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Little Miss Sunshine And The Pressure To Be Happy (Part 1)
Like Moby Dick not being about a whale, Little Miss Sunshine isn’t about a road trip.
“Why were you unhappy?” is the pertinent question for seven-year-old Olive Hoover to ask her uncle Frank Ginsburg as she sees the bandages on his wrist after his attempted suicide. Little Miss Sunshine (LMS) starts by giving the viewer intimations of who the characters are by delineating some of their idiosyncrasies. But it’s when Olive, in her innocence, poses this question—perhaps more to the viewer than Frank—the narrative is set, and we move beyond the overture to the crux of what LMS is trying to reveal. Michael Arndt, LMS’s screenwriter, remarked that his impetus for writing the script was reading an interview of Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking to a group of high school students and saying, “If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.” And LMS is his attack on this thought process of chasing empty success at the cost of dehumanising others:
“So, to a degree, a child beauty pageant is the epitome of the ultimate stupid, meaningless competition people put themselves through. [...] Capitalism is driven by advertising; if you want to raise a crowd, you just throw a competition. [...] Rupert Murdoch said, ‘the future of TV is live outcome-indeterminate events.’ which are sports, award shows and reality TV. [...] Our lives are dominated by the contest mindset. It’s a winner take all society where one person is going to get the million dollars, and everyone else is a loser; I despise that mentality.”
LMS tells the story of a family that embarks on a hastened 800-mile road trip in their yellow Volkswagen van after Olive learns she’s qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” child beauty pageant held in California. Sheryl Hoover is an overworked mother who carries the whole family's weight and is the only semblance of bourgeois normalcy we see at the film's outset. Her husband, Richard Hoover, is striving to build a career as a motivational speaker and life coach in a pre-social media era; nevertheless, he’s the archetypal figure for the numerous online “business gurus” that pester us these days with their however-many-steps courses. Dwayne Hoover is a teenage pseudo-Nietzschean seen reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who, like every other person that misreads Nietzsche, “hates everyone”—one cannot read only an aphorism or two by Nietzsche but ought to read all of him! Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he can accomplish his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. Richard’s father, Edwin Hoover, is a salacious, foul-mouthed, heroine-snorting curmudgeon who we can’t help but like for his crass embracing of the inherent flaws and fallibility of being human. The aforementioned Frank is an unemployed Proust scholar, temporarily living with the family after his attempted suicide due to unrequited love; along with Dwayne, he’s the antithesis of Richard’s Americanism.
Similar to Melville’s Moby Dick, LMS is a film that shows us different flavours of modern life. Despite the ostensible triviality of the plot entailing a family going to a fatuous beauty pageant, the writers make its deep-seated socio-philosophical thesis clear, making it an existentialist film without the cynicism of contemporary existentialism. So like Moby Dick not being about a whale, LMS isn’t about a road trip. Each character typifies a flavour of modern life in the milieu of neoliberal ideology. For instance, both Richard and Frank, in their own idiosyncratic ways, are tainted by the “soulless achievement” ethos: Richard desperately wants to sell his motivational success program at all costs, resulting in sacrificing his relationship with his family. Similarly, Frank takes pride in being America’s foremost Proust scholar, where despite the highbrowness is nevertheless a meaningless accolade. Both these characters illustrate the subjectivity of capitalism and why it’s the predominant ideology of our time, as Mark Fisher theorised:
“[...] we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, P. 6)
Such is why neoliberal capitalism is an ontology and not merely an economic system. Richard’s self-help program, Frank’s academic achievements, healthcare, education and everything else under the sun has to fall within the “natural order” of the capitalist framework of profit and competition; we live in a “business ontology”1, to use another neologism Mark Fisher popularised. Therefore, there’s no stepping outside of it, notwithstanding your social self, and our life is lived through its structure.
Arndt is perspicacious in having a family as the centrepiece for exploring our times’ social ills and predicaments. Despite antagonistic criticisms by postmodern leftists who grandstand by labelling any traditional institution an oppressive “bourgeois construct”, families are an elementary unit of society, and functional ones are a social good. And irrespective of whether they are happy or not, functional or dysfunctional, families are a locus of sense-making for our social structures and are epicentres of love; therefore, letting them wither away at the behest of economic growth is an utter tragedy. Sadly, the reality of contemporary family dynamics is much more cynical than what Arndt portrays in LMS. Despite the Hoover family’s eccentricities, they always stick together and support each other. Whereas many westerners in post-industrial society who move to big cities to get high-paying jobs are alienated and completely detached from their families. With the Hoover family, we see this alienation in nascent forms through Richard’s lust for commercial success. Yet, even at his lowest point in life, when Stan Grossman, his agent, rejects him, he’s still got his family’s love and support: Edwin says, “Listen, whatever happens—at least you tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people ever do, and I include myself in that category. It takes guts, and I’m proud of you for taking the chance, okay?” But in reality, with our growing atomisation, I doubt many conversations like this take place anymore; people suffer their losses or take joy in their wins alone.
