The Power of Individuality
The Power of Individuality
Carey E. Bradley
Business Major, Utah Valley University
Professor Jonathon Patterson
December 13, 2020
The study of individualism and its power is not new. Psychologists, such as Maslow, agree that self-fulfillment and reaching one’s true potential is the reason we feel the need to continue living. It is our society’s job to provide the means to be able to reach that potential, and any society or societal institutions that require a sacrifice of a person’s free thinking is actually a form of a dystopia. Through analysis of the film Dead Poets Society the possibility will be explored of dystopias already existing within our own society and how a dystopia seeks to think on behalf of its members. And by analyzing 10 Cloverfield Lane, it will continue to be argued that individualism is what guides human beings through their lives. The findings of this research show that the required sacrifice of individualism is characteristic of dystopian societies and that individualism is what empowers people. Those who sacrifice their individualism are at the mercy of whoever wishes to control them.
Keywords: individualism, utopia, dystopian society, apocalyptic society, Dead Poets Society, 10 Cloverfield Lane
The Power of Individuality
Through analyzing the films Dead Poets Society and 10 Cloverfield Lane, we will explore the importance of maintaining individualism and how one's sense of self is the greatest deterrent of someone else having power over you. In order to successfully accomplish this, we must first take a step back and look at these two types of films: a dystopian narrative and an apocalyptic narrative. By picking these two types of films apart to their core, especially Dead Poets Society as it may not first appear to fall under the category of a dystopian film, we will be able to see how they both teach this universal lesson of the importance of individuality. Let us first start by establishing what makes up a dystopian world.
The Making of a Dystopia
The term “dystopia” is interesting. The philosopher John Stuart Mill is credited with coming up with the word. Mill was inspired by Thomas More’s novel “Utopia” which sets up a perfect imaginary world in which people exist with the same principles, standards, and are given an equal opportunity of growth. The term “utopia” is satirical. It is of Greek origin and is mocking the term “eutopia” which means “good place” (Caffrey, 2019). “Utopia” means “no place” which was More’s way of saying that a perfect society exists in no place. The term “dystopia” then means, “bad place” or “bad society.” What turns a utopia bad? Or in other words, what makes a utopia turn into a dystopia? In order to answer that, an understanding of a utopia’s structure must be reached.
When Thomas More created a utopian world, he created a perfect world. “People living in a utopic society live wholly or largely without human evils such as corruption, hate, and greed. Inhabitants of utopias live in societies with flawless governments, laws, and social conditions. Suffering does not exist in these societies. Because of social and economic equality, people may live worry-free lives” (Caffrey, 2019). This type of a world is not bad strictly on its face. What catalyzes the change from a utopia to a dystopia is the stoppage of change and growth within a society. Change and growth is fueled by a human’s individualism. Once a society smothers individuality and deems is unnecessary, the society becomes stagnant and it is not human nature to be stagnant.
There is a popular psychological model called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is a generally accepted principle that humans are in search of progressing up this pyramid. In order to do so, it is stated that the tiers below the tier the human is trying to obtain must be met. For example, a human wishing to feel accomplished (which is in the blue level of the pyramid) must first have the purple, green, and yellow tiers fulfilled in their lives.
Establishing Dead Poets Society as a Dystopia
A utopia, as stated before, promises to provide a level playing field for everyone to reach those levels of fulfillment. Therefore, what makes a society a dystopia is the prevention of its members from reaching that self-fulfillment level in the hierarchy of needs. For the sake of this paper we will look at Dead Poets Society as our reference point to a dystopia. In that film the boarding school, Welton Academy, provides the boys fulfillment of the purple, green, and yellow areas. The boarding school stops short of providing anything further but promises that by finishing their education there, they will be prepared to one day achieve the blue and orange levels. Damning the boys’ progression to subsequent tiers is characteristic of all dystopian narratives.
