American Loser: Demonizing Failure to Save Capitalism
Lawrence: "What would you do [if you had a million dollars]?"
Peter: "Nothing... I would sit on my ass all day. I would do nothing."
Lawrence: "You don't need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin - he's broke, don't do shit." –Office Space, 1999
Mr. Lebowski: "You're just looking for a handout, like every other... Are you employed?"
The Dude: "Employed?"
Mr. Lebowski: "You don't go out looking for a job dressed like that, do you? On a weekday?"
The Dude: "Is this a... What day is this?" –The Big Lebowski, 1998
Homer Simpson: "Did someone say snack? I'll be your ref!"
Lisa's soccer team: "Yay!"
Lisa Simpson: "Dad, where'd you get that outfit?"
Homer Simpson: "I got fired from Footlocker."–The Simpsons, 2014
The Dude. Peter. Homer. Meet the American loser, an anti-hero who appears in pop culture under varying guises, to make us laugh, cringe, and feel better about ourselves. There's the "Cool Loser" as portrayed by outcast James Dean in the '50s teen drama Rebel Without A Cause, and then there's the "Born Unlucky" trope that plays out in South Park through Kenny's repeat deaths, and the baseless groundings Butters's parents subject him to – his birthday is even September 11th.
In the three examples above, Peter and The Dude portray "The Slacker," generally seen as being at fault for his (generally male) loserhood, while Homer shows us "This Loser is You," a trope employed to make the audience identify with a loser protagonist. These are already modern classics, originating in the Bush, Sr. and Clinton years, yet recently we've seen a more serious roasting of the loser, "only in America" style.
Take This L
In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, journalists noted Republican hopeful and reality TV star Donald Trump's frequent use of the L-word in support of his campaign to strip social security and health insurance benefits from millions of Americans. In a somewhat overgeneralized piece that still serves as food for thought, without relying on much hard data to back it up, Reuters' Neal Gabler explores the significance of Trump's "loser" epithet. Reuters' Facebook page introduced it with: "When Trump calls his opponents 'losers,' he isn't just name calling – he's tapping into the American psyche, because the U.S. is a winner and loser society."
At the same time, socialist revolutionary Bernie Sanders called to mind the loser archetype's arch enemy, the bully, when he said "Ever since I was a kid I never liked to see people without money or connections get put down or pushed around." As part of his call for political revolution and push for policies that would expand the welfare state Trump seeks to destroy, in speech after speech he called attention to the unthinkable 31 million children (around half in America) living in poverty and called real unemployment at 10.5%, around twice the Obama administration's claim of 5.3%.
"46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line…the highest number in over 50 years"
Not having a job is one of the hallmarks of the American loser, and a Gallup poll showed a similar rate of 9.7% in 2010 but showed it cut in half by 2016. Around 10% of the population is over 32 million individuals who are seeking work but can't find it. In 2015, The Washington Post showed employment, on the other hand, as only 59.3%. Former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Ed Lazear reports 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line as of the most recent census in 2012, the highest number in over 50 years, and 16.4 children (again only around half of the 2016 figure), the highest amount since the early '60s. Lazear reminds us that "The middle class is in a world of social Darwinism where there is a permanent threat of unemployment and insecurity. The decline of the middle class does not appear to be ending or even slowing down. And more losers will be created by our freewheeling free market capitalism."
And isn’t it strangely telling that Trump earned fame from his reality TV show The Apprentice, where his infamous line “You’re fired” was dispensed to all but one winner. The elimination-style reality TV show (i.e., The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model) is the hallmark of loser culture in America, a high-stakes competition that symbolizes both the capitalist struggle and harkens back to a primitive animal instinct to preserve ourselves at any cost, to be the one left standing, whether in the wild or on a stage.
