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The Pursuit of Happyness

SOC 101-1N1 Bethany Herold

Pikes Peak Community College

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Introduction

The film The Pursuit of Happyness is a real life biographical account of Chris Gardner’s journey from a lower class sales man to an upper class stockbroker. Filmed in 2006, it was directed by Gabriele Muccina, and the screenplay was written by Steve Conrad. It shares the story of “A struggling salesman [who] takes custody of his son as he’s poised to begin a life-changing professional endeavor.” (IMDB, 2006). This movie, when viewed from the lenses of major social theories and concepts such as Symbolic Interactionism Theory, Functional Analysis Theory, Conflict Theory, Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes, and Social Mobility, provides great insight to a man’s experience with structural inequality.

Brief Summary of Film

Set in San Francisco, California in 1981, The Pursuit of Happyness tells the story of Chris Gardner’s rise from a dead end sales man to a high ranking stockbroker. Chris and his wife, Linda, live in a tiny apartment with their five year old son, Christopher. Having spent the family’s savings on franchise, Chris spends his work days with little to no success, attempting to sell overpriced, portable Bone Density Scanners. His wife is very unhappy from the start, and works long hours at a local laundry. Even with the long hours, the family can barely make rent and keep Christopher in a proper daycare. After the car gets impounded, Linda gives up on their marriage and runs off to New York to live with her sister, leaving Chris and Christopher with the bills and rent.

A turning point for Chris is when he meets a privileged man driving red Ferrari. Inquiring as to how the man is so well off, Chris learns of the stockbroking industry. Driven by the desire to overcome and succeed, Chris makes it into a non-paid internship program with Dean Witter Reynolds. Even with the high stakes, he takes the risk in hopes of landing the one job position available at the end of the internship. Through juggling the internship, childcare, and his Bone Density Scanner sales, Chris and his son eventually become homeless, unaware of what they will eat and where the will sleep each day. He uses this as motivation, and ultimately lands the coveted job for Dean Witter Reynolds. Later on in life, he makes a stock firm, eventually selling a very successful stock that earns him millions of dollars.

Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes

The members of Dean Witter Reynolds all fulfill the stockbroker stereotype of wealthy business men,

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and appear to have nice cars, homes, and a history of successful investments. They have seemingly been born into this life, and have generally been privileged all throughout their working lives. Chris on the other hand, has come from meager beginnings, and due to a poor investment choice in scanners, has fallen nearly below the poverty line. This presents a huge obstacle for Chris in achieving the position through the internship, regardless of his personal talent. According to Henslin, self-fulfilling stereotypes are “preconceived ideas of what someone is like that lead to the person’s behaving in ways that match the stereotype.” (2012, p. 181).

Barely making it into the internship program under false social class pretenses, Chris is still viewed as less capable due to implied racism. As he is struggling to make ends meet, Chris is deprived of energy and time, making it very hard to contend with the other potential brokers. It is important to note that his fellow interns are mostly white with a few Asians, and Chris whom is African-American is always the one called upon to fetch coffee and donuts on top of his chaotic schedule. Using this concept, it is shown how the upper class men’s inherited stereotypes set them up for prosperity, while Chris’s low class and racial origins would have caused people to view him as not as potentially successful, in turn making his story that much more powerful.

Social Mobility

The Pursuit of Happyness perfectly illustrates the various movements one can take both

down and up our country’s social ladder. Throughout the movie, Chris overcomes homelessness and joblessness. Today, the man is a millionaire owner of an investment firm. This is a flawless example of social mobility, with Chris having experienced both downward and upward mobility, which are defined as “movement up or down the social class ladder”. (Henslin, 2012, p. 265). The film begins Chris’s story with him residing in the lower class population. During his internship he drops below the poverty line in a pivotal scene where him and Christopher return to find their belongings removed from their motel room, with no money or place to go. A confirmation of his downward social mobility, Chris gets so desperate at one point that he sells his blood to raise $24 to survive another day. Chris stays this way until the end where he finally secures the sought after position with the company. Here he has made upward social mobility progress, as he secured a job earning a middle class income and lifestyle, and he eventually went on to become a multi-millionaire stockbroker, motivational speaker, and author, settling finally in the upper class world.

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Symbolic Interactionism Theory

Aptly named The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris spends the entire film chasing his ideal of the American dream. This is an example of symbolic interactionism, which is “a theoretical perspective in which society is viewed as composed of symbols that people use to establish meaning, develop their views of the world, and communicate with one another.” (Henslin, 2012, p. 24). Another example is the varying concepts of money as a symbol to the movie’s characters. Chris clearly sees money as a means to the strongly desired happiness for him and his son. The concept of wealth is foreign to him, and his determination to reach this envisioned and intangible object of gratification is what drives him to become superior over his other competitors. The already acclaimed business men and college graduates competing with Chris, however, view the middle to upper class life as a norm. Money is something they already have, they just simply want more. This drives them to excel to an extent, but lacking Chris’s disparity and symbolization of money, they all fall short.

