The Chutes and Ladders Game of Capitalism in Film

Paper by Aaron Rohrer.

The United States Declaration of Independence guarantees American citizens the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The third prong of this guarantee is often misunderstood and conflated with the ideology of the American Dream; a perception that one can work toward their goals and dreams and achieve financial success and simultaneously, happiness. Evident in the Hollywood narrative structure of many films, the Horatio Alger myth continues to present viewers with a farcical ideology that no matter how hard one struggles, they can work their way to the top, overcome their hardships, and have a happy ending. While modern cinema does at times uphold the Horatio Alger myth and inspire viewers to see themselves within the successful protagonist, films with social commentary also provide valuable reality checks regarding social class and the economy. In capitalistic societies where economic gain is directly tied to happiness, social stratification is produced and reproduced one generation after the other. Factors such as one’s living conditions, mental health, and passions both limit and support one’s ability to successfully achieve happiness. Through an analysis of cinematic representations of South Korean and American capitalism, the propagation of social stratification stemming from internal and external factors which continue to push some individuals further down the socioeconomic ladder while shooting others further toward the top can be explicitly understood.

From scenes of impoverished living conditions beneath the streets in South Korea, to shots of a dilapidated apartment in the fictional representation of New York City (Gotham City), to a family facing the loss of housing and finances in San Francisco, films have repetitively shown the lives of central protagonists living in adverse conditions while individuals of the upper class flaunt their wealth and never seem to recognize the struggles of the lower socioeconomic class. In each of the following films: Parasite (2019), Joker (2019), and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), the protagonists all see varying degrees of happiness on the faces of members within the upper class and aspire to gain, in some way shape or form, what they see in those members of the higher echelon of society (i.e. wealth, recognition, property, etc.). These outward goals; desires for an increase in wealth and status, presented externally to other characters within the films as well as to the audience, further demonstrate this sense of social stratification tied to the American Dream: the pursuit of wealth and success.

It would seem that films emerging from the “new Hollywood” system don’t always foster the same outcomes for the protagonist that the previous Hollywood narrative maintained one film after another, as we see protagonists try hard to succeed and fail on their way to their respective end goals. Todd Phillips’ 2019 crime/drama film, Joker, is a prime example of how the central protagonist in modern Hollywood cinema is limited in their capacity to reach their desired goals. The film follows the life of Arthur Fleck, a member of the lowest class in society, but beyond the protagonist’s position within the lowest class, there is a heavy emphasis on the various mental illnesses that impede Fleck from achieving his personal goals and functioning as a respected member within society. From the opening scene of the film, without knowing anything about Fleck’s personal life, Fleck is shown attempting to put a smile on his face prior to going off to work as a clown. This forced smile is a critical defining symbol in the film and can be directly linked to what many members of the working class are forced to do under capitalism — putting on a façade while continuing to perform their jobs. As the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Fleck’s socioeconomic position in society is not a favorable one; one that comes with poor housing conditions and a disdain for members of the upper class who fail to deliver assistance to those in need like himself. The mere association of life with happiness in the entirety of the film is severely limited. Many of the characters in the film have been dealt similar hands and have developed a disdain for those who can afford luxury and avoid the working-class daily suffering. The dichotomy between the working class and the upper class ultimately leads to social unrest and chaos by the film’s conclusion, a finale that depicts violent criticism of the capitalist system; the proletariat rising against the bourgeoise.

In Chauncey DeVega’s article, “Joker: A harsh indictment of neoliberalism and gangster capitalism,” the dichotomy between the lower and upper class is illuminated in relation to Arthur Fleck’s transition from human to social opposition figurehead, “the Joker as vigilante inspires a violent uprising by other dispossessed and rage-filled people, who disgusted by the behavior of their “social betters,” including billionaire Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman). Such rich people hide behind philanthropy and noblesse oblige as they slur the working class and poor people of Gotham as “clowns” (DeVega 2019). These rather derogatory and insulting remarks stemming from the upper class toward the lower class is not a unique element to Joker, as it is also present in Parasite with the attitudes of the elite Park family toward the Kim’s. While Arthur Fleck’s interaction with Thomas Wayne in the bathroom at the theatre crushes the fabricated and farcical reality that Arthur is the son of Thomas Wayne, it also further emphasizes the social stratification that exists between the classes on the basis of dislike for one another. The scene prior to the scene where Fleck and Wayne exchange brief conversation in the bathroom is imperative to analyze as it shows individuals in formal attire laughing and enjoying themselves in this luxury space, while members of the working class are unable to enjoy the same affordances. Thinking beyond the world of Arthur Fleck, it can be inferred that members of the working class who may not be receiving significant sums of money and may be living paycheck to paycheck in the big city are limited in their ability to pursue pleasure activities such as enjoying the latest blockbuster hit.

