity politics backfires in favor of organic cooperation instead.

    You can use it for the Gender Theory week, too, because Bee Movie is a bizarro place where male bees make honey, male jock fighter-pilot bees collect nectar and are idolized by girl bees, pollen is a fungible fertilizer that just needs to be spread around at random, boy bees have stingers, and there’s a love triangle between the Seinfeld bee, a girl bee, and a woman. Actually-existing male bees, meanwhile, lack stingers, do not gather nectar or make honey, and exist only to hang around the hive doing nothing except watching TV and occasionally attempting to mate with the queen. In short, Bee Moive reflects and elaborates the hegemonic patriarchal fantasy world of a feckless drone who is nevertheless convinced that his gender provides the economic and military foundation of society while the labor and social contributions of females is rendered invisible or subordinated within the male’s ideological imaginary.

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  3. Haven’t seen the flick in question, but Kieren’s comment reminds me that when I was on the playground in the 1950s discussing bees, we were sure the workers were males and the drones were females, and were very puzzled when someone tried to tell us the workers were females. Gender ideology is strong stuff.

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