Though not the focus of this analysis, let’s briefly look at the society that exists in The Giver. This story is a well-known example of a dystopian narrative. In this story there is a ruling authority (the government) and the people living in this society are provided for. They have food, education, homes, family units, and friends. However, the society is considered a dystopia because the government controls each aspect of those people’s lives and individuality is against the society’s rules. There are rules in place that prohibit the use of emotional language such as “I love you” that would help certain members of the community to hold higher importance to other members of the community if such feelings could be felt and expressed. Roles and careers within the community are assigned. Education is specifically tailored to fit the narrative that whatever is happening in that society is in the community’s best interest. The government fulfills all tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs except the orange tier. The government stops natural human progression and we agree that this is wrong, and as evidence that this is wrong, the premise of the story is how the society learns to break free and grow. Understanding the importance of individuality is key to this story and its resolution. Now, I understand that The Giver is a made-up world and it’s easy to say we aren’t forced to do anything we don’t want to do in our society. But it would be wrong to say that there aren’t stark similarities between that made-up dystopian world and institutions that exist in our society today.
Enter: Dead Poets Society. When we watch the film Dead Poets Society, it is easy to relate to the world that is set up. Boarding schools exist in our world and many of us don’t think twice about their structures. We have at least a basic understanding of the strict rules and notions of greater success in being accepted to high profile schools such as, Harvard, Princeton, etc. that accompany attending a boarding school. However, I claim that the boarding school structure, as depicted in the film, goes beyond just a strict school and is actually a representation of a dystopia in today’s society.
Dystopian narratives were created with the preconceived notion that there are conditions in which they may exist. Gregory Claeys wrote in his analysis of Thomas More and his creation of a utopia, “We may reasonably surmise, then, that something like the well‐ordered society described in his Utopia lay, in More's own mind, within the bounds of possibility” (Clayes, para. 12). The possibility of a utopia not only existed within the mind of More but also in the mind of a man named Franz Kafka. Kafka wrote and created a dystopian society with the understanding that a ruling power had to be in place in order to maintain the utopia. This is the only way a utopia could be successful in our day and some would argue that Marxism, or communism, is a testament to this way of thinking. This type of dystopian society, with a ruling party as explained and created by Kafka, exists in Dead Poets Society.
Summary of Dead Poets Society’sPlot
Dead Poets Society is a film that follows a group of boys who are members of a premiere boarding school. The opening scene ends with boys standing and stating in unison the four pillars in which the school and their education are founded upon: Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence. This boarding school promises to give the boys the path to Ivy League schools and ultimately success through these four pillars. The thing that the boys are required to give in return is ultimately a sacrifice of their individuality. They are taught that traditional methods of thinking and learning have led to success and would, therefore, prove to be in their best interest of being successful in life. They are given rules and are expected to think, do, and say as they are instructed. These rules strip the boys of their identity and carry the message that each boy there is very much the same. The boys are there to bring honor to their families, the school, and are taught that there is only one way to do that; do as you’re told. In relation to Kafka’s dystopian society, these instructors, and even the parents of these boys, would be considered the ruling authority that Kafka insists must exist to maintain a utopia.
Sound familiar? Remember that we already established The Giver as a dystopian society and the things that made that so. There was a government in control that established strict rules and policies that robbed members of the society of their individualism under the guise of the false narrative that participants in the community were living an improved way of life. Everyone’s identity is reduced to nothing more than a person made to maintain the current level of life within the society. Anything that makes someone special is viewed as wrong. Individualism is the enemy to the current state of the society. Individualism is always the enemy to required conformity.
The stripping of individuality is a key characteristic of a dystopian society. Dystopian stories such as The Giver, The Hunger Games, Wall-E, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ready Player One are all testaments to dystopian societies that thrive because the subjects of the ruling authorities have lost their individualism. By the establishment of a ruling authority, theft of individuality, being threatened by the introduction to free thinking, promises made to members of society of a better life through the blind following of rules, and the inhibition of progress on a basic human nature level, Dead Poets Society establishes itself as a dystopian narrative. It follows the same societal patterns as other established dystopias.