Due to the symbols of social stratification, people in this movie interact mainly with those who share the same social class, causing Chris to stand out even more among the modern day aristocrats. Suits, nice cars, and expensive lunches are standard in the world Chris is trying to enter, and this puts strain on his already meager budget. In trying to keep up with the symbol of what a successful business man looks like, Chris alternates only two suits, pretends other cars are his own, and at one point bails on a taxi after pretending he was able to pay the bill for all the brokers riding. Chris had offered to pay the taxi fee so he could adequately represent the image of a successful business man, even though he lacked the funds. Had he refused, or made any inclinations that he lacked the funds, he would have been symbolized as a lower class man, therefor destroying his chances of winning the job. In spite of all his hardships, Chris still succeeds, and his prestigious job laden with comfort and pleasure, and a secure life for him and his son, is a symbol of what happiness is through Chris’s eyes.

Functional Analysis Theory

Viewing class division as a necessary part of the American culture, functional analysis is “a theoretical framework in which society is viewed as composed of various parts, each with a function that, when fulfilled, contributes to society’s equilibrium.” (Henslin, 2012, p. 26). This concept maintains the idea that class stratification is necessary, and key for society to run, or function, properly. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris at

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first fulfills his simple lower class role of doing the ground work for successful business men. Swindled into selling the Bone Density Scanners, his job provides little to no room for growth, and his commissions are minuscule compared to what the producer of the product will make. Yet even with that job, he still plays a functioning part in the corporate schematic. Functional analysts essentially see the class division in the working world as necessary, as society would not function in the same way if all classes were equal.

On a smaller scale, the entire internship process for Dean Witter Reynolds can be seen as one giant machine, using all parties to function correctly. The interns, including Chris, get a chance to learn a new trade, with the hopes of receiving the one available job at the end of the session. This is an opportunity that would otherwise not be available to them. The brokers on the other hand, gain unpaid employees that are performing at their best in hopes of landing the job. Then, in the end the brokers get to choose the best individual, therefor bringing a successful asset to the company with complete and total ease. This is functional as it flows together smoothly and benefits both parties to an extent. Chris does manage to successfully move to the more privileged level of corporate function, but he does not change or effect the overall economic function attained through social stratification.

Conflict Theory

This movie goes into depth exploring conflicting classes in society. The conflict theory is “a theoretical framework in which society is viewed as composed of groups that are competing for scarce resources.” (Henslin, 2012, p 8). Chris was born into a different social class than many of his fellow interns, and as families often pass on social privileges or disadvantages to their heirs, he began his broker journey from a underprivileged point. Chris’s class made him disadvantaged for many reasons, a few being constant financial strain and worry, the stress of single parenting, lack of transportation and eventually housing, and lack of professional appearance and accessories. The upper class typically controls the lower class, keeping them from being any sort of competition. As an upper class family makes ample money to be able to hire nannies, house cleaners, etc., they have more free time to pursue competitive and time sensitive goals and jobs. Because Chris’s class lacks the financial stability, barely making enough to get by, they are forced to spend their time outside of work simply getting by, and often working another dead-end job. This does not give their class a fair chance to compete, so they continue

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the pattern of their lives at the bottom. This is an example of how the conflict theory shows the control of the dominant class over the lower.

This theory shows how social stratification and division are harmful to society. Chris’s place was originally in the proletariat society which is made up of mass workers exploited by the bourgeoisie society, which consists of capitalists who own the means to produce wealth (Henslin, 2012, p. 28). He was a rare exception and talent, and was able to climb up the social ladder to start his family in a new class. However, this is not an advantage that comes to most residing in the poverty to lower classes. Even though successful in the end, Chris still had to deceitfully take on the aspects of an upper class man when he was in the company of his possible future employers. The conflict between the two group was so great, that Chris had no other option but to conceal his lower class identity to even be considered for a position. Regardless of means, Chris did achieve his goal and made it to the highest class. However, it was a large gamble that could have fallen apart many times, and it was only through Chris’s sheer talent and dedication that he succeeded, a hope foreign to large numbers of the lower classes.

Conclusion

Just what is happiness and how do we successfully attain this lofty goal? Chris Gardner dared to not only answer that question, but to also back it up with real life results. Due to life’s complexities, Henslin stresses that it is important to “use all three [social theories] to analyze human behavior” and that “by combining the contributions of each [theory], we gain a more comprehensive picture of social life.” (2012, p. 29). Viewing Chris’s strain and journey up the social ladder, we gain insight to the social functions of class and status, and just how much they affect success. Chris managed to rise above the norm for his group, and contradicted his given stereotype, status, and class. Although society is structured a specific way with many factors playing into one’s growth and success in life, making it far harder for some to succeed than others, social standing is not set in stone. In the words of Chris Gardner “Don’t ever let somebody tell you… You can’t do something. You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.” (The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006). And get it he did.

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References

Henslin, J. The Sociological Perspective. Introduction to Sociology. Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2012. Print.

Smith, W., Black, T., Blumenthal, J., Lassiter, J., Tisch, S. (Producers), & Muccino, G. (Director). (2006). The Pursuit of Happyness [Motion picture]. USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Relativity Media, Overbrook Entertainment, Escape Artists.

The Pursuit of Happyness. 2006. The Internet Movie Database. Web. 21 July 2014.

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