Little Miss Sunshine And The Pressure To Be Happy (Part 2)
Despite Michael Arndt not admitting it, Little Miss Sunshine is an inadvertent Christian film.
Please read part 1 before reading this piece for context.
On the other hand, Frank and Dwayne are rebels who see the absurdity of our times. They are well aware of the pernicious ideologies, and in Camusian rebellious spirit, they’ve decided to defy the cultural overloads:
“[...] the first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realise that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all men and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single man becomes a mass plague. In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the ‘cogito’ in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It finds its first value on the whole human race. I rebel—therefore we exist.” (The Rebel, P. 15)
Frank is disdainful towards Richard in his typical postmodern lofty irony. Throughout LMS, he sees the triviality in Richards’s meaningless pursuits and responds with sarcastic remarks such as, “wow, Richard! You’ve really opened my eyes to what a loser I am! Say, how much do I owe you for those pearls of wisdom?” But Frank’s intellect doesn’t save him despite seeing through Richard’s naivety. He, too, is morbidly unhappy not only due to his unrequited love but also because of his cognisance of the pretence in modern life. He knows the false freedom we act within and the Bullshitwe put ourselves through to ensure market survival, all with the belief that we can truly be ourselves (if such a thing exists) and still endure the capricious capitalist dynamics. Identity politics, political correctness, corporate virtue signalling that hijack worthy social causes, etc., aren’t aberrations of a postmodern neoliberal society but built into the ruthless pragmatism of the system itself; furthermore, liberals obsessed with woke politics willfully distract themselves from the palpable class struggles of society. Frank knows that in the so-called free nation of America, people are free only if they please the cultural overloads, the ruling class, etc. and be of market utility. In that vein, when a corporation says they want employees to bring their “true self” to work, it’s yet another false freedom sold to you so that people think they’re being authentic because they get to be referred to by a gender pronoun they prefer. Of course, letting people be expressive of their identity is good. But if your true self is being a union organiser and fighting for better working conditions and higher wages, the corporation will tell you to fuck off! Because having prefered pronouns doesn’t subvert the previously mentioned business ontology. But unionising will undermine stakeholder capitalism, and that’s heresy for neoliberal ideology.
In contrast, when Richard, with his “don’t be looser” mindset, gets on his knees and begs to have his daughter Olive accepted into the competition after they arrive four minutes late, we see a moment of sincerity. He puts aside his bravado persona used to impress people in motivational seminars and has a genuinely human moment of desperation where he only asks for a small act of kindness; there are no underlying intentions, e.g. sell a course, recruit you into an MLM scheme, etc. but fully assumes his mess and lays all the cards on the table hoping that his family will be shown some grace. The false authenticity of modern people is encapsulated best in this scene where, unlike the previous ones that show his “business relationship” with his agent, Stan Grossman—built on empty formalities, insincere niceties and perfidious gestures used purely for economic reasons—the veil is momentarily lifted. Of course, there isn’t any inherent problem with a relationship being transactional, but it’s the pretence of attempting to make-believe something’s more than a simple economic utility that reveals our pathetic ideological games. Slavoj Žižek captures this absurdity through his exposition of the archetypal postmodern boss one would generally see in tech startups:
“A typical boss no longer wants to be a boss: Imagine postmodern companies like some digital, programming company, or creative agency… a boss comes in jeans and embraces you with all the vulgarities… did you have a good fuck last night… whatever. But fuck you! Then he still remains a boss, nonetheless giving orders… but the social game is you have to pretend that we’re friends and so on. In this relationship, the first step to liberation is forcing him to behave like a boss. To tell him… no fuck you! No comradeship! Treat me as an employee, give me explicit orders and so on.”
[I use this example not to claim that all bosses are Machiavellian, manipulative, inauthentic, etc.; at least they aren’t any more than I am. But this example, similar to Richard’s in LMS, thoroughly captures how we live in times of false freedom and have to pretend that we’re free.]