Counterargument to Dead Poets Society Being Dystopian
I understand that the counterargument to Dead Poets Society not being a dystopian narrative would echo the thought of Daniel Horowitz when he wrote, “Other forms of dystopia prioritize conformity as a requirement rather than as a means to excel or create a first among equals” (Horowitz, 2020). Boarding schools are just made as a means to excel or create a first among equals right? Yes. However, Welton Academy takes this to the extreme. Conformity, in this case, is a requirement. If conformity was simply a means of setting the boys apart from their peers, then conformity would not come at the sacrifice of individuality. Rather, the school would teach that conformity to rules with the combination of uniqueness that each human has, is the best way to get ahead and stand out among peers. This is not the mindset of the leaders of Welton Academy. And we will look at what the mindset of the leaders later in an analysis of a conversation that happens between a tenured professor and Mr. Keating- the professor that encourages conformity in conjunction with individualism.
Establishment of an Apocalyptic Narrative
Now, as stated in the opening of this paper, we will be comparing Dead Poets Society and 10 Cloverfield Lane. With the basic premise of Dead Poets Society being a dystopia established, I’d like to take a moment to establish the premise of 10 Cloverfield Lane. I will not go into as much depth establishing the film as an apocalyptic film because it is already an accepted apocalyptic narrative. But briefly, “The term apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning ‘something revealed’ or ‘an unveiling,’ a reference to the revelation of heavenly knowledge to humankind” (Sheposh, 2020). 10 Cloverfield Lane fits this definition because knowledge of alien life is manifested to humans on Earth. If we wanted to take it a step further, this film also fits the definition because it puts the main character, Michelle, into a situation where the importance of individualism is revealed to her. With that basic understanding of why the film fits into the apocalyptic narrative, let’s indulge in the story.
10 Cloverfield Lane Plot
The film 10 Cloverfield Lane is a story of a woman named Michelle. The inciting incident of the movie happens as Michelle is involved in an accident, blacks out, and wakes up in an unknown bunker. She is introduced to Howard who is immediately established as the ruling authority in this apocalyptic film. He sets forth rules, gives Michelle an understanding that the world she once knew was now under siege by aliens, and that her only means of survival was to listen and trust him.
Comparison of the Films
This is where both films are very similar. They are both stories of people who have their ability to think and act for themselves taken from them and are presented with circumstances that appear to make it impossible for them to get their individuality back. They are led to believe that the ruling authority has their best interest at heart. But in both cases, the boys at the boarding school and Michelle in Howard’s bunker, their stories are pushed forward in their pursuit of free thought and doing what they feel is right. If the characters in each story had chosen to indulge their authoritarian figures, then the boys would’ve remained as blind followers ignoring their desire to be themselves and wouldn’t have placed a toe out of line. And Michelle would have remained in the bunker without a second thought until Howard said it was okay to leave. In each case there is a character introduced to the story that encourages the characters to continue pursuing free thought and individuality, and in each of these two stories, these people are viewed by the ruling authorities as “threats” to the society they’ve created or maintained. In the following paragraphs we will explore each of these characters and their roles in encouragement.
Dead Poets Society’s Culture
In Dead Poets Society the story opens at the beginning of a school year and with that, the boarding school is introduced to the new teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams. We are shown a montage of these boys in their different classes and in each of these classes, the tone is serious and the environment is stoic. Then we see inside Mr. Keating’s class. He goes against the grain by having them read the introduction of their poetry book, which instructs them as to how to best rate different poems and their significance. Mr. Keating then showcases his purpose to the story by instructing the boys to rip out the introduction, calling it “excrement,” and telling the boys that language touches people differently and that significance of language comes from being able to think for oneself.
