At a recent NICEC seminar on social justice the discussion coalesced around two of my favourite interests; Careers and films.
Social Justice Careers work asks CEIAG practitioners to not only be versed and mindful in the wider socio-economic and sociological factors that may face their clients but also involve into their practice information, guidance and challenge to enable individuals to better recognise and navigate the adverse winds of a system weighed against them. Hooley, Sultana & Thomsen have published two collections of chapters on this subject with the aim of shaping a new dialogue around pluralistic approaches to careers guidance and advocating a place for socially minded guidance in a neoliberal world.
A focus of both one of the chapters and the session that I attended was a workshop for practitioners devised by Kristin Midttun and Phil McCash about Social Justice which introduced and allowed discussion of the work of Barry Irving who proposes a four concept model.
For Irving, a recognitive perspective tasks practitioners to take the point of view that clients will have influences and factors that shape any basic wish to participate in the labour market. A client’s family and community will influence their choice making process and may even cause options to be ruled out completely and have faced socio-economic repression as a community that has molded those views. With this recognition, then CEIAG practitioners can play their part in helping the clients they serve overcome oppression,
Hence, I am in agreement with Arthur (2014), that “A just society would be one in which the constraints of oppression and domination are eliminated, allowing people from all groups to develop and reach their full human potential”
These “group identities” can result in a wide range of macro outcomes, for example the lower number of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds employed as apprentices or lower application rates to Russell Group universities from those with suitable grades but from lower income areas.
It struck me that the tensions that rise to the surface in those groups (family, community, culture) when the non-recognitive perspective is challenged is also a rich sourcing ground for film makers looking for stories. A number of films concentrate on the tales of individuals breaking molds created by or forced upon groups who face social injustice.
A non exhaustive run down of films in this category could include:
Blinded By the Light
A young Muslim teen in 1980’s Luton discovers the lyrics and music of Bruce Springsteen which opens his eyes to a career in writing and life beyond what his family have imagined for him. Based on the biographical writings of the Luton journalist Sarfaz Manzoor, the film is a coming of age or Bildungsroman tale in which the protagonist discovers artistic and cultural influences that initially clash with his own family identity but ultimately allow him to discover a talent upon which to base a profession. From the same Director, Gurinder Chadha, who previously had success with Bend it like Beckham, a film with similar themes of family and religious tradition (in this instance, the main character is from a Sikh background) clashing against the protagonists non traditional career choice.
The hugely successful film based on a play that went onto become a hugely successful musical is a core example of this genre as a young boy from a northern, mining community breaks the expectations of gender and class to embrace a career as a ballet dancer. A recurring theme of these films is the main character’s need to embrace a career with an artistic or expressive aspect that eschews the practical vocations in the local labour market.
Hairspray/Flashdance/High School Musical
This films are grouped together as the main characters share the same wish to forge a career in singing or dancing. Characters face initial resistance to achieve their career goals as their appearance (Hairspray), interest in a non macho pursuit (High School Musical) or lower class background (Flashdance) do not conform to the traditional sourcing pools for these areas.
Another film in which a protagonist breaks loose of class and appearance stereotypes to achieve a desired career is Legally Blonde. Based on a book which found it’s inspiration from the author’s real life experiences attending Stanford Law School. Our protagonist here uses knowledge and skills gained from her interest in beauty and presentation and, with plenty of studying hard montages, uses these traits to break free of the expectations of her community to win the case and show her suitability for the academic world of law she wishes to gain entry to.
An example of this genre of film from outside Western Cinema would be the highly enjoyable 2018 Hindi film Pad Man. Based on a true life story of a social entrepreneur who battled against societal, family and gender conformity to design, market and sell hygienic sanitary wear for women across India. This is an interesting example to include as the protagonist of the film is male and so coming from a more traditional position of holding societal capital within the depicted community but entering a career field in which he faces obstruction due to community tradition, religious separation and family expectation. The self-developmental motivations of the character are important to note and the wish for societal change that empowers previously oppressed individuals. A vital aspect of the success of the invention is the establishment of small sanitary pad factories, staffed mostly by women, that can produce and sell them throughout the rural villages.
