This piece spoils Soul (2020)
The protagonist of Pixar’s film Soul (2020) is a middle aged man who’s spent his life trying and failing to make it as a Jazz musician. As a middle aged man myself whose last twenty years represent a litany of artistic failures, I feel seen. I’m not sure there’s ever been a film in which I feel more seen. It’s a curious choice for the protagonist of a children’s movie, but Pixar goes a long way to show the fallacy of the idea that children’s media should primarily feature either children or anthropomorphic non-humans of some kind. And at the end of the film I felt moved, not just seen but spoken to in the way only a work that seems crafted especially just for you can speak to you. At the same time, in the glow of all of that, there was something missing, something hollow at the core of what the film was trying to say that it took me some time to get a handle on.
In many ways, Soul feels like the climax of a narrative about living in the world that its director, Pete Doctor, has been creating over the course of his career at Pixar. Monsters, Inc. (2001) is about threading the needle between the need to make a living and the need to live an ethical life. Up (2009) is about being able to let go of who you used to be in order to find out who you are. And Inside Out (2015) is about being honest with yourself about your feelings and how negative emotions help you cope with the world around you.
Soul is about nothing less than how we find meaning in life itself. And here, at some kind of philosophical pinnacle of Doctor’s world view, we can clearly see the blindspots and the problems that it creates when followed to its logical conclusions.
The movie tells the story of Joe (Jamie Fox), a jazz pianist working as a music teacher who’s always dreamed of the big time. He finally gets a shot thanks to a successful audition when he summarily falls down an open manhole and dies. In Joe’s effort to get back to the living world from the afterlife, he ends up in the body of a cat while an unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) ends up inside his body instead. Hijinks ensue, as Joe tries to find a way to get his body back while 22 learns the value of living. In the end, with everything back to normal and the job he’s longed for secured, he tells famous saxophonist Dorothea (Angela Bassett), “I’ve been waiting for this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel… different”. Dorothea tells him a parable about a fish trying to find the ocean without realizing he was in it the whole time, nailing down the theme that outward markers of success aren’t the thing that really make you happy.
This theme has been artfully planted throughout the film, perhaps no more fully in the person of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an aging hippy-type who makes his living as a humble roadside sign twirler. Moonwind has elevated sign-twirling into an art form, regularly getting into the ‘zone’ where, in the movie’s mythology, one can traverse into the astral plane, the space between the living world and the afterlife. Moonwind uses this ability to find depressed souls in the astral plane and help coax them out of their funks (it gets pretty metaphysical).
In one sense this is profoundly anti-capitalist; Moonwind is doing something that is not valued by society at large, and making what is assuredly a meager wage for it. And yet he’s portrayed as perfectly happy with his life. At other points of the film, it’s emphasized that the things that make life worth living are small, like the taste of pizza or watching a leaf fall from a tree, and one of the lost souls that Moonwind rescues is a hedge fund manager who, once his soul is properly restored, asks “what am I doing with my life?” and runs out of his office. Obviously this is a far cry from capitalisms push for the endless consumerism and “productivity” which it needs to sustain itself.
But there’s a niggling issue with all this, something key that its eliding. Stick a pin in Moonwind, we’ll come back to him. Instead, consider a scene where 22 (in Joe’s body) is getting a haircut. (Some have noted that for much of the runtime the white Tina Fey is speaking through Joe’s black body, which is uncomfortable and smells of blackface, but others have written about this more eloquently than I can.)
22 hasn’t allowed herself to be born in the world because she hasn’t been able to figure out what her “spark” is, what her purpose in life should be. (Everything in this film is built around its theme.)
She and the barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings), have this exchange:
I wouldn’t call myself stuck but I never planned on cuttin’ heads for a living.
Wait, but… you were born to be a barber. Weren’t you?
I wanted to be a veterinarian.
Joe looks at Dez, surprised by this.
So why didn’t you do that?
I was planning to. When I got out of the Navy. And then my daughter got sick, and… barber school is a lot cheaper than veterinarian school.
That’s too bad. You’re stuck as a barber and now you’re unhappy.
Whoah, whoa, slow your roll there, Joe. I’m happy as a clam, my man. Not everyone can be Charles Drew inventing blood transfusions
So Dez would have been a veterinarian, but because his kid got sick he had to go to barber school. But hey, it’s okay! He’s perfectly happy! Not everyone can invent blood transfusions!
It hardly needs to be said that if Dez had been born into wealth then his future would not have been so circumscribed. Hell, if Dez had been born in a country that didn’t mercilessly relegate its healthcare system to the free market his future might not have been so circumscribed. But that’s okay, we shouldn’t worry about Dez, he’s happy as a barber.