The importance of language isn’t a new concept. Earla Wilputte in her analysis of a book called “The Cry” said, “Sarah Fielding and Jane Collier’s The Cry (1754) is concerned with the dangerous yet creative power of language” (Wilputte, 2017). This creativity from language is exactly what Mr. Keating teaches his students. “The boys’ immersion in this atmosphere, along with Keating’s ‘seize the day’ dictum, emboldens them to rebel against the expectations of the school and their families” (Wallin, 2017). We see the boys being rambunctious in their dorm rooms, jumping on beds and chasing each other, sneaking out at night to read poetry, and ultimately we see the main character, Neil Perry, completely defy his father and try out for a part in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Acting is not the same path of medical school that Neil’s father has planned for and made explicitly clear to Neil.
Outside Influences Encourage Individualism
Dead Poets Society’s Influencer
Free thinking and individualism are being noticed by the leaders of the school. This is against the societal norms that have been maintained at this school. As a matter of fact, another professor walks in on the boys ripping out the introduction of their poetry books. Then after he learns they are doing it as per the instructions of Mr. Keating, this professor confronts Mr. Keating at dinner. Their conversation is important in illustrating my point that individualism is stifled in a dystopian society because if it exists, it must mean that the authoritarian figures are no longer in control. Here is the conversation that happens between this professor (Professor McCallister) and Mr. Keating:
McCallister: “You take a big risk encouraging them to be artists, John. When they realize they're not Rembrandts or Shakespeares or Mozarts, they'll hate you for it.”
Keating: “Not artists, George, free thinkers.”
McCallister: “Free thinkers at [age] 17?”
Keating: “Funny, I hardly pegged you as a cynic.”
McCallister: “A cynic? A realist! Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man.”
Keating: “But only in their dreams can men truly be free. T’was always thus, and thus shall always be.”
McCallister (thinking Keating is quoting a historical poet): “Tennyson?”
Keating: “No, Keating.” (Shulman, 1989).
This exchange illustrates my point that this boarding school is exactly like a dystopia in that its teachers, save Keating, wish to obstruct free thinking due to a lack of trust in its members of society; the boys. And Mr. Keating is the character in this dystopian society that recognizes this, recognizes the importance of individualism, and will spend the duration of the film pushing the boys to think for themselves.
10 Cloverfield Lane’s Influencer
Now let’s switch back to 10 Cloverfield Lane. The character in this film that recognizes and encourages individualism is Emmett. Emmett begins by backing up Howard’s story because the story of the alien invasion is true. However, Emmett is there the entire time that Howard gives his stories of his past. When Michelle finds evidence of foul play and the likelihood of Howard murdering his former lover, Megan, she presents this information to Emmett who gives her a sense of validity and joins with her in her beliefs and attempts to escape the bunker (and by extension Howard). Emmett’s encouragement, additional thoughts, and similar mindset as her, push her to continue to question Howard, escape, and find truth for herself.
Emmett is the “Mr. Keating” of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Howard is the same as the other professors at the boarding school. Howard shoves his beliefs, his rules, and his expectations on those who he has power over and teaches them that by listening to him, they will succeed in surviving and their lives will be all the better for it. Howard is threatened by Michelle and Emmett plotting to leave and upon discovering their conspiracy, he murders Emmett in front of Michelle to re-establish his dominance and to put to rest any further notions Michelle might have that would be contrary to Howard and his totalitarian reign. In this lies the highest tension of the movie. Will Michelle cower? Or will she continue to fight for her ability to act and investigate for herself? Even if it means she dies trying.
Living Vicariously Through Characters to Learn Lessons
10 Cloverfield Lane Conclusion
This begs the question: Why is this the tension of that movie? It is because we, as the audience, recognize what she’s fighting for. We have the leisure of watching this movie from an omnipotent point of view, having our own realities that involve our own individualism, driving our emotions and our desire for Michelle to be like us: an individual. This film illustrates how good we have it, in being able to act, investigate, live, die in whatever way we feel is right for ourselves. 10 Cloverfield Lane shows us a reality in which Michelle is bullied and manipulated into feeling like all of those things are out of her reach and individualism is ripped from her. She recognizes this with Emmett’s help. We recognize this because we put ourselves in her shoes figuratively, and ask ourselves what we would do in her situation. We feel that her quest for individualism is our quest. We feel ourselves pleading, fighting, and wanting to scream at Michelle to leave and to get to a place that puts herself back in control of her life instead of letting Howard be in control. This is because we already recognize that individualism is where power comes from. We feel the want for Michelle to be empowered.