Similar to Frank, Dwayne, too, sees the bullshit. However, unlike Frank, who’s chosen suicide, he strives to become an Übermensch. But his individualistic self-affirmation, despite its virtues, has made him a misanthrope. Dwayne hates everyone, yet Nietzsche isn’t at fault. He reads Thus Spoke Zarathustra through a cynical lens; if Nietzsche were merely another critical philosopher, he wouldn’t have the prodigious influence on our culture. Dwayne saw the sickness of our culture but didn’t take the next step; he saw the abyss that Nietzsche gazed into—he was the apex thinker brave enough to face its ultimate consequences—but Dwayne didn’t take Nietzsche’s advice to heart that “one repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, P. 103), where he wants us to read and learn from him but then go further and keep recreating ourselves for eternity. Nietzsche would tell us to embrace life violently; bring beauty and artisanship back into our culture, but Dwayne would say all of this affirmation will be in vain; he’ll refuse to go any further despite getting the diagnoses right. So when Nietzsche wrote, “Remain true to the earth, my brethren, with the power of your virtue! Let your bestowing love and your knowledge be devoted to be the meaning of the earth! Thus do I pray and conjure you. Let it not fly away from the earthly and beat against eternal walls with its wings! Ah, there hath always been so much flown-away virtue! Lead, like me, the flown-away virtue back to the earth—yea, back to body and life: that it may give to the earth its meaning, a human meaning!” (Ibid, P. 102) exhorting us to love the earth and all its creatures, Dwayne overlooked these Nietzschean hammerings. Such is why disenchanted, emasculated men misappropriate his writings, using them to support far-right and misogynistic movements, that will make Nietzsche turn in his grave. Dwayne represents a variant of toxic masculinity imbued by the absurdity of our dying culture, where human beings aren’t seen as free and creative Zarathustrian spirits, but agents used to manage capital.
Another variant of the aforementioned ilk LMS doesn’t cover is worth mentioning. They are a growing group of individuals in the social media era: the Postmodern “Western Buddhist” (PWB). This person is a peculiar intersection between Richard, Frank and Dwayne. Due to our radical interconnectedness and globalisation, the PWB is well aware of the world’s and our culture’s problems; there is no avoiding it as it’s made traumatically salient to us wherever we look. They know we’re living in cynical times with deteriorating institutions and unsustainable systems; the hopelessness is felt profoundly. Therefore a PWB doesn’t pursue success crassly the way Richard does as they see its futility; in fact, they’d be contemptuous of the so-called “old rich” mentality that flaunts their wealth with expensive cars and extravagant mansions. Instead, they choose to disengage: the PWB, instead of confronting the world’s ills, prefer to focus on the “inner-self”, i.e. read endless amounts of self-help books, practice mindfulness until they lose their minds, join a psychedelic cult, become a digital nomad while being in an open relationship, get an orgasm reading yet another Ryan Holiday book on stoicism, do CrossFit, etc. Sadly, none of these new forms of living has much in common with authentic Buddhism but is a bastardised version contrived to fit capitalist dynamics. Slavoj Žižek was the philosopher that elucidated this social phenomenon best:
“[...] “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit [serenity and releasement], it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement. [...] Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavour to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being. [...] The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. [...] It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.”
As Žižek delineated, everything is seen as a meaningless cosmic phenomenon for a PWB. So they love using cheap cliches such as “control what you can control” or “discipline equals freedom” and focus on personal development while maintaining a “healthy detachment” from the world’s concomitant folly and tragedy. The PWB is the perfect slave that not even Marx, Orwell or Huxley could envisage as, due to their existential apathy, they don’t require any propaganda by those in power or any control, for that matter. And while a PWB would post a black square on Instagram after George Floyd was murdered right next to the photos from their recent Bali trip, that’s the extent to which their political engagement and activism go because any more effort in action and thought is seen as useless. The PWB is a product of the West’s inability to cope with nihilism and the negation of being.
None of the types of people delineated in this essay comprehends they belong to any of these social groups. Such is why ideology functions so well; it makes us think we’re outside of it. Perhaps Hubert Dreyfus’s Heideggerian notion of “background practices” is an apt theory to understand the dynamics of modern ideology:
“Heidegger introduces the idea that the shared everyday skills, concerns, and practices into which we are socialised provide the conditions necessary for people to make sense of the world and their lives. All intelligibility presupposes something that cannot be fully articulated—a kind of knowing-how rather than a knowing-that. At the deepest level such knowing is embodied in our social skills rather than in our concepts, beliefs, and values.” (Heidegger on the Connection between Nihilism, Technology, Art, and Politics, P. 177)
In effect, background practices (BP) could be instantiations of a particular culture within a period of time; they are not acontextual or ahistorical, so they cannot be codified and propositionalised formally, i.e., a PWB becomes one not by the beliefs they claim to hold but by how they act and engage socially. In fact, BPs are what allow us to see the world sensibly, understand how to cope with our culture and even allow language to exist so that we can codify a nation’s constitution, HR policy at a corporation, etc. Without BPs, we cannot be in the world nor understand being. But BPs don’t exist in us or outside of us. Ergo, BPs cannot exist without us either. To understand what BPs are, an example used by Peter Rollins could be reappropriated:
If you go to a heterogeneous group of people and tell them to look at their fingernails, generally speaking, the men will make a fist and turn their hand inwards to look at theirs while the women will spread out their fingers and turn their hand outwards.
A BP could be a practice this subtle to if women should be allowed voting, urban planning, sustainable development policies of a nation, religious rituals, etc. So ideology is a quasi-BP that formulates how we live and act in the world, regardless of whether it is harmful or not. While we aren’t cognisant of them, this essay demonstrates that works of art like LMS could capture them. Therefore, the most authentic thing we could do to emancipate ourselves from ideology is first to accept that we’re knee-deep in it and there are no easy solutions to our predicaments caused by a destructive ideology.
Ultimately, LMS ends by telling us that Richard’s “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” Americanism, Frank’s intellectual, anti-life cynicism and Dwayne’s misanthropic Nietzscheanism aren’t the remedies to the existential trials and tribulations of our time—nor would being a Postmodern “Western Buddhist” suffice. As Olive goes on stage and performs her hitherto-unseen dance routine, which happens to be a striptease her grandpa Edwin taught her, everyone at the pageant is stupefied at the burlesque performance by the seven-year-old. While the horrified organisers are in helter-skelter trying to get her off stage to save themselves from the embarrassment (as if hyper-sexualised pre-teen girls aren’t already ridiculous enough), the family doesn’t fret. Instead, in their brokenness and utter quandary, they join Olive on stage and dance along with her to culminate this bizarre saga until the hotel security detains them. They are released later on the condition that Olive never enters a beauty pageant in California ever again, to which Frank responds, “I think we can live with that.” So as the Beatles sang, the remedy for us, like it’s always been for the tragedy and farce of existence, is love; especially in our technological era, love is the only thing that allows us to withstand the vicissitudes of capitalism and modern life. And authentic love is antithetical to the contemporary utilitarian notion of loving, which imbues stupid banalities such as “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. Rather as Lacan said, “Loving is to give what one does not have.” To love truly is, indeed, pouring from an empty cup, which is precisely what we see in the Hoover family. They all know the deep shit they’re in, and so do we. Because as Žižek said, “If you look deeply into yourself, what do you discover? That you’re full shit. [...] Authenticity is to assume your mess fully.” Nevertheless, despite their conspicuous mess, the Hoovers support Olive and choose to love each other.
Despite Michael Arndt not admitting it, Little Miss Sunshine is an inadvertent Christian film. Because it brings to light the radical message of Christianity where love is the ontological starting point: not Roman valour and prestige; not Socratic Greek reason; not Kantian rationality; not Nietzschean will to power, and certainly not American capitalism but love alone; one ought to start with love for the rest to follow. As Paul Tillich affirmed, the love embodied by Christ gives rise to a New Being, which for better or worse, gives us a new way to look at the world through the egalitarian community of love. And in this new being, to love is to keep giving when one has nothing to give. Everything went wrong for the Hoover family, yet they chose to support Olive by joining her on stage for a meaningless dance routine at an even more meaningless beauty pageant without a clue as to what would happen; only love can explain this absurd paradox. Therefore, to be loving isn’t when one is “ready”; rather, one decides to “ready oneself” for the act of love despite the full awareness that one will never truly be ready. In most cases, love arises from an individual’s material lack, inadequacy and even symbolic death to the pre-existing world. Love hangs on nothing, but everything else is bolstered by our choice to love. Such is why, as Hegel understood, love ought to be treated metaphysically, and the rest will follow, or perhaps it won’t, but here lies the leap of faith and who knows where we’ll land.
This is a technical term coined by American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit, which outlines a communication theory in contemporary society.
Watch the Breaking Points by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, where they cover trade union-related issues extensively to see how corporations crush any organisation of workers.
Read Far right, misogynist, humourless? Why Nietzsche is misunderstood by Sue Prideaux to see why Nietzsche was none of these things.
Since background practices are inarticulable, the only way to speak of it is through an apophatic approach—negative theology: to understand God by delineating what he is not—which states what they’re not.
Hegelians such as Žižek claim that Hegel was the foremost philosopher of love, as Hegel saw love as the ultimate metaphor for the unfolding spirit (Geist), which is fundamental to his metaphysical system.
As defined by Paul Tillich, faith is “‘the state of being ultimately concerned” (Tillich, 1957b, p. 1). This is to define faith by its psychic character rather than by its specific content. Whatever is regarded as ultimately important in one’s life is, in effect, the object or subject of one’s faith.”