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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Is self-sacrifice the key to success? Hustle culture explored in film

No pain, no gain, right?

Whenever I need a surge of motivation during the exhausting quarter system, I usually turn on “The Devil Wears Prada” so that I can at least procrastinate efficiently. Watching the protagonist, Andy, work herself to the bone, obtaining unpublished “Harry Potter” manuscripts and coffee, is admittedly satisfying to see. I suddenly want to take five shots of espresso and go into overdrive in the hopes of feeling an ounce of the same productivity.

Although Andy’s work ethic is undoubtedly admirable, the film does not try to hide the fact that her time working at Runway magazine is toxic. She loses her friends, sleep and herself in the process. Her coworker, Emily, is even more of a workaholic, constantly putting her life on the line to appease their tyrannical boss, Miranda Priestly.

Andy’s relationship with work is anything but ideal, and, in the end, she acknowledges this and promptly quits. Yet, as soon as the credits roll in, I am always inspired to pull an all-nighter and do everything I possibly can to get ahead, just like Andy.

Of course, not all “hustle” movies showcase this destructive side of work. Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” for example, never has a psychological breakdown or life-threatening experience. Although she does encounter challenges during her time at Harvard Law, in the end, she graduates after achieving a successful, healthy relationship with herself and her career. What makes “Legally Blonde” so influential is that it encourages viewers, specifically women, to chase their goals despite all obstacles.

On the other hand, films such as Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” transforms this pursuit of perfection into a cautionary tale. We witness Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, become overwhelmed by the competitive world of ballet and begin to obsess over her dancing, comparing herself to her alternate, Lily, played by Mila Kunis. 

At the end of her final performance (after experiencing unsettling hallucinations and psychosis), she proclaims “I was perfect,” while bleeding profusely. The scene is cinematically powerful and exemplifies the “no pain, no gain” mantra. It is unlikely that the director wants us to applaud her self-sacrificing dedication. Instead, by seeing her degradation progress, we can understand the dangerous limits of over-exertion. 

It’s also worth noting that it isn’t just the nature of her work that leads to Nina’s self-destruction. Watching the film, we see her controlling mother and inappropriately aggressive director tug at her repressed self. She struggles with many mental disorders too, including OCD, anorexia and bulimia. The film is commenting on the dangers of  “hustle culture” coupled with the ideals of perfectionism. The combination of Nina’s environmental factors and her fragile mental state ultimately leads to a break from reality. Still, the pursuit of greatness loudly resonates during the film’s final scene.

Another example of this is Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which further explores the danger of pursuing greatness. Throughout the film, jazz musician Andrew Neiman endures psychological abuse from his director, Terrence Fletcher, in hopes of becoming the next best drummer.

Like Nina, Andrew delivers his greatest performance and the film triumphantly ends with him and Fletcher sharing a smile. Whereas “Black Swan” overtly rejects this type of dedication by framing it as a horror film, the ending of “Whiplash” hints at the merit of Fletcher’s militaristic teaching and Andrew’s compliance.

“We’re supposed to leave our seats feeling just a little admiration for Fletcher and his alleged standards, because perversely, they really do tease out some greatness in Andrew,” said film critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Watching “Whiplash” made me want to dust off my flute and start practicing for hours on end. Even if Andrew Neimain’s story is far from heroic, it invokes a sense of hope that maybe if you do work hard (and sacrifice practically everything you have), you will be great.

Of course, this idea is problematic. Films like “Black Swan” and “Whiplash” intend to show audiences the dangers behind pursuing perfection. And even though we may realize and acknowledge that after seeing these movies, there’s a part of us that still feels disturbingly motivated to do our best too.

Written by: Julietta Bisharyan — jsbisharyan@ucdavis.edu

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