LMS inverts Tolstoy’s notion: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina, P. 1). In truth, all happy families are not alike, nonetheless happy in their own way; because happiness is subjective. But unhappiness is what’s common and objective—or trans-subjective, to be more precise. While there isn’t an ideal path to happiness, we can live a certain way and create conditions within society that will surely make people miserable and life hellish. And unfortunately, contemporary society preoccupied with meaningless growth, careerism, and technology-obsession2 is the perfect storm for unhappiness. So contrary to what conservatives endlessly hyperbolise about “homosexual propaganda” and the LGBTQ+ community destroying the nuclear family, harming kids, etc., capitalism and neoliberal ideology have done significantly more damage to families than any of these minority groups. Therefore, if we are to live through it, we ought to deconstruct, excavate and understand the prevailing ideology of our times.
In the Žižekian (arguably the best theorist on ideology) framework, ideology is not merely a set of beliefs but also “a subconscious phenomenon that helps to shape the world we live in [...] It no longer merely hides how the world works from people but helps to shape how they view and talk about it in the first place.” So we do not live freely in a post-ideological world; in fact, thinking so is the problem! In that vein, neoliberal ideology is multi-faceted and tells us what to think; the infinite growth of capitalism isn’t the only subliminal message. Another more conspicuous one is the pressure to be happy despite not knowing what happiness means; we’re just told that something is terribly wrong if we aren’t happy. The ideologies of our times cynically subsume individual happiness into the broader economic system of capitalism, i.e. buy product X to be happy, earn more money, etc. We’re made to feel guilty when not happy because to Enjoy!3 is a moral duty similar to what fanatical piety was for Mediaeval Christianity—Peter Rollins remarks, “The commandment of today’s God is to enjoy; this God creates anxiety as it’s a desire that can never be met.” Camus delineates our problem simply:
“A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, P. 66)
And to make matters worse, regardless of whether the means (accumulation of wealth) he writes of can give us the end, the end itself shouldn’t be desired. Happiness is a pusillanimous, conformist and unethical category. Despite not being a Nietzschean, but in a stark polemical similarity, Žižek states:
“Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. We all remember Gordon Gekko; the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. He says breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend, buy yourself a dog. I think we should say something similar about happiness. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.”
In a different essay, he contrasts happiness with truth:
“Truth and happiness don’t go together. Truth hurts; it brings instability; it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?”
Richard is the quintessential modernist in his pursuit of becoming a successful motivational speaker: self-help is his religion; he’s told that he deserves to be happy at all costs, be it still circumscribed within the capitalist system. But his desire to be happy causes him unhappiness; the desire isn’t even his but only a formal one he thinks he ought to have. And even when the desire is momentarily met, he becomes a slave to happiness. This ideology is seen at the outset of LMS, setting the film’s mood: he proclaims, “there’s two kinds of people in this world—Winners... and Losers. [...] Inside each of you—at the very core of your being—is a Winner waiting to be awakened... and unleashed upon the world.” The terms “Winners” and “Losers” can be replaced with “Happy people” and “Unhappy people”, respectively, and it’ll make no difference to Richard’s bifurcated worldview, as he holds one similar to most of us living in a liberal consumerist society. We’re petrified of not achieving nirvana-like happiness, so we endlessly engage in New Age mindfulness retreats, self-help courses, obsess over “financial freedom”, etc. Such is why the pursuit of happiness is ideological and not merely an ephemeral mood we hold as it orients our lived relations to and within reality.
If you have found value in this piece so far, please consider reading part 2.
When society doesn’t leave room for “the public” and “everything is folded inside a business reality system, that the only goals and purposes which count are those that are translatable into business terms.” (Questioning Capitalist Realism: An Interview with Mark Fisher, 2009), we live in a society driven by the business ontology where capitalism has become a metaphysical system. Watch this video by Epoch Philosophy for more insight.
Technology has become an ontology for us. Ergo, the obsession is based on presuppositions that herald our actions regardless of their verity; technology has given us a way of thinking and seeing the world, so technology doesn’t merely involve using instruments, nor is the essence of technology instrumental. Read The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger to understand why technology has this essential status.
This commandment of the postmodern superego is perhaps the salient signifier of the bizarre times we’re living through. The Dangerous Maybe summarises this observation made by Lacan and Žižek succinctly:
As far as consumer ideology goes, as opposed to more traditional ideologies that declare “Thou shalt NOT enjoy!”, Lacan and Žižek have claimed that one of our current master signifiers is the superego’s perverse injunction to “Enjoy!” Lacan said, “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy (jouir) except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance — Enjoy!” (On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, p. 3). Just try to go anywhere in the consumer society without being told to “Enjoy!” You’d think that the primary job of every waiter, barista, bartender, sales-clerk, and so on, is to hurl the postmodern superego’s injunction at us. The injunction to “Enjoy!” is inescapable and it is this master signifier which gives structure to our entire social world. In Žižek’s words, “Today, however, we are bombarded from all sides by different versions of the injunction ‘Enjoy!’, from direct enjoyment in sexual performance to enjoyment in professional achievement or in spiritual awakening. Enjoyment today effectively functions as a strange ethical duty: individuals feel guilty not for violating moral inhibitions by way of engaging in illicit pleasures, but for not being able to enjoy” (How to Read Lacan, p. 104). The idea is that all of our activities, social practices, spontaneous behaviours and automatic reactions are centred around the “Enjoy!” It pins down the meanings of other signifiers by providing them with an overarching point or final reference, a “totalizing” consistency.