Survival of the Fattest
We could choose to see loserdom as a social symptom, yet from when we are children we learn it's a contagious personal problem. We develop a whole lexicon to call it out: No car. No girl. No friends. Old clothes. Bad skin. Bad teeth. Stupid. Gay. Retarded. Crack baby. Yo mama. So fat. Ad nauseum. Yet we could just as easily view it as a social disease: Poverty. Heartbreak. Social isolation. Loneliness. Health problems. Addiction. Lack of education. Weak community ties. No support system.
And from when we (Americans) are children, we’re taught to compete, with baby beauty pageants being the creepiest example I can think of. We take it on faith that competition will make us better, not only as individuals but as a group. It’s an ironic hallmark of capitalism – America believes it has the best solutions to social ills (i.e., illness itself) because financial reward drives corporations to develop innovative solutions no one otherwise would have. But what good are those solutions when only the wealthy can access them, as when vaccinations are patented and AIDS meds denied to poor African patients?
And lest we forget that the standards we often judge ourselves and others by are in fact quite arbitrary – take thinness as a standard for hotness among women. Traditionally, it was fat women who were considered more beautiful, since they didn’t have to work. And even in the 21st century, there are fat camps of an African variety that act as the reverse of our American counterparts – where girls are in fact force-fed to become as fat as possible, being forced to do nothing and kept from engaging in any kind of exercise, so that they may find a husband.
"Traditionally, it was fat women who were considered more beautiful, since they didn’t have to work."
In education critic Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Competition,” he outs competition among kids as an evil that does them more damage than good. "One study demonstrated conclusively that competitive children were less empathetic than others; another study showed that competitive children were less generous,” noted Kohn. In his view, competition "simply means that one person can succeed only if others fail."
Reading Kohn, it makes sense to me why I once heard that one should avoid competitive environments when depressed. It’s stressful, even if you win. And if you win, you might feel good about yourself, for a short time. But if you lose…
"Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we’re in a race,” Kohn continued, “that without competition we would all become fat, lazy, and mediocre. It’s a belief that our society takes on faith. It’s also false." Hearing these words, I can’t help but remember hearing the same type of argument against our much-needed welfare state. That those who rely on welfare must just be lazy, abusing the system. And why should you, who work so hard, help someone else who doesn’t?
San Francisco is no New York, and yet even its work culture can feel suffocating at times. There is the sense, in much of American work culture, that everything that can be done (to make a customer happy, make more money, be more productive, etc.), should be done – and fast. Of course, America is notoriously overworked, with Europe more closely resembling our chill distant cousin. A Spanish colleague once told me about her amazement with the pressures of work life in SF. And even though he died in England, it was still Bank of America that killed intern Moritz Erhardt. Cause of death? Working too hard.
Michael Moore’s overlooked 2015 Where to Invade Next is the closest Moore has come to a Bernie Sanders film. Setting sail to Norway, France, Tunisia, and other nations, Moore “invades” and “steals” their best ideas, much as the U.S. has been invading and stealing oil from the Middle East for the past few decades. We see that Finnish children, whose nation was rated number 1 for education in the world, don’t have to do homework. As Finnish school principal Leena Liusvaara simply put it, “I want children to play.” She asks, “When do they have their time to play, and socialize with their friends, and grow as human beings? ‘Cause there is so much more to life all around than just school.” We meet an Italian couple who describe the “13th month,” whereby Italians (much like Norwegians) are paid for an extra month so they can use that money for vacations, and the more than two months of vacation time they get (30-35 business days, plus 1-2 weeks of national days), and the additional 15 days they got for their honeymoon. When Moore asks them “You know what the law says in America…how many paid weeks you get by law?” and then answers himself with “Zero,” they appear genuinely horrified.
I once read that if you told an Italian you were working all summer, they’d think you were a loser. That you had no life and were boring. Whereas in America, you’re made to feel guilty for taking any time to live your own life. I told my dentist I’d spent a month in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with my partner, and his assistant jokingly asked him if she could take a month off, with a tone that suggested that was humorously impossible. Yet if she lived in my dentist’s homeland of Belgium, she probably would have done so without thought.
“Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy.”
Paul LaFargue wrote the book on lazy, Le Droit a la Paresse (The Right to Be Lazy), a socialist treatise that starts with the Lessing quote, “Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy.” LaFargue was Marx’s son-in-law, the one who led Marx to say that if LaFargue’s work was meant to represent Marxism, that “what is certain is that I am not a Marxist.” Yet Marx’s poetic style can be recognized in LaFargue’s own manifesto, which he begins by recounting that close to the turn of the 20th century, “A strange madness possesses the working classes of those nations where capitalism reigns.” (Spoiler: That madness is the love of work.) LaFargue goes so far as to say that “In his speech on the mountain, Christ preached laziness: ‘Regard how the field lilies grow – they don’t work, nor do they hurry, and therefore I say to you, Solomon, in all their glory, they’ve never been more beautiful.’” LaFargue wrote in the late 1800s, when 12-hour days were common. The 8-hour work day was developed in the 1910s as a merciful improvement. But since then we’ve mostly stayed on our grind, many of us working more than that anyway. But what about the future? What about the robots – those who are already replacing us as workers? Only socialist paradises like Sweden and Norway have seriously talked about cutting the work day down to 6 hours.
If we simply took a good look at the world around us, rather than simply judging it, we might be able to grow. Americans have long stereotyped Mexicans as being lazy – exemplified in pop culture by Speedy Gonzales’s lazy cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez. Yet Mexico made happiest country in 2014 (Pew Research Center), with Norway and Denmark winning in 2017 and 2016 respectively (World Happiness Index). Anu Partanen in The Nordic Theory of Everything describes how from her Scandinavian perspective, Americans aren’t free but even more reliant on each other – their spouses, their parents, their families or friends, because they don’t have the government backing them up – and that this makes us more like permanent children than independent adults. Less comically than Where to Invade Next, National Geographic’s book Thrive showcases these happiest places on earth, hoping to take some of their secrets so that we may learn and benefit from them. But are we? How can America ignore this much evidence against its way of life? Has the pursuit of happiness really trumped happiness itself?
Since I’ve joined Instagram I see every other picture telling me to nonstop #hustle as if that were the one sole way to be a #girlboss. For companies like BossBabeInc., material success is more important than friendship, fun, and a relaxed state of mind. As a writer who has often spent weekends working with words in a generally solitary fashion, I can take inspiration from these accounts. Yet the girl friends who I never hear from anymore because they’re working too much, well I no longer really feel like we’re friends, and that means they’ve lost something important too.
The Haters You Get
As the so-called Trump era began, people remarked that things felt different, even walking down the street. Greater tension, an edge of hatred even, people taking sides and sizing each other up to see which side they were on – something I myself was guilty of. It seems things did change overnight somehow.
Yet I’d argue that it’s the storytellers who have an even greater, long-lasting influence on shaping culture, showing us possible worlds and helping us make up our minds of which we want to live in. And there have been better stories. Stories of understanding rather than just judgment, even when judgment has followed anyway. MTV’s Teen Mom franchise has been showing the lives of once-teenage mothers for around a decade, highlighting their struggles and triumphs in a way that was relevant for a generation of young women. Yet they also accidentally created another kind of monster, in the subculture of internet trolls who still hate-watch the show, judging these women’s reproductive choices, their every move. But at least they also call out the deadbeat dads as the true losers they are (I’m looking at you, Adam).
"Race and class play an unspoken role in American loserdom..."
Yet other loser narratives have surfaced since, shows like NBC’s The Good Place, which explores moral philosophy through a constructed heaven-and-hell reminiscent of my first novel Purgatory. Eleanor may have been a trainwreck in life, but she gets a shot at redemption in the afterlife.
