Excerpt: National Pastimes

The following is an excerpt from National Pastimes: Cinema, Sports, and Nation by Katharina Bonzel. The book is the newest title in the Sports, Media, and Society series, which investigates how and why the many different aspects of sports are communicated to consumers and the ways this content both creates a significant cultural impact and reflects the tenor of our society at large.

So strong is the cultural currency of the Rocky films (Stallone/Avildsen, 1976–2006, and their descendants Creed [Coogler, 2015] and Creed II [Caple Jr., 2018]) and their association with the American dream that, thirty years after the first film premiered, countless people pilgrimage to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to run up those steps “like Rocky did,” as Michael Vitez vividly describes:

One day not long ago, a taxicab pulled up to the curb in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A man hopped out and started running up the steps. A woman jumped out after him and began filming him. He sprinted to the top, turned to face the city below, and danced and pranced and thrust his fists into the air in celebration, just as if he were Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. . . . This kind of thing happens all the time, every day of the year. From all over the Philadelphia region, the nation, and the world, people are drawn to these steps to run them like Rocky did.

This phenomenon illustrates how deeply engrained the story of the down-and-out boxer Rocky Balboa, as played by Sylvester Stallone, is in the American national psyche. The original Rocky (1976) film has been associated with the American dream not only because of the story of small-time boxer Rocky Balboa’s rise to glory but also because of its production history. Sylvester Stallone had much in common with his film alter ego: he was an unemployed actor who had one last chance to prove he was not, as Rocky puts it, “just another bum from the neighborhood.” Significantly Stallone made his own chance of a lifetime by writing a script and insisting on playing the lead role. Echoing the fictional success of Rocky in his World Championship bout against heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Stallone became an overnight star and his film an outstanding financial and critical success, winning the Oscar for Best Film in 1977. Stallone’s own meteoric rise to fame and fortune is thus as much part of the Rocky myth as the film itself.

Yet despite the happy endings and success stories of the Rocky franchise, there is a strong undercurrent of uneasiness and anxiety present in the films. This is not about the obvious physical and mental demands of boxing, but rather a larger struggle regarding the availability of the mythical American dream: does it still exist? And if so, who has access to it? Most importantly, is this concept—so central to American self-perception— under threat of losing its relevance and viability? I argue that the true battles fought in the Rocky films are those brought against the known and unknown, solid and shifting, group and individual aggressors against the very idea of the American dream. The battles embodied in the conflicts between Rocky and his opponents are also always ideological in nature, with a symbolic significance that expands to the level of national mythmaking.

The Idea That Built a Nation: The American Dream

In the words of former president Bill Clinton, “America is far more than a place. It is an idea.” In this it is different from many countries, most notably those of the Old World of Europe, that at the time of the Puritan exodus in the seventeenth century to the New World were characterized by hereditary monarchies, oppressive class systems, and racial or ethnic borders. Historian Jim Cullen summarizes these differences as follows: “Over the course of human history, peoples have used any number of means to identify themselves: blood, religion, language, geography, a shared history, or some combination of these. Yet the United States was essentially a creation of the collective imagination—inspired by the existence of a purportedly New World, realized in a Revolution that began with an explicitly articulated Declaration, and consolidated in the writing of a durable Constitution.”

As a result of this idea of American exceptionalism—the United States of America as unique among the world’s nations—America can be perceived as “the world’s most free society, characterized by social mobility, meritocracy and egalitarianism unimpeded by barriers of class.”4 Francis D. Cogliano argues that the values of this positive reading of American exceptionalism are not only closely related to American identity but are at the heart of it. The American dream is another construct that is closely bound up with the idea of American exceptionalism and, as I argue, is equally at the heart of American self-perception. Notwithstanding the existence of a founding myth in all cultures and modern nation-states, accounting for how the nation came into being in an affective narrative, this particular one has proved to be both vague and definite and, perhaps most surprisingly, always current. The difficulty of defining the American dream has been noted by many scholars, and there are as many definitions as there are authors, or, indeed, dreamers. However, the idea was perhaps most famously voiced by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Most critics see the idea of the American dream as intricately bound up with American history, starting with the Puritan pilgrims and their desire to build a new life in the New World. The Puritan work ethic, as communication theorist Walter Fisher points out, is one pillar of the American dream. Horatio Alger’s stories of impoverished boys who “pull up their bootstraps” and become successful—that is, improve their financial and social standing—popularized this version of the American dream.

