Pixar’s 2008 animated film Wall-E is a critically acclaimed masterpiece about two adorable robots falling in love. It also serves as an excellent example of sociological storytelling.
This movie uses imaginary scenes of the future as a lens, through which to interrogate the social systems of today. Now, to explore how Wall-E accomplishes this we need to start with something that makes this movie relatively. Hollywood loves its larger-than-life, cartoonish villains. The villainous characters that appear on the big screen are typically framed as ‘bad apples’. They do bad things because of their personal deficiencies and nefarious intentions. This formula makes first simple, easy to understand plot lines, but it also tends to reinforce an individualistic worldview. The individualistic worldview is a false but widespread way of thinking in which society is reduced to a bunch of individuals all making their own independent choices.
The central idea underpinning the individualistic model of the world is that people DO what they ARE. People do bad things because they are bad people. According to this reductive framework, injustice is a result of the isolated actions of a few bad apples. But that worldview, like the Hollywood narratives that are constructed around it, minimizes or completely ignores the important role that social systems and institutions play in our world.
Since Wall-E’s narrative isn’t built around that traditional villain formula, the movie presents us with a very different worldview. It’s not that this story doesn’t have antagonists or central conflicts, it has both, they just don’t take the unique forms. The antagonist of Wall-E is the film’s setting itself: the Axiom star-line. Or, more specifically, the automated systems that run the ship. In other words, the villain of this movie is not a person, it’s an institution. The Axiom’s A.I. is named ‘Auto’, but unlike HAL 9000 or other A.I. villains, Auto is not sentient. Auto can’t make independent choices.
He follows his pre-programmed directives, and in that sense, Auto isn’t a traditional Disney villain. Instead, he functions as the voice of the ship as an institution. Okay, let’s quickly recap the plot for those who haven’t seen this movie recently.
Humans have abandoned earth after polluting the planet to the point where it’s no longer inhabitable. The surviving population lives aboard massive luxury star-liners that are drifting through space. These automated galaxy cruisers are run entirely by robots.
The company promised the original passengers that they would all be returned to Earth once the planet was made livable again. That was over 700 years ago. The human passengers have become so complacent in their overindulgent lifestyle that they’ve even forgotten how to walk under their own power. The film’s core conflict revolves around individuals of both the human and robotic variety realizing they’re all participating in a system larger than themselves, and then working together to break free from that system. And that premise, that we as individuals are always participating in something larger than ourselves, is the core concept underpinning the field of sociology. Those ‘larger things’ that we’re all participating in are referred to as ‘social systems’. Social systems are interconnected arrangements structures and relationships that combine to form a coherent whole. As individual members of society, we are all always participating in a range of different social systems.
Because the Axiom star-liner functions as a self-contained social system, let’s use it to help illustrate how all this works. Like all social systems, the Axiom includes sets of rules or social norms which participants are expected to adhere to ensure that the system functions smoothly. In sociological terms, these socially enforced expectations are referred to as ‘paths of least resistance’. In the movie, we can see this process play out in the directives that each of the robots must follow. And it’s represented by literal lines, along which both the passengers and the crew travel around the ship. It’s important to note that paths of least resistance do not determine the behavior of all individual human beings. We are not robots, after all. And that means that we all have a choice in how we participate in these social systems. We can, if we choose, step off the path of least resistance. But doing so will likely lead to pressure from others to get us back in line.
The most succinct description of how paths of least resistance operate that I’ve ever seen uses the board game Monopoly. The Monopoly example, along with many of the other concepts we’ve been discussing, can be found in the excellent book ‘The Forest and the Trees’ by sociologist Allan G. Johnson. He points out that Monopoly functions as a mini social system.
Like all social systems, the game includes paths of least resistance, which can be found in the rules inside the box. All we really have to do is glance at those rules and we can predict exactly how people’s behavior will be impacted. The path of least resistance for players is to simply follow the rules. Refusing to adhere to the rules will lead to push back from other players, and likely get you kicked out of the game. Whenever the rules of the game are followed, an antagonistic pattern of behavior will always emerge.
An idea emerges from it is that people playing Monopoly behave in greedy ways because people are greedy. Now, the problem with that as Johnson points out is that most people don’t behave in ruthlessly greedy ways when they’re not playing Monopoly. Sure, all people have the capacity for selfishness to some degree, but the rules of Monopoly not only encourage greedy behavior, the rules make the greedy behavior a necessary condition of participation. The personal values of the players are irrelevant to describing the game and its rules.
However, the film doesn’t take the easy route by vilifying individual Buy and Large consumers. In that way, it’s the opposite of a film like Idiocracy, which is a movie I absolutely despise. Idiocracy is also meant as a critique of consumerism but it traffics in a brand of cynical, elitist humor that ends up blaming individuals, often the most powerless and poorest of people, for the destructive actions of corporations and governments. To its credit, that’s not how Wall-E frames the humans living aboard the Axiom star-liner.
But since Wall-E is an example of sociological storytelling, it frames the passengers and the Captain as initially acting in the ways they do, because that’s what the Axiom’s social systems expect from them. Even the passengers’ physical appearance is a direct result of the ship’s systems and not a result of their personal failings. They are simply following the paths of least resistance that are laid out for them, and that means the passengers are not defined by their complicit role in that system. They have the capