Envy, jealousy, guilt and the construction of whiteness in contemporary Hollywood sport films
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Taking a psychoanalytic approach the paper argues that envy of the supposedly natural ability of African American athletes and jealous resentment of their social and cultural status underpin such Hollywood sport themed films as the Rocky series (1976-2006), where redemption of the white protagonist typically entails the defeat of a black opponent. In the process the white athlete is depicted as ‘underdog’ but – in an inversion of stereotype – possessed of ‘natural’ attributes of strength and stamina that are contrasted with the falseness and constructedness of their opponents. The theme of white man as innocent casualty of a society that rewards style over substance evinces an enduring envy of the exalted status of the ‘black athlete’, who is frequently taught a moral lesson in ‘heart’ and commitment. However, in would-be more liberal and reflexive films that acknowledge and explore the guilt of their white protagonists with respect to athletes of colour who have been personally wronged by them, or wronged by the pervasive racism in sport as indexical of societal racism more generally the redemption narratives privilege the enlightenment, learning and capacity for empathy of the white characters at the expense of the enduring two dimensionality of their black counterparts, who remain as vessels for the containment of guilt rather than characters as such. Superior psychological complexity reproduces a racial hierarchisation that the narrative may appear to undo. Even films that highlight and problematise whiteness as constructed through the envy and jealousy of the ‘black’ Other share this hierarchisation by privileging the association of whiteness with cleverness and dissimulation or with lost innocence, boyhood, tradition and community.
Hollywood sport films