What “success” means, however, remains contentious. Some scholars argue for a very generalized understanding of the American dream, such as Calvin Jillson, who defines the American dream as one that is “broader and more basic and [one] that has been remarkably stable since well before the American Revolution. That dream was of an America that offers citizens and immigrants a better chance to thrive and prosper than any other nation on earth.” Other scholars aim for more precision in their explanations of what this actually means. Jim Cullen, for example, approaches the American dream in a more literal way (e.g., the dream of home ownership in the 1950s), while Wilbur W. Caldwell approaches the dream from a more theoretical viewpoint (e.g., the dream of progress). Needless to say, a concrete definition of the American dream remains elusive. Its ambiguity and timelessness appear to be part of its appeal, making it more accessible than similarly historically important concepts such as “democracy” or “the Constitution,” as Cullen argues: “The omnipresence of ‘the American Dream’ stems from a widespread—though not universal—belief that the concept describes something very contemporary. At the same time, however, much of its vitality rests on a premise . . . that it is part of a long tradition.”

This duality of being both contemporary yet steeped in history showcases the myth’s most striking characteristic—for it to fulfill its function as the “glue” that holds the nation together it has to be adaptable to a great many sociopolitical, cultural, and historical contexts. As Robert Jensen contends: “Whether celebrated or condemned, the American Dream endures, though always ambiguously. We are forever describing and defining, analyzing and assessing the concept, and with each attempt to clarify, the idea of an American Dream grows more incoherent yet more entrenched.” The continued relevance of the American dream as a means to success—however defined—is perplexing in the face of the well-documented structural and economic inequalities that simply do not allow access to the dream to many sections of the population in the United States. Writing in 1996, Jennifer L. Hochschild describes the paradox that “poor blacks now believe more in the American dream than rich blacks do, which is a reversal from the 1960s,” despite being very aware that they face greater challenges to achieve success than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, middle-class black Americans became increasingly disillusioned with what Alexis de Tocqueville had called “the charm of anticipated success.”

Communication theorist Walter Fisher elaborates on this idea of “anticipated success,” splitting the American dream into two myths: a materialistic myth of success and a moralistic myth of brotherhood: “The egalitarian moralistic myth of brotherhood . . . [involves] the values of tolerance, charity, compassion and true regard for the dignity and worth of each and every individual. [The materialistic myth of success deals with] the puritan work ethic and relates to the values of effort, persistence, ‘playing the game,’ initiative, self-reliance, achievement, and success.”

Other scholars likewise see the American dream as twofold, with a materialistic and an idealistic side that are constantly at odds with each other.18 Both of these sets of values correspond well to the changing dominant models of American masculinity: born of the religious convictions of the Puritan settlers, remasculated at the frontier in the form of the rugged pioneer (or, as Michael S. Kimmel puts it, the “masculine primitive”) and culminating in the resourceful self-made man.

Aaron Baker describes the ideal masculinity of the athlete as a “heroic individual” who “overcomes obstacles and achieves success through determination, self-reliance, and hard work.” This “heroic individual” in the pursuit of the American dream is closely linked to the history of American manhood, in particular the idea of the self-made man, who according to Kimmel’s study Manhood in America represents the dominant model of American masculinity. Kimmel describes the self-made man as “ambitious and anxious, creatively resourceful and chronically restive, the builder of culture and among the casualties of his own handiwork, a man who is, as the great French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1832, ‘restless in the midst of abundance.’” The birth of the self-made man is linked to the time of economic boom shortly after the American Revolution in the latter half of the eighteenth century—a time in which the constraints of the English motherland were thrown off, and the “old standard rooted in the life of the community and the qualities of a man’s character gave way to a new standard based on individual achievement.”

Coupling this emphasis on individual achievement with economic success in a time of renewed American self-definition and capitalist expansion following the American Revolution makes clear how interdependent the formations of masculinity, the American dream, and American national identity are. As “America expressed political autonomy,” the changing images of masculinity from the independent, resourceful, and rugged pioneer of the American frontier to the self-made man of the American Revolution turned out to be crucial ideals in the national journey toward “economic autonomy.” But, as Kimmel points out, the “flip side of this economic autonomy is anxiety, restlessness, loneliness. Manhood is no longer fixed in land or small-scale property ownership or dutiful service. Success must be earned, manhood must be proved—and proved constantly.” Thus the American self-made man chases the American dream to prove his manhood with (economic) success.

It is above all the latter variant that serves as a role model for the character of Rocky. The Rocky films create a nostalgic vision of manhood that, as the franchise continues, frequently conflicts with more contemporary forms of masculinity. Furthermore, because Rocky’s masculinity is so closely intertwined with the American dream, the inherent ambiguity of this concept produces a considerable problem: for the American dream to work, it needs a certain chance of failure—it cannot be “a self-evident falsehood or a scientifically demonstrable principle.” This results in an atmosphere of heightened anxiety, with Rocky continuously forced not only to prove his masculinity and validate it as the premier model of American manhood but also to defend the American dream so closely bound up with it. In the Rocky films we can see at work the myth of individual and national aspirations as one expressed through the American dream.

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