The Dangers of Meritocracy (in Kids’ Movies)

After I wrote about the problems with the "Chosen One" theme in recent movies (like The Lego Movie), I heard from Paul Wickelson, an old friend and PhD. in American Studies from the University of Utah, who pointed out that my call for more meritocracy in these kinds of movies has its own problems. I enjoyed his thoughtful response so much that I wanted to post it here.

I haven't seen "The Lego Movie" yet, though I hear it is good. In any case, I like this post because although I've been disturbed by the "chosen one" trope, I hadn't thought of it in gender terms--and I think you're right to call attention to these gendered aspects. I definitely think that the "chosen one" theme fits too easily with a phenomenon (probably more common among boys) that one elementary school teacher friend likes to call the "legend in my own mind" syndrome. In this syndrome, kids comfort themselves with the idea of their own wonderful innate talent or special-ness, but never actually produce anything. As she put it, “I’d rather have a kid who has only four cylinders, but is working on all four cylinders, than a kid with eight cylinders working on two.”

That said, even a justifiable critique of the "chosen one" trope doesn't quite solve a larger problem: the problem inherent in the reign of the meritocracy as such. Even if we had a perfectly "fair" system in which hard work and talent was properly rewarded and tracked in the most minute of ways to ensure that rewards only went to those who "deserve" them, we would still not have a just society. Instead, we would have an ultra-competitive society in which worth is entirely calculated according to the dominant standards of measurement: i.e. money, standardized tests, the formal production of "value" defined according to the dictates of the market as an all-knowing institution, etc. And in fact, appeals to the supposed "fairness" of the meritocracy lie behind a lot of the apologies for class inequality these days. Supposedly, the top one-tenth of one percent deserve their money not because they are "chosen" in some mystical way, but because they have worked hard and produced important contributions to society, etc. (Never mind whether any of this is actually true).

In a true meritocracy, then, the most successful people would be those who were willing to work 80 hours a week, engage in ruthless and even destructive competition, and sacrifice everything toward the formal achievement of "success" in any given area. Such people can then be used as exemplars to browbeat the rest of us into ever more frenzied effort. So instead of a collective effort on behalf of everyone (and an emphasis on equality and reciprocity, over and above even an emphasis on "excellence"), we have yet more frantic striving, inequality, and disdain for those who have not achieved that level of success. In the world of education, we see the debate between “excellence” and “equality” at work in the difference between South Korea and Finland. Both of them achieve high educational outcomes, but in South Korea many kids spend an astronomical number of hours working with tutors after school and staying up late into the night studying for grueling exams that separate the wheat from the chaff. In Finland, they focus on providing an equal education for every student. And although kids in Finland take education seriously, they don’t commit suicide at the level of South Korean kids, because their lives are more balanced.

Given this pervasive background buzz of global competition, might not the "chosen one" tropes work as a defensive fantasy against the multicultural/meritocratic framework that now functions as the reigning ideology of contemporary neoliberal capitalism? For instance: given the increase in worldwide competition in the economic realm, the U.S. can no longer fall back on its God-ordained providential status as the "chosen nation," and its citizens must now compete for jobs with motivated people in India, China, and elsewhere. Ala "Kung Fu Panda," the “chosen one” fantasy suggests that the fat, lazy American nevertheless gets the job simply by being chosen (hard-working Angelina Jolie "tiger lady" notwithstanding). But even if the U.S. deserves to be rudely awakened from its self-serving "chosen nation" delusion (and it certainly does!), does it then follow that ruthless global competition is the new, God-ordained system? Is Tom Friedman's "flat world” the "chosen" system? Do we just need to get out there and compete with the Chinese factory workers who live in dormitories and leap up to work at the sound of an alarm bell at 2am because Apple needs a new order of I-Pads ASAP? Or is there another alternative?

I guess my point is this: even a system that is more "fair" on a gender, race, and nationality basis can still be brutal and serve the interests of the elite/powerful forces. As some people have put it, if you're part of an elite and you want to stay in power, it's actually in your interest to construct a gender-open, gay-friendly, multicultural, multinational elite, because then you will have more legitimacy--thereby making it harder for everyone else to fight against your rule. I’m not against gender/race/nationality fairness, but I do question the way that the standard line of gender/identity politics can actually be used to perpetuate class inequalities.

Either way, I totally agree with your post. I just can't help thinking outside of its immediate context!

I especially enjoyed Paul's response because of my own trepidation about where my argument (about who gets to be considered special, and how characters like Hermione and Wyldstyle really are more special than the main characters of their movies) was leading me. As I said on Twitter to Matt Haughey:

Some may argue that this is going way too deep into the implications of a children's movie, but what has greater cultural impact, and deserves greater critical inquiry, than the stories we tell our children?