Bonfire of the Vanities -- Psychological Critique Essay

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Bonfire of the Vanities -- Psychological Critique

"On Wall Street he and a few others -- how many? -- three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? -- had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe. There was… no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul. He was no fool.

Yet he couldn't get it out of his head…" (Wolfe, 2008, p. 11).

The crude behaviors and drunken scenes -- and the arrogant, racist, power-mad characters -- in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" could be regarded as simply settings and players in yet another entertaining movie with a provocative plot that didn't follow the celebrated novel from which it sprang. In this case a Tom Wolfe novel has been perverted to some serious degree. And yet the film stands on its own two feet notwithstanding it's failure to capture the passion and drama of the novel. Indeed, there are fascinating research perspectives to be revealed when an alert reader delves deeper into this film's psychological features. In this paper the film's plot, characters, and themes reveal much about an effete, politically enabled society vis-a-vis two psychological concepts in particular: rampant racism and group identification.

The Literature and the Perspectives

Don Fletcher is a University of Queensland lecturer who explains in a peer-reviewed article that Jed Kramer's desire for Sherman McCoy's mistress Maria is not just based on his sexual intentions and desires. It goes deeper than that. Fletcher posits that Kramer's real motive is "specifically imitative" in that Kramer wants to be in with the in crowd, the rich Wall Street crowd (Fletcher, 1993, p. 48). Kramer wants to be like McCoy and have an cool pad and much more. That is why "…[Kramer] envies McCoy in the abstract as one of those who have young mistresses and those who have expensive houses or apartments," Fletcher explains. Kramer shares McCoy's "anxieties over money and extramarital sex" since they both "…justify their infidelities in the same terms -- "I'm young" -- while seeing their wives as essentially old" (Fletcher, p. 50).

Indeed, McCoy labels himself "Master of the Universe" (even though later in the film McCoy is reduced to a sniveling suspect in a hit-and-run case and transitions into the Great White Defendant) and notwithstanding McCoy's challenges, "Master" is exactly what Kramer wants to be. Kramer sees that McCoy cuts million dollar deals and swaggers through life and that's what Kramer wants. We're talking here about Kramer's passion to identify with a group, with an image and a psychology of authority and power -- e.g., group identification.

Social Dominance Theory

Meantime, one theory that seems to dovetail in terms of the film's social dynamics -- which entails a powerful thrust of group identification -- is the social dominance theory. An article in the journal Political Psychology posits that some of the contemporary theories that attempt to explain social oppression (racism, power-mad subcultures) are barking up the wrong tree so to speak. That is, social scientists that have attempted to understand the dynamics that create social domination by certain power groups have not fully explored "…the manner in which psychological, sociostructural, ideological, and institutional forces jointly contribute to the production and reproduction of social oppression" (Sidanius, et al., 2004, p. 846).

The theories that previously have attempted to conceptualize "prejudice and discrimination" -- like "modern authoritarian personality theory, aversive racism theory, and terror management theory" -- have, Sidanius asserts, relied on the "individual's psychological needs or values" (p. 846). Moreover, the authors explain, other theories like the social identity theory, self-categorization theory, among others, view the problems of discrimination, racism, and social bias towards people of color as "ultimately resulting from the social construals of the self" (p. 846). The theories mentioned hitherto fail to relate fully to the ideological and institutional "underpinnings of this oppression" and those theories fail because they focus on "strictly psychological motivations," Sidanius continues. The bottom line when scholars attempt to explain characters in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" in strictly psychological terms is that "Despite the valuable insights" this purely psychological approach can produce, it "fails to account for individual differences in the degree of discrimination and prejudice against 'the other'" (Sidanius, p. 846).

