If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.
Case (A): Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks. The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.
Case (B): Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office. The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.
Question: Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?
After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.
Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.
Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.
Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.
Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.
After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.
 For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.