Hidden Figures/Men of Honour/Marshall/42
A sub-genre within a sub-genre are films which (usually based on true stories) tell of the hard won advancement towards equality for African Americans across professional spaces. Hidden Figures details the important work of woman of colour in engineering and maths for NASA, Men of Honour focuses on the first African American Master Diver in the US Navy while Marshall and 42 tell the tales of Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson breaking barriers to succeed in their chosen fields of law and baseball.
These films have their own tropes which, through audience familiarity, can cause subsequent films to achieve diminishing cultural returns despite telling important stories. This phenomenon is brilliantly teased in this Bill Burr stand-up bit on the subject of race in movies
But, despite the ribbing because of the similarities, a social justice issue remains in the construction of the protagonists career in each story depicted.
When looking at these films, it struck me how the construct of the narrative ensures that the protagonist is presented as the hero to the audience with their goal of forging into a new world beyond the limits that family/religion/community/society impose upon them.
The Hero’s Journey
In his defining text “The Hero with with a Famous Faces” Joseph Campbell outlined the monomyth structure of the Hero’s journey. The protagonists in the films described above all experience the call to adventure that Campbell describes sometimes even through happenstance,
The adventure may begin as a mere blunder… or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man
Billy Elliott is sent to the gym to learning boxing and only happens upon a ballet class by accident. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde applies and starts at Harvard Law with the initial aim of winning back her boyfriend who has enraged her by not proposing.
A little way into the journey a mentor appears,
the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass
such as Robert De Niro’s Master Chief Petty Officer in Men of Honour.
An initiation period starts
Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.
such as Jimmy’s (Eminem) initial rap battle in 8 Mile when, defending his co-worker, he causes a significant set back and a further challenge to rise again from his mentor Future.
The build up of the pressure between the hero and the barriers inhibiting his journey now has to come to the forefront
In this step the hero must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his life. In many myths and stories this is the father
such as Jess admitting to her mother that she has secretly been playing football and wants to take up the offer of a scholarship at an American College in Bend it like Beckham.
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal such as Alex’s successful audition at the end of Flashdance but then our hero finds acceptance with those who implemented the barriers that inhibited them originally,
The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds
such as the example of Billy’s father attending a performance of Swan Lake.
Impact on CEIAG & Social Justice
Is it too far to propose that the presentation of these protagonists as positive heroes and heroines shapes perceptions and views of those who do not enact this positive self-identity and break out of the restraints that hold them back? Do CEIAG practitioners allow such media to shape their own practice when working with clients facing repressive barriers in their own lives and do practitioners take their clues from such media about what is even repression to begin with?
This can raise complex professional issues for practitioners when working with clients from a wide range of backgrounds that can influence career choice; those from ethnic minority backgrounds, faith backgrounds, from areas of social deprivation or, indeed, areas of relative prosperity may all have career options defined to some extent by their background and upbringing. and the social in/justice levied on their community. For careers practitioners a moral question of practice results; is the role of practitioners to be a disruptor in that space, an agent of challenge to a group identity that has been formed from influences either within or outside the group?
The issue of what can be considered a social justice issue and the difficulties of framing are addressed by Rice in Career Guidance for Social Justice
and Nancy Fraser who
argues that many social justice movements in the 1960s and 1970s argued for recognition on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity, and that the focus on correcting misrecognition eclipsed the importance of challenging the persistent problems of maldistribution. In other words, Fraser asserts that too much of a focus on identity politics diverts attention from the deleterious effects of neoliberal capitalism and the growing wealth inequality that characterizes many societies.
which could be considered a warning to CEIAG practitioners who answered “yes” to the questions above.
Films which tell stories from diverse spaces and with diverse characters are to be welcomed. For reasons of representation and richness, we should all want stories with and about communities and characters beyond the mainstream but those stories which focus on career goals can cause ripples beyond the positive of greater inclusion by establishing inspirational role models who create deviant archetypes that those outside of those communities believe to be more desirable or more frequent than reality. Treating clients as individuals and utlising frameworks such as the recognitive perspective is part of a CEIAG practitioners skillset but more vital to enacting social justice is enabling CEIAG practice to flourish in communities and groups who struggle to access CEIAG support and the social capital it can bring.