Race and class play an unspoken role in American loserdom, and it’s so easy for many post-recession Libertarian thinkers to just dismiss others as not having worked hard enough, instead of acknowledging that this country was built by working their ancestors to death through slavery, and segregation was still common practice just a few decades ago. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas’s Tupac-inspired debut YA novel The Hate U Give and its soon-to-be movie takes on police killings of innocent black people from the perspective of a high school student. Through the documentary 13th, which shows prison labor as an extension of black slavery in America, we can see how unfairly rigged the system is to begin with. Netflix’s Orange is New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, brings to life prisoner characters as people that could easily be us, politicizing failure rather than simply blaming the individual.
But aren't there losers we can blame? Those who forsook the opportunities handed to them, turned away the friends who could have helped, who allowed negativity to blind them to possibility, outright denying their own happiness through self-sabotage? One could ask then how they learned these techniques, for isn't it so often some form of child victimhood that births adult failure? We could examine each bad decision they made, compare our own smarter life choices, but how can we ever really know what it's like to be in someone else's shoes?
Doing It On Our Own
In truth, I’ve taken so long to write this article, I’ve had time to change my perspective on losers, if not completely. Even as I began said article, I knew there were guys that would never be “good enough” to date my best friend, citing their perpetual lack of jobs, living with mom, or mental issues as proof.
But I think I’ve in fact hardened my own position more on what kind of people I allow into my own life. They say you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with – so is loserhood contagious? Though I considered myself altruistic, even I eventually grew tired of hearing excuses when I offered support, time, and effort to friends who refused to grow with me. I became more selfish.
From interacting with disenfranchised people in the developing world through my work, from reading and writing their stories, I saw that they often had more positive attitudes than the friends I’d grown up with in notoriously negative Cleveland. Okay, so Africans have better weather than Rust Belters, but I figure if I can get a success story from a blind girl who volunteered for her community in Pakistan, in an area where girls aren’t even allowed to play sports, I should be able to see at least some effort from a friend who grew up with both parents, in what at least seemed like a decent environment. After all, I’d gone through much worse than some of these friends and had managed to turn things around and create a positive life for myself (okay, with the help of some California weather).
What bothers us about those we deem losers is that we don’t see their efforts, their struggles, their pain. All we see is the negative impact they could have on us. But what about the negative effect that not helping them (and their children especially) will undoubtedly have on our society? The crime, poverty, and continuing cycle of neglect. It’s hard to see a way out.
"What good is winning when you didn’t even have to try?"
But isn’t it the point of the American dream that any loser could become a hero? No matter how poor, no matter who your family was, no matter how much a nobody you were, things could always turn around. In the words of Mr Twin Sister, “Even though I’m losing, doesn’t make me a loser.” Like a lone cowboy, let’s say The Marlboro Man, the rugged individual is expected to pull himself up by his bootstraps and ride off into the sunset with no company, save for maybe a horse. On the positive side, without the support of our government, those of us who miraculously make it, in spite of all the very real hurdles, can feel extra good about ourselves, and grateful for those who did help us.
Donald Trump came from so much of his father’s money, he once sued a journalist for calling him a millionaire (rather than a billionaire). What good is winning when you didn’t even have to try? How is that a win at all? And shouldn’t making your country worse off than it was before you were president make you the biggest loser of them all?
There’s a new archetype I’m in love with now – the rockstar loser, as I call her/him, an anti-hero who came from shit and may not be conquering life in the most socially acceptable way, but who is somehow unexpectedly cool. I’m thinking of David the pot-smoking, guidance counselor-impersonating trainwreck from the 2014 Guidance, or the high school librarian Anne and her BFF (oddly also a guidance counselor) Jeff from Slow Learners. It’s a Revenge Of The Nerds evolution from oppressed to showing them all. Even gambling addict Eddie in Win It All struggles through to the end of his rebirth. These losers still always have some vestiges of their vices and so-called defects, even as they meet redemption – in the form of prison, a makeover, a girlfriend, or a heart attack. They’re good in spite of their flaws, and at times even because of them. Rather than working hard to be something they’re not, caught up in maintaining appearances, their rock bottom is like a party we the viewers crash, having more fun than we ever would with the winners.
After all, I’d rather sit at this guy’s lunch table any day: