Of the three recent films, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Hunger Games” and “The Duff” no critic today will likely take the last of these seriously. But as a sociologist, I must insist that “The Duff” is the only movie of the three that any thinking person should care about.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is a tear-jerker about teenagers dying from incurable diseases. This theme is neither modern nor conceptually plausible. Death rates in modern society have fall very low and teens are the group least likely to suffer an untimely death. What is more, nobody needs to be convinced that dying young is a bad thing; conceptually, this theme has zero challenge to it. On both counts, “The Fault in Our Stars” is an intellectual dud; nobody could learn anything medical or social scientific from it.
Superficially, “The Hunger Games” looks a better candidate for learning about society. But, sadly, it is not. The fact is that nobody can learn anything from this or any other picture of dystopia. Modern societies cannot be run as dictatorships – they just don’t work this way. The most recent round of authoritarian dictatorships, those of the first half of the twentieth century, all collapsed under the weight of their own violence and mismanagement. No elite-planned competition of violence could keep any modern society together. No one could plan it; no group of people could execute it. Consider how the United States, which has the world’s largest military, cannot create a health care system that works reasonably and covers all its people. How less likely is that, in a democracy, a market economy, and an open media, any group of people could plan and run a system of compulsory, competitive and destructive games? Today’s fictional attempts to conjure up a dystopia don’t begin to provide a plausible picture of society. The idea of a fully planned dystopian society is impossible for a social scientist to take seriously. “The Hunger Games” ignores social science as much as “The Fault in Our Stars” ignores medical progress. We know that dystopias cannot exist so, as an assumption behind an entertainment, this premise offers zero intellectual challenge. You won’t learn anything from Katniss about either real people or actual societies.
When the bar is this low, it doesn’t take much for “The Duff” to soar into the heights of social science. But it’s more than just another high school movie. “The Duff” poses an intriguing problem of friendship and social ranking. Bianca becomes troubled by being the least attractive one in her group of girl friends. Significantly, it is not her enemy, Madison, nor even the cyber bullying of her fellow students, which is the thread of her story. “The Duff’s” truly important theme is how Bianca learns to deal with her own, entirely correct, assessment that she is least attractive one, the “duff,” in her group of friends. Any social scientist will find Bianca’s journey of self-discovery well worth studying. Can you conceptualize any of the work she does on herself using the concepts currently available in sociology? When social science can grasp any of Bianca’s learning and self-improvement, it will be on the cutting edge of human knowledge. The human situation here is all too real; many of us will not find ourselves on the top rung of success. And it’s vitally important to society that people deal with this constructively. Working with, and sometimes without, her friends, Bianca rebuilds herself into a more proactive and creative person. She shows us human social progress being created. Bianca, a self-defined “duff,” is a pioneering explorer of social science’s terra incognita – socially adept and high functioning self-improvement. While “The Duff” may never be considered a truly great movie – its dialog and dramatic scenes could be better – it’s the sociologist’s only choice when it comes to learning something new and genuinely interesting about modern life.