Does it seem like the implication here is that it’s okay that people don’t have the same opportunities in life, because they can be happy doing whatever? Because it sure seems like that’s the implication to me.
Now, it would be fair to object that I’m complaining that the movie is about something other than what I want it to be about. This story isn’t about wealth inequality. It’s not The Hunger Games. But telling people to appreciate the little things and find meaning in the life in front of them has a history, and it’s important to understand what that history is and why it can be such a problem.
Which brings us back to Moonwind, who works a physically demanding, low wage job in New York City, one of the most expensive places on Earth. One wonders what Moonwind would do if he threw his back out and was no longer able to twirl signs, especially with the American welfare state in the sorry condition? Would he be able to afford a place to live? Or would he have to find happiness sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge?
It’s fitting, though, that he’s portrayed as a hippy/New Age type. In the 70s, and particularly after the end of the Vietnam War and its role as a rallying political cause, the hippy movement turned inward from political action and towards “being in the moment” and “focusing on the self”, which is why Tom Wolfe dubbed it the ‘me’ decade. Where once, Wolfe argued, society had been built around the family and the community at large, now the counterculture revolution had turned people towards the relatively new coinage of “personal fulfillment”. This wasn’t a bad thing per se—it’s not hard to think of ways the bounds of family, community, and tradition have stifled people, and complaining about the loss of ‘family values’ is typically the province of the reactionary. But this movement gave people an excuse, a license, to prioritize themselves and their own needs over the larger problems facing society and the world. (Interestingly, Wolfe argues that this development in America was linked closely with the ‘long boom’ that lasted from the New Deal to the end of the 70s, where for the first time elderly parents didn’t need to be cared for by their children, and children could live on their own at the unthinkable age of 18.)
Further, as the Guardian has explored, the distrust of the government that came with the war, the Nixon Administration, the revelations about COINTELPRO and MKULTRA, the Kent State Massacre, the legacy of Jim Crow and treatment of minorities in general, and on and on, primed much of the hippy movement for Libertarianism’s distrust of government as a concept. There were large swath of hippies for whom Reagan’s slogan of “government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem” rang true. And ultimately, this all led a large portion of former hippy and counterculture types to try to improve themselves by improving their financial situation, in the process transforming into the yuppies of the 1980s, the very establishment professionals they’d once turned up their noses to. (This is a huge generalization, but one with a basis in reality I hope to explore in more depth in a later episode.)
Moonwind is not a yuppie, certainly, he’s a pretty unreconstructed hippy. And he devotes himself to helping people, so selflessly he gets essentially no acknowledgement or credit from the lost souls he brings back from the brink. But he does this purely on an individual level, helping people one-by-one with no sense that there might be a larger system involved in, say, alienating people from their lives so that they become lost souls in the first place. (How did that hedge fund manager get that way, exactly?) Everything is atomized to the world of the personal, which is capitalism’s favorite move and one which America has not only embraced but created a narrative that places it in our DNA, despite the communal, agricultural lifestyle that characterized much of the United States before the 20th century, to the point where now you not only can’t solve the larger problems of a society that’s built around profits over human welfare, you can’t even see them, you don’t even know they exist, and if someone tried to explain them to you, you would shrug and say, well, there’s no alternative, is there?
And so if there’s no alternative to the alienation and dehumanization we suffer under capitalism, then the solution becomes to turn inward and to find beauty, to find our humanity, in the “little things”, in whatever we happen to be doing. The implication of Soul is that the only thing there is to fix is yourself. And so, rather than being anti-capitalist as it appears on the surface, it actually serves to help us accept our place in an unjust social hierarchy and never demand more. It falls into the same logic, in other words, that right wing pundits use to claim we don’t need to raise the minimum wage because “money can’t buy happiness”, as if poverty doesn’t buy a whole lot of suffering.
Dez should not be ‘happy as a clam’ that his daughter’s sickness kept him from the career he wanted. He should be outraged.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Soul using uncomfortable blackface
- Tom Wolfe’s famous article declaring the 70s the “me decade”
- Google ngram of the term “personal fulfillment” showing its rise in the 1960s and 70s
- How distrust of the government among the hippy movement led them to embrace Libertarianism
- Twitter thread about conservative’s using the “money can’t buy happiness” slogan to say we don’t need to raise the minimum wage.
If you enjoyed this please consider telling people about it, as word of mouth is how projects like this grow.
Special thanks to my Patrons: Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, Industrial Robot, Hristo Kolev, Not Invader Zim, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.
You can support this project financially by going to https://patreon.com/ericrosenfield. For as little as $1 an episode you can get exclusive author’s notes and early access to episodes.