Teaching Through Rocky: Stratification and the American Dream, Race, and Gender

Rocky. An American classic. The epitome of the American Dream through a rags-to-riches story (in a documentary on the making of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone describes the writing and making of the film as its own real-life American Dream as well). A well-made film that won Best Picture in 1976 along with several other awards. Largely considered to be not only one of the great sports films of all time, but a great film of all time for any genre.

Along with its renown as a classic, award-winning film illustrating cultural values and beliefs that many Americans hold dear, the movie also happens to be quite useful and valuable as a teaching tool. It’s one that I like to use in my Sociology of Sport class, though it could easily be applied to a non-sport sociology class as well. There are several different areas in which Rocky may be usefully applied.  Here I focus on stratification and the ideology of the American Dream, race, and gender.

Rocky, Stratification, and the American Dream

As previously mentioned, Rocky embodies the American Dream and our belief in rags-to-riches stories. This is the idea that in America, thanks to our system of open mobility (the ability to move freely between different social classes – though take note that we do not live in a perfectly open system!), anyone with the right amount of hard work and determination can “make it.” In the beginning of the film, we see Rocky’s current situation – fighting in cheap clubs in the slums of Philadelphia while working on the side as a collector for a local bookie. From these humble beginnings, we can track Rocky’s improbable (and lucky) shot at the heavyweight boxing title (and especially as the movies go on, we are made aware of the wealth that Rocky has accumulated).

Our belief in the American Dream as realistic relies on the ideas of competitive individualism and meritocracy. The idea of competitive individualism is that a person’s successes are due to that individual’s hard work, determination, and skills/abilities, while any failures must result from laziness or a lack of determination and skills/abilities of the individual (effectively ignoring any larger, structural forces at play). This is the main thrust behind each of the films in the Rocky series: Rocky’s heart, determination, and incredible work ethic lead him to improbable victory. He is willing to give whatever it takes – clearly illustrated through the grueling training montages that are a centerpiece of each of the films. This is closely related to what we think of as a meritocracy – that individuals end up where they “should be” based on their individual merit; they earned it (or failed to earn it).

In a system designed this way, we can look directly to the individual to understand why he/she did or did not succeed. Indeed these rags-to-riches stories are exemplars that show us that hard work and determination can pay off. In fact, it’s quite important for these rags-to-riches stories to be highly visible and well-known for us to maintain our strong belief in the American Dream and “opportunity for all.”

However, what many conflict theorists argue is that the high visibility of these *very rare and improbable* rags-to-riches stories have created a sense of false consciousness where those who are actually systematically harmed and disadvantaged by the system, actually believe in the system and do not realize their own disadvantaged structural location within it. In fact, when Rocky is asked by Adrian why he fights, he quips, “because I can’t sing or dance.” This illustrates the idea that he views sport and entertainment as his only two ways of escaping life in the slums. He has internalized this and sees the system that promotes it as legitimate and normal – thus adding to the sense of false consciousness. It’s absolutely certain that we do not live in a complete meritocratic system. One’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and network ties (among other things) shape opportunities and advantages/disadvantages.

In the case of Rocky, there was a great deal of luck involved. Rocky was chosen largely because Apollo wanted to put on a show – he liked the public relations gimmicks that could come from fighting the “Italian Stallion” (Rocky’s nickname). This would be a great representation to show that an immigrant could make it in the “land of opportunity” (said several times in the film!) on America’s bicentennial birthday. However, people tend to ignore the luck and other factors involved (other fighters being injured, Apollo’s thirst for a good story, etc.), and focus on Rocky as an individual – how all of his hard work paid off.

While there’s no doubt that Rocky worked hard, we cannot neglect the broader context in our hurry to pin all of his success on his own individual hard work and determination. There were plenty of other individuals who were working just as hard and had just as much skill/talent (and likely many who were working even harder with more skill/talent), yet did not get a shot at the title. Did Rocky truly merit this opportunity more than anyone else? Was it all based on his individual hard work and achievements?

Rocky and Race

In the movie, Rocky’s opponent is the current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Creed is an African-American – not at all uncommon for many heavy-weight boxers over the years. However, his portrayal and some of the themes we may see are not inconsequential when thinking about race.

While Rocky’s story focuses on his intense training and hard work to overcome his clumsiness and lack of “natural ability,” Apollo’s is the direct opposite. We do not see any of Apollo’s training regimen – we are actually led to believe that there probably wasn’t much of one at all!

Apollo is portrayed as a naturally gifted and extremely arrogant athlete. His first priority is to put on a “show” for the fans. This was what inspired his decision to select Rocky as a challenger; we see him ignore his trainer’s advice to take Rocky seriously because he is more concerned with planning the event; and we can see his emphasis on putting on a show at the actual fight when he shows up dressed as Uncle Sam alongside the Statue of Liberty.

This feeds into common stereotype that many have: that when it comes to sport, African-Americans are simply “naturally gifted” and are able to be lazy at times because of this extra skill/talent they have been endowed with. The white athlete, on the other hand, has to make up for this lack of “natural ability” through extra hard work, or “knowing the game” better (designing some sort of superior strategy – relying on intellect). This downplays the amount of work and effort that African-Americans do put into particular sports, instead relying on these ideas of “natural” or “genetic” ability.

We can see variations of this theme over and over throughout the subsequent films. In Rocky III in particular, Rocky fights Clubber Lane (Mr. T), another African-American fighter. Though not portrayed as arrogant as Apollo Creed was, Lane is the epitome of the stereotype mentioned above: the black man as naturally gifted and a physical specimen. Many early sportswriters (especially those covering boxing) explicitly described black boxers as being “instinctual,” “coming straight out of the jungle with other wild animals,” and other similar metaphors. Again, this characterizes the black male as a physical specimen born to fight – it is a part of his intrinsic nature.

In fact, the only reason that Rocky is able to defeat Lane in their second matchup (Rocky loses the first), is because Rocky outsmarts him. He sets a “trap” by allowing Lane to dole out some heavy punches anticipating that this will “tire him out.” Again, this puts emphasis on using his superior strategy in order to “keep up” and eventually win the fight.

The final point of interest with respect to race that I’ll point out here also comes from Rocky III. After Rocky initially loses to Lane, Apollo and his trainer decide to take Rocky under their wing and train him to fight. Rocky accompanies them to their gym and there is some immediate racial tension as Rocky enters the gym with Adrian and Paulie to see only African-Americans there. Paulie also constantly remarks that Rocky “can’t be trained like a colored fighter because he’s got no rhythm.” Again, this reinforces the idea that African-Americans have these types of physical abilities come to them much more naturally and without the amount of hard work and effort it takes others.

Rocky and Gender

When it comes to Rocky and gender, this may seem like a moot point to some – “this is a film about boxing, it’s not supposed to have anything to do with gender.” Well, that very idea explains one reason exactly why it does matter with respect to gender. The idea that we don’t expect (or perhaps don’t want) a boxing film to have any type of gender dynamics is telling. This is a sports-film that centers on the experience and identity of *surprise* a male. Check out this link for an interesting analysis of the lack of female-centered award-winning films in general.

In fact, the only real female role in the film is that of Adrian, Rocky’s eventual girlfriend and wife. And Adrian does not embody a strong, independent, important female character. Exactly the opposite, in fact. Adrian embodies the ideals of very traditional femininity: passive, shy, timid, dependent, frail, unable to take care of herself, nurturing, supportive, and not especially financially successful.

Adrian is viewed in two main ways in the film by men: as an obstacle, and as a source of social support.  Adrian is viewed as an obstacle by both Mickey (Rocky’s trainer), and Paulie (Rocky’s friend and Adrian’s brother). According to Mickey, “women weaken legs,” showing his belief that she is only in the way of Rocky’s training. Paulie claims that Adrian cannot survive on her own and is thus his responsibility, which has limited his options in life (a rather far-fetched claim coming from a raging alcoholic who has trouble himself of maintaining a job). For Rocky, Adrian is there to support him, both emotionally and physically. While this is helpful for Rocky, it still clearly places Adrian in the role of care-giver while Rocky’s career and well-being takes precedent. Both her role as an obstacle and as a source of support display her as status as a woman as being of secondary importance to the men in the film.

Gender analysis, however, should not be limited to looking at how females and femininity are often marginalized in society. We can see the characterization of masculinity (a specific kind of masculinity) and how that is portrayed as well. First of all, it is a film about boxing; it doesn’t get much more masculine than that. Secondly, we can see Rocky’s identity as a fighter as central to him. Males have a tendency to create their sense of self and identity to be closely tied to athletics and sport. This can be detrimental to other aspects of one’s life as different relationships and other areas take a backseat to the importance of sport. Finally, Rocky gets the girl (in large respect by ignoring Adrian’s initial refusals to his advances). What is more masculine than a male, heavy-weight prize fighter, who is heterosexual and ends up getting the girl? I don’t have an answer for that.

I have used Rocky mainly to illustrate a rags-to-riches story and tie it in with stratification while also attempting to touch on at least a couple of salient points on gender and race mentioned here.  It is worth noting that there are other aspects of the film that could be equally fruitful to examine, as well as some of the other films from the series (Rocky III, and Rocky IV immediately come to mind).

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Categories: Rethinking The World

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