However, by employing the social dominance theory, the authors assert, one can put the spotlight on both the structural and individual factors that contribute to "group-based oppression." Group-based oppression against "the other" (African-Americans) is alive and quite well in this film, thank you. There is no doubt that classism, sexism, ethnocentrism, racism -- not to mention extra-marital philandering, alcoholism, political corruption and the manipulation of media members into fraudulent journalism -- all are well represented in "The Bonfire of the Vanities." To take the authors' argument a step or two further, on page 847 they insist that:

"…Social dominance theory is not simply focused on the extreme yet all-too-common forms of intergroup truculence… but rather on the universal and exquisitely subtle forms of discrimination and oppression that large numbers of people face in their every lives all over this planet" (Sidanius, p. 847). Moreover, the social dominance theory (tied closely to the concept of group identification for the purposes of this course and this paper) helps explain how and why many powerful personalities and institutions in America "…disproportionately allocate desired goods -- such as prestige, wealth, power, food and health care -- to members of dominant and privileged groups," Sidanius points out (p. 847). And in the meantime those powerful institutions and individuals direct "undesirable things -- such as dangerous work, disdain, imprisonment, and premature death -- toward members of less powerful groups" (such as the African-American community) (p. 847).

The authors hit the proverbial nail on the head -- vis-a-vis the discrimination and vulgar selfishness in "Bonfire" -- when they note that under the social dominance theory, people share "knowledge and beliefs that legitimize discrimination" and they behave -- as did the scoundrels in the "Bonfire" film -- "as if they endorsed these ideologies" (p. 847). When Maria says, "Where are all the white people?" she is unintentionally creating a highly germane slogan for the high-rolling exclusive club of oppressors featured in the film.

Social Dominance Orientation

Chris Sibley and colleagues conducted research to examine the "factors underlying expressions of prejudice and discrimination," and the two most "robust predictors" that they found in their search were "Social Dominance Orientation" (SDO) and "Right-Wing Authoritarianism" (RWA) (Sibley, et al., 2006, p. 755). Although RWA doesn't really fit within the "Bonfire" themes and plot, the SDO concept does appear to mesh well with this paper's position that all the racism, sexism, corruption and guilt-ridden pathos depicted in the film comes down to a longing by the characters to identify with -- and become card-carrying members of -- a seemingly socially important group. In this case, the group is made up of McCoy, Fallow, Kramer and company -- the martini swilling, Mercedes-driving, cheating bunch of individuals who believe they are above the law and hence they make their own antisocial rules.

Writing in the journal Political Psychology, the authors assert that individual differences in prejudice may be the product of what they call "dual complementary processes" (p. 756). That is, from this paper's point-of-view -- and by embracing Sibley's theory -- the characters in "Bonfire" are locked into a sense of "social conformity" that leads to a perception of the world "…as a dangerous and threatening place" simply because it is outside the comfort zone of their own expensive and flamboyant lifestyles (Sibley, p. 756). The group in "Bonfire" match Sibley's theory that the "tough-minded" in the world of high finance and greed see the world as "a competitive jungle" which predisposes an endorsement of social dominance orientation. Very high levels of social dominance orientation become a "motivational goal for group-based dominance and superiority," Sibley continues, and in the context of "Bonfire" the members of this wealthy gaggle of characters are indeed motivated to be dominant and superior.

Ironically, individuals that score high in SDO… may be the most likely candidates for positions of leadership in groups," Sibley explains on page 764. The groups these individuals that Sibley describes ascribe to become leaders in are made up of individuals "…who are uninclined to think for themselves, are gullible towards leaders of their 'ingroup,' are brimming with self-righteousness and zeal, and are fain to give dictatorship a chance" (pp. 764-65). The group in focus (think "Bonfire") are willing to give "dictatorship" a chance because: a) they would be "predisposed toward positions of dominance within the group" while, b) also appealing to conservative social positions to impress other members of the ingroup's "conformist ideologies" (Sibley, p. 765).

White Racial Identification

Cara Wong and Grace Cho offer an investigation into why "White Americans" are "largely absent from studies of identity politics" (Wong, et al., 2005, p. 700). The point the authors make is that huge volumes of research exist on racial issues from the perspective of scholars studying African-Americans, but there…

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