Dead Poets Society Conclusion
In Dead Poets Society the main tension comes when Neil’s father discovers that Neil had gone behind his back and auditioned for A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Neil’s father had expressively told Neil at the beginning of the film that he was to do exactly as he was told and that he would not be allowed to be in control of his life until he had graduated from medical school twelve more years down the road. Neil convinces his father to let him perform in one performance and the father even shows up to watch it. At the conclusion of the performance, Neil’s father informs Neil that he will be withdrawing him from the boarding school, sending him to a military school, and that his acts of “defiance” stemmed from Mr. Keating. Neil pleads with his parents to reconsider and once it is apparent they will not, the climax of the film is reached. Neil commits suicide. And as dark and heavy the subject of suicide is, I think that this is the strongest argument of Dead Poets Society being a story of a fight for individualism in a dystopian society.
“The act of suicide frequently is depicted as involving personal freedom and choice” (Eskin, 2020). In Neil’s final act, he made a statement that was abundantly clear: his life was his own and he was going to be in full control of his life. If he couldn’t be in control of his life from the current moment onward, then he didn’t see a life worth living. I recognize that we may not agree with the ends nor method by which Neil decided to send that message, but this act was Neil’s final act that was made out of his own freedom of choice. He recognized that his life was not his own. He had been blind to his upbringing until Mr. Keating introduced the freedom and power that comes from individuality. Neil made a personal decision that he would rather not live in a world that robbed him of his individuality any more than it already had. And perhaps as a final act that ensured to himself that he was in control of his own life, Neil chose to take his life.
We see the effects Mr. Keating has on the group of boys at the end of the movie. The school puts the blame of Neil taking his life on Mr. Keating and as a result, Robin William’s character is sacked. This moment in the movie is the moment we find out that Neil was not the only one who had learned the lesson Mr. Keating was trying to teach. The boys appear to be going back to how they had been before: cold, monotonous, mindless followers. But as Mr. Keating is about to leave, the boys stand on their desks in an act of defiance, showing their individuality, and that they had learned the ever-important lesson from their poetry teacher. His lesson of where power stems from- the ability to think for yourself- had stuck.
Michelle is reduced to similar measures as Neil. Michelle comes to the same conclusion that she would rather face the dangers of the world, even death, than to remain captive to Howard and his manipulation. In a final act of defiance, she breaks out of the bunker, intentionally exposes herself to the air she believes to be toxic, and is prepared for death. Even though she is awakened to another partial truth of Howard’s that the air is not, itself, toxic, she would have rather taken her own life rather than allow another moment pass of her being under Howard’s control. This, again, shows the importance of maintaining individualism and how one's sense of self is the greatest deterrent of someone else having power over you.
The ability to act for oneself was so important to Michelle and Neil that they were both willing to give their lives as a testament to that importance, rather than let someone else have control over them. Individualism is so important to us as an audience that as we watch these films, we cheer these characters on in their journey of discovering and maintaining individuality. We know what they are missing and we want them to have what we have. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dystopian narrative or an apocalyptic narrative, individualism ties these two stories together. The worlds are different, the environments are toxic in their own unique ways. The lesson in each of these stories is that individualism is the greatest power we have as human beings. It is the greatest deterrent to someone else having power over us. One might say that if we do not have power over ourselves then that leaves the door open to anyone who wishes to have power over us. The power that comes from being different individuals must be preserved because, as these films teach us, if that fundamental truth is not protected, that power will ultimately be missed and it will require great sacrifice to bring back. If it’s worth bringing back, it’s worth keeping in the first place. And it’s up to us to fight for individuality and for the right of every human being to express it responsibly. Societal progress hangs in the balance because personal progress is ultimately translated to progress in the society of which that person belongs. And personal progress stems from the power derived from individuality.
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