Academic journal article Film & History

"Just Some Bum from the Neighborhood": The Resolution of Post-Civil Rights Tension and Heavyweight Public Sphere Discourse in Rocky (1976)

Academic journal article Film & History

"Just Some Bum from the Neighborhood": The Resolution of Post-Civil Rights Tension and Heavyweight Public Sphere Discourse in Rocky (1976)

Article excerpt

THE endurance of the motion picture Rocky, the 1976 Oscar winner for Best Picture, has recently been reaffirmed in 21st century popular culture. Its 25th anniversary rerelease in 2001 and the accompanying publicity in high profile entertainment magazines like Entertainment Weekly suggests that, despite the mockery garnered by the production of increasingly formulaic sequels throughout the 1980s, the character of Rocky Balboa continues to be a powerful icon with a semiotic currency that is still recognized by those born in the 1980s. The primary question motivating my inquiry into the 1970s blockbuster boxing film asks why it became and has continued to be a stable commodity to be exchanged throughout the American cultural meaning market over the past twenty-five years.

The boxing film has recently garnered a modest amount of scholarly attention from critics interested in theorizing it as a genre with a distinct set of characters, values, and symbols, as well as identifiable narrative contours. Though I do not seek to add to this particular critical enterprise, the work of Aaron Baker, Dan Streibel, Tony Williams, and Leger Grindon has been crucial in linking the ideology of the boxing film to a set of material and political circumstances related to increasing industrialization of the twentieth century. Such work has helped constitute the critical lens that I deploy to better understand the American mainstream's affection for the character of Rocky and, more importantly, the extent to which the film provides an appealing resolution of national tension during a time of considerable anxiety regarding, and fragmentation of, traditional values. In this detailed analysis of a single film, I am less interested in placing Rocky within a set of conventions and more interested in its finessing of race and gender alliances at a time when such questions were vexed, to say the least. Foremost here, then, is my interest in the significance of the film's overwhelming and unexpected success and what this signifies in terms of how American audiences deal with social change through the invocation of certain narratives given a specific context.

Rocky's narrative is one that invokes a recognizably American film genre while retooling the ideological valences of that genre to respond to historical changes confronting the country during the late 1970s. The film's characters and its outcome provide a neoconservative resolution to the challenging social, economic, political, and military shifts that had taken place since the end of World War II. A culture of burgeoning consumerism, the unsuccessful campaign in Vietnam, and the loss of faith in the democratic experiment implicit in Watergate all elicit a response within the film's world. However, the social advances made by African Americans and women in the quarter decade after the war receive the most intense and shrewdly plotted resolution in the ideological implications of the film's narrative. The popular appeal of such a resolution is bolstered, I argue, both by a desire to reaffirm a socio-political status quo and by the film's reliance on and invocation of specific values and beliefs that have long been pivotal to the invention and articulation of an American character. It is thus that Rocky recasts a national ethos that responds nominally to the social and political changes of recent decades. More specifically, the film reaffirms traditional gender boundaries and values while simultaneously expanding the parameters of national citizenship to include African American men. Rocky offers masculine status and national citizenship to a previously rejected group in exchange for their allegiance in a quest for the remasculinization of white men (and, by extension, the nation) as well as offering a bond of solidarity in rolling back the advances made by feminism. In particular, this rolling back focused on reinforcing the primacy of reproduction as women's social (and civic) duty.

Rocky tells the story of a failed boxer who is given the chance to fight the world heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed, in a novelty match that is designed to fulfill promotional contracts that threaten to fall through when Creed's original opponent breaks a hand six weeks before the event. …

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