Monday, January 27, 2014

What are you?

Source: Fox Searchlight
The movie “The Way, Way Back,” tells the coming of age story of a 14-year old boy, Duncan, who takes a summer road trip with his mother, her boyfriend Trent (played by the awesomely talented Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter to his beach house in a small seaside town in Massachusetts. On the drive to the house, Trent strikes up a conversation with Duncan and proceeds to ask him what he thought he was on a scale of 1-10. After some thought, Duncan responds that he is a 6. Trent finds Duncan’s response pretty amusing, amusing because he is tickled by Duncan’s audacity to think so highly of himself, and proceeds to tell Duncan that he is not a 6 but rather a 3. Young Duncan does not refute Trent’s pronouncement that he is a 3 and instead seethes with anger and resentment towards Trent. Trent of course is the stereotypical overbearing and pushy boyfriend who is clearly irritated by Duncan but puts up with him to be with his Mom whom he ends up cheating on and whose name you will find as the definition of the word douche bag in any clever urban dictionary. 

Over the course of the movie, Duncan develops healthy friendships with other adult males who reaffirm him and build up his self-esteem that Trent was so bent on destroying. The movie was very witty and well written, however, I could not stop thinking about the opening scene in the car where Trent tries to define Duncan. That scene resonated with me because placing tags on people seems to be the highlight of our culture. It’s not uncommon for some men to label women as dimes and give less worthy attributions to other women they believe do not meet some standard of beauty. Likewise, it is commonplace for women to define other women, a practice that is even more vitriolic than that engaged in by men. But putting people in so called boxes because of their physical appearance was not what caught my attention, but rather doing so because of what society feels they can or cannot achieve. Trent did not think Duncan was a 3 because of his appearance but on the grand scale in the world of cool, cooler and coolest, Duncan wasn’t so hot in his opinion. Funny to think that Facebook started in just the same way, with a young kid sizing up students in a database based on their appearance. 

Truth is, as a group humans can be so vindictive. While we like the warm and fuzzy clichés that celebrate acceptance and decry intolerance, at some point most of us have participated in sizing up and putting people in a box based on our perceptions. They weren’t cool enough, didn’t go to the right school, didn’t wear the right clothes, were not as bright as we would like and the list goes on. What’s ugly about our labels is along that trajectory we turn inward and start to tear ourselves down based not only on what society tells us we are but what our perceived inadequacies inform us about ourselves. Having healthy self-esteem though can sometimes be tricky because it could straddle the fence between a healthy opinion of oneself and pure hubris. So how do we tell the difference? If a person walks into a room and thinks that they are “it,” are they being prideful or do they just think highly of themselves? I’ve often surmised that as long as a person does not think comparatively in terms of “I am the most intelligent in the room and everyone else is ignorant,” there might be room for redemption. It might be healthy to think that one is the most intelligent in the room, but to be aware that there are others more intelligent and to be open to learning from said more intelligent people in the room. If said person thinks they have attained and cannot be students and see others as inferior then that might be considered prideful or no? So how do we define ourselves in a way that is healthy, without bordering on being prideful and refuting labels that others might attempt to put on us?

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