Wall-E as Sociological Storytelling

Pixar’s Wall-E is a masterpiece of animated filmmaking about two adorable robots falling in love, though I’d argue it also serves as an excellent example of sociological storytelling. Social systems are one of the most important, and most misunderstood, concepts in my work on media and masculinity. So in this video essay I use Wall-E’s Axiom star liner (and the board game Monopoly) to illustrate how social systems operate in our culture.

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Watch Allan G Johnson explain social systems using Monopoly
On why systems of privilege aren’t just people by Allan G Johnson

• The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise by Allan G Johnson
• The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G Johnson
• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

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Full text transcript below

Pixar’s 2008 animated film Wall-E is a critically acclaimed masterpiece about two adorable robots falling in love, though I’d argue it also serves as an excellent example of sociological storytelling. Like most of the best science fiction, this movie uses imaginative visions of the future as a lens through which to interrogate the social systems of today. In order to explore how Wall-E accomplishes this, we need to start with something that makes this movie relatively unique, and that’s the fact that it doesn’t have a villain, at least not the kind we’ve come to expect from a Disney-owned studio.

Hollywood loves its larger-than-life cartoonish villains. The villainous characters that appear on the big screen are typically framed as bad apples. They do bad things because of their personal deficiencies and nefarious intentions. This formula makes for simple, easy to understand plotlines, but it also tends to reinforce an individualistic worldview.

The individualistic worldview is a false but widespread way of thinking in which society is reduced to a bunch individuals all making their own independent choices. The central idea underpinning the individualistic model of the world is that people do what they are. People do bad things because they are bad people. According to this reductive framework, injustice is a result of the isolated actions of a few bad apples. But that worldview, like the Hollywood narratives that are constructed around it, minimizes or completely ignores the important role that social systems and institutions play in our world.

Since Wall-E’s narrative isn’t built around that traditional villain formula, the movie presents us with a very different worldview: a sociological one. It’s not that this story doesn’t have antagonists or central conflicts. It has both. They just don’t take the forms we’re used to seeing in popular entertainment. The antagonist of Wall-E is the film’s setting itself, the Axiom starliner, or more specifically, the automated systems that run the ship. In other words the villain of this movie is not a person, it’s an institution.

I should briefly mention that the Axiom’s AI is named Auto, but unlike Hal 9000 or other AI villains, Auto is not sentient, nor are his actions the result of a malfunction. Auto can’t make independent choices, all he can do is follow his pre-programmed directives. And in that sense Auto isn’t a traditional Disney villain. Instead he functions as the voice of the ship as an institution.

Let’s quickly recap the plot for those who haven’t seen this movie recently. Humans have abandoned earth after polluting the planet to the point where it’s no longer inhabitable. The surviving population lives aboard massive luxury starliners that are drifting through space. These automated galaxy cruisers are run entirely by robots on behalf of the Buy N’ Large corporation.

Buy N’ Large is essentially a combination of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Disney, GE, and Starbucks, all rolled into one. The company promised the original passengers that they would be returned to earth once the planet was made livable again. That was over 700 years ago. Over several generations the human passengers have become so complacent in their overindulgent lifestyles that they’ve even forgotten how to walk under their own power.

The film’s core conflict revolves around individuals, of both the human and robotic variety, realizing they’re all participants in a system larger than themselves and then working together to break free from that system. And that premise, that we as individuals are always participating in something larger than ourselves, is the core concept underpinning the field of sociology. Those larger things that we’re all participating in are referred to as social systems.

Social systems are interconnected social arrangements, structures, and relationships that combine to form a coherent whole. As individual members of society, we are all always participating in a range of different social systems. So, for example, the family unit is a social system, as are schools, and police departments, and corporations, and whole societies. Patriarchy and white supremacy are also examples of complex interlocking social systems. To paraphrase sociologist Allan G. Johnson: it’s the dynamic relationship between these social systems and us as individuals that makes social life happen.

Because the Axiom starliner functions as a self-contained social system, let’s use it to help illustrate how all of this works. Like all social systems The Axiom includes sets of rules or social norms, which participants are expected to adhere to in order to insure that the system functions smoothly. In sociological terms, these socially enforced expectations are referred to as paths of least resistance.

In the movie, we can see this process play out in the directives that each of the robots much follow. And it’s represented by literal lines along which both the passengers and the crew travel around the ship.

It’s important to note that paths of least resistance do not determine the behavior of all individual human beings. We are not robots after all. And that means we all have a choice about how we participate in these social systems. We can, if we choose, step off the path of least resistance, but doing so will likely lead to pressure from others to get us back in line.

The most succinct description of how paths of least resistance operate that I’ve ever seen uses the board game Monopoly. The Monopoly example (along many of the concepts we’ve been discussing) can be found in the excellent book, “The Forest and The Trees,” by sociologist Allan G. Johnson.

He points out that Monopoly functions as a mini-social system. Like all social systems, the game includes paths of least resistance which can be found in the rules inside of the box.

All we have to do is glance at these rules and we can predict exactly how people’s behavior will be impacted. The path of least resistance for players is to simply follow the rules. Refusing to adhere to the rules will lead to pushback from other players and will likely get you kicked out of the game. When the rules of the game are followed, an antagonistic pattern of behavior will always emerge. And that pattern is one of ruthless greed. Remember that a game of Monopoly is over when one player has taken everything of value from everyone else.

As Johnson reminds us, if we use an individualistic lens to explain this pattern of behavior, it leads to one explanation: people are greedy. Remember that the idea underpinning the individualistic worldview is that people do what they are. So according to that, people playing Monopoly behave in greedy ways because people are greedy.

Now the problem with that, as Johnson points out, is that most people don’t behave in ruthlessly greedy ways when they’re not playing Monopoly. Sure, all people have the capacity for selfishness to some degree, but the rules of Monopoly not only encourage greedy behavior, the rules actually make greedy behavior a necessary condition of participation.

The personal values of the players are irrelevant to describing the game and its rules. It doesn’t matter if you’re a buddhist monk or a Wall Street banker, if you play Monopoly, as it’s meant to be played, you’ll end up acting like an absolute monster.

Paths of least resistance and their outcomes vary greatly depending on which social system we’re talking about. So in Monopoly the outcome is greed. On the Axiom, however, the path of least resistance for the passengers is to be passive super-consumers.

Many film reviewers noted that Wall-E functions as a critique of consumer capitalism, which it undoubtedly does. However, the film doesn’t take the easy route by vilifying individual Buy’N Large consumers.

In that way, it’s the opposite of a film like Idiocracy, which is a movie I absolutely despise. Idiocracy is also meant as a critique of consumerism, but it traffics in a brand of cynical elitist humor that ends up blaming individuals, often the most powerless and poorest of people, for the destructive actions of powerful corporations and governments.

To its credit, that is not how Wall-E frames the humans living aboard the Axiom starliner. Yes, they’re complicit in their situation. And yes, they enjoy the privileges this system affords them. If we were to use an individualistic lens to explain their behavior, we would be forced to conclude that the captain and all the passengers act in lazy, stupid, and apathetic ways because they are naturally lazy, stupid, and apathetic people.

But since Wall-E is an example of sociological storytelling, it frames the passengers and the captain as initially acting in the ways they do because that’s what the Axiom’s social systems expect from them. Even the passengers’ physical appearance is a direct result of the ship’s systems, and not a result of their personal failings. They’re simply following the path of least resistance that are laid out for them. And that means the passengers are not defined by their complicit role in that system. They have the capacity to grow and break free. And I’d argue that idea, that people can change how we engage with social systems and in so doing transform or even abolish those systems, is an incredibly hopeful message.

Paths of least resistance in the real world are rarely as well defined as the directives aboard the Axiom or the rules of a board game. The social expectation in our daily lives are often unwritten, and we conform to their norms unconsciously.

So for example, imagine you hear someone tell a sexist joke. The path of least resistance is typically to laugh. Imagine being confronted with sexual harassment in the workplace. The path of least resistance there might be to stay silent. Predatory sexual behavior is not just the result of a few very rotten apples; it’s a much larger systemic problem. Social systems of male entitlement work to reinforce, excuse, and enable that type of behavior.

Social systems are one of the most important and one of the most misunderstood concepts in my work around media and masculinity. From time to time, I’ll use terms like misogyny, patriarchy, male privilege, or male entitlement, and that tends to elicit a very defensive reaction, especially from guys who feel they’re being personally condemned as villains. However, those terms are not meant as an indictment of every individual man; they’re simply ways of describing the larger social systems we’re all part of.

One of Allan G. Johnson’s key insights from the Monopoly example is that we can describe the game of Monopoly and its outcome without describing the personalities of each individual player. This also means we can describe the framework of real world social systems without necessarily saying anything about the personalities of the people participating in those systems.

The passengers and rebellious robots aboard the Axiom all eventually step off the path of least resistance and, as a result, change the fate of humanity. And we, as people in the real world, can collectively step off our own paths of least resistance and refuse to be complicit in oppressive social systems.

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