Similar to how the theatre is represented in Joker, the minimalist and elegant Park house in Parasite functions as a space where the economically superior class can enjoy themselves in lavish parties and take advantage of the house as a space that others could only dream of ever attaining. Parasite begins with an inside look at the conditions the Kim family face in their sub-street level apartment known in Korean as a ‘banjiha’. This introduction to the film automatically sheds light on the overarching theme of the lower-class struggle for survival in South Korean society, and through the harsh living conditions shown in this apartment in recurring scenes, the audience is drawn to empathize with the Kim family.

When an opportunity arises to scheme and fraudulently create documents that will get Ki Woo into the Park house as a tutor, the ‘American Dream’ truly begins to take formation for the rest of the Kim family. With good pay and the ability to work inside a beautiful home, these opportunities, while attained through some unethical means, allow the pursuit of happiness and the potential of increasing the social status of the various family members. In their dealings with the Park family, the Kim family is often talked about negatively behind their backs, depicted as dirty and smelling strangely, a direct expression of disgust for the banjiha living space the Kim family calls home. When Mr. Kim tries to get rid of the smell his daughter explains to him that the smell is the smell of the banjiha, a smell that will linger so long as they continue to live in that location underground. It may seem silly to think that one’s smell may be a limiting factor in their attainment of economic success and therefore a greater sense of happiness, but the Kim family really takes the overheard disgust personally and ultimately towards the end of the film, a conclusion that highlights Mr. Kim’s projected internalized anger toward the Park family. This scene where Mr. Kim stabs Mr. Park allows the audience to reflect for a few moments, really questioning who the “bad guy” is in the immediate situation and whether this stabbing of Mr.Park is almost justified – a commentary on treating others with dignity and respect regardless of their potential social class.

In an attempt to understand why the director, Bong Joon-ho decided to include elements such as bloody murder and violence within the film, reporters have asked Bong Joon-ho countless questions regarding his overall intentions with the film, and what stands out the most is his aim to show “…you [the audience] the terrible, explosive weight of reality,” (Jung 2020). This ending to the film is monumental from an analytical perspective. As Sonia Rao, author of the article, “Unpacking the ‘metaphorical’ ending of ‘Parasite’” points out, “Parasite has a cynical view of how class operates in a capitalist society, but as Bong has said, it’s also painfully realistic…Their quest for upward mobility is futile,” (Rao 2019). Parasite by far is one of the most outward representations of the real effects of capitalism and how it affects the lives of individuals who are not often granted representation within modern media and society.

According to a BBC news article published in 2020, social status, where you live, and the items you own are very important factors in South Korean society. Parasite’s debut in South Korea shed light on the reality of many individuals living in banjihas but also increased the self-consciousness of those who were previously comfortable with their living situations (whether elected in order to save money, or forced due to the low cost). That BBC article, “Parasite: The real people living in Seoul’s basement apartments,” interviewed individuals living in banjihas, and in an interview with a young photographer, he stated he was directly influenced by the film and couldn’t help but feel conscious about the smell in his apartment, “I didn’t want to smell like the Kim family,” (Yoon, 2020). Evidence gathered from other interviews with subsurface residents in South Korea, demonstrates that there is a strong desire to eventually move up, to climb the physical stairs of the socially constructed socioeconomic ladder. That is precisely what each member of the Kim family has in mind, socioeconomic betterment, one way or another. The Kim family wants to break out of the lower class life, therefore they need the economic means to do so, yet they are constrained by their living conditions and the smell; the smell relegates them to the lowest class possible in the social stratification of South Korean society.

In the story of the Kim family, the Horatio Alger myth does not appear. The rags to riches story and the potential for the resurrection of the Horatio Alger myth could have appeared if it weren’t for the multitude of factors that seemingly punished the Kim family for their actions in even trying to climb their way out. Even with a fictional story, viewers are really drawn into the cinematic style that Bong Joon-ho uses to capture feelings and immerse the audience in a story that feels extremely real. The director utilizes his films to frame real-world issues that he has either personally witnessed or knows about. Senior writer for Vulture, E. Alex Jung, describes the time in Bong Joon-ho’s films where the audience is essentially slapped in the face with critical messages regarding the state of society, “Bong Joon-ho’s worldview comes through most clearly in his endings: clear, bleak, and unrelenting,” (Jung 2020). The ending of the film, a fantasy sequence, demonstrates to the audience that although a potential flicker of hope exists, it is immediately extinguished by the reality that the Kim family is forced to continue living in – in the sub-basements of South Korean society.

Similar to the central narrative in many blaxploitation films such as Superfuly (1972), Parasite shows that “money is needed to escape the ‘ghetto life’,” (Benshoff 199). By the end of the film, Ki Woo envisions that money is indeed the answer to escaping his current situation and returning to the house where his dad remains, “He has a plan. He’s going to go to college, and get a job, and make a lot of money. He’s going to make so much money that one day he’ll be able to buy the house himself, and all his father will have to do is go up the stairs and walk out into the sun,” (Jung 2020). The money, the house, the status: all things Ki Woo may pursue, but may never actually attain.

This notion that you may pursue wealth and happiness but there is no guarantee that you will achieve those things is so well represented in the film based on the true story of one man struggling to make ends meet in order to support his family in the 1980s. That film is The Pursuit of Happyness (Muccino 2006) starring Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith. Just a few minutes into the introduction of the film, we see the protagonist, Chris Gardner, walking on the street outside of a stock brokerage office taking in his surroundings of men in suits, but more importantly, happy men in suits with gleaming smiles on their faces. Whether the smiles these stockbrokers put on their faces are real or façades, the protagonist associates their outwardly expressed happiness with their line of work. The film already establishes Chris Gardner is pursuing some form of the American Dream in selling the portable bone-density scanners, but this specific scene where he views the stockbrokers emerging from the Dean Witter building reinvigorates the American Dream for Gardner.

Similar to Parasite and Joker, the film focuses on the socioeconomic position of the protagonist, from the lowest of lows to an eventual success (something that is not shown in Parasite or Joker). The audience receives a heartwarming rags to riches story with a happy outcome. Will Smith embodies the resurrected Horatio Alger myth through a story that has direct real-world ties considering the film is based on the success story of the real Chris Gardner who dealt with extreme poverty and the raising of his son to eventually make a successful name for himself as an entrepreneur and stockbroker. The film’s structure, broken up into different segments of Gardner’s adult life is systematic in presenting this rise and fall of an individual pursuing economic success. One mistake of investing both his personal life savings and the life savings of his girlfriend led Gardner to struggle to sell the portable bone density scanners and struggling to maintain a happy family. The appearance of the word “happy” both written on the wall outside of the daycare where Gardner dropped off his son daily and as a spoken word by Gardner’s girlfriend is critical in framing messaging within the film. The film closely details Gardner’s attempts to maintain a happy family while perceiving himself as a strong provider in his male patriarchal view of society, when in reality his female partner is the individual putting in extra hours to provide some sense of economic stability. Gardner’s girlfriend and mother of their son leaves her family and San Francisco in the pursuit of her own happiness in New York City. While a gut-wrenching move for the audience to see, a vital individual keeping the family afloat economically leaving the picture, this move served as a catalyst for the rags to riches story to develop and for Gardner to further pursue with great ambition and force his own sense of happiness and success for himself and his son.

An article titled, “Cultural Interpretation of the Pursuit of Happyness” identifies that the entire film is a story of pursuing a form of the American Dream, demonstrating that, “Despite a salesman of low social status, he was self-reliant, perseverant and resolute to achieve his life goal through unremitting struggles,” (Junhong 2014). In understanding this interpretation of the film, a large question that comes into play is: what is Chris Gardner’s life goal? While some may argue that his life goal is to become economically successful (as is the life goal of many Americans and global citizens pursuing “the American Dream”), Gardner’s true life goal is presented at the beginning of the film, a goal to be a good father to his son. Gardner’s passion to be a good father and to love his son unconditionally even when faced with adverse circumstances is what ultimately drives him to climb the socioeconomic ladder. The film is a commentary on the struggles of the lower class in comparison to the luxury lifestyle of the upper class. Gardner, along with others in the working class, wants to pursue a life path that will allow them to attain the status and lifestyle that they see among those they interact with. While Gardner interacts with various members of the “socioeconomic elite” throughout the film, one scene that stands out is when he happens to walk by a man who is parking his Ferrari in front of his office and Gardner asks, “I’ve got two questions for you, what do you do? And how do you do it?” (Muccino 2006). This connection of ownership of a nice red vehicle to socioeconomic success is a recurrent theme in many films, strongly evident in Jake Gyllenhall’s character development in Nightcrawler (2014) where he obtains a red car as he rises in recognition and power within his respective news industry business. While it is not a central goal for Gardner to obtain a red Ferrari in his American Dream pursuit of happiness, the presence of the car and his reactions in this scene demonstrate Gardner’s desire to climb the ladder toward success rather than continue falling down the chute toward an unsustainable future for himself and his son.

The number of films that have recently shown the story of struggling through the impossible to attain a successful ending is quite remarkable and speaks to the potential that the Horatio Alger myth has always been popular and will continue to be exploited so long as it generates great box office revenue. Some of these films for example include Bird Box (2018), Lion (2016), Hidden Figures (2016), and Interstellar 2014)1. Some individuals succeed in achieving economic success and climbing the socioeconomic ladder while others are prohibited by internal and external factors, yet what always remains constant is the existence of the hierarchical structure within societies that embrace capitalism. Under capitalism, you always want to be at the head of the structure and not crushed beneath its hypothetical shoe. With this in mind, the cyclical nature of pursuing economic gain and success is instilled in everyone and continues to repeat itself time and time again. Joker, Parasite, and The Pursuit of Happyness, all increase awareness of this structure between the “rich and the poor” and compel us to question the power of this structure and whether it may someday change.


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Ren, Junhong. “Cultural Interpretation of the Pursuit of Happyness.” Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Applied Social Science Research, 2014,
Yoon, Julie. “Parasite: The Real People Living in Seoul’s Basement Apartments.” BBC News, BBC, 10 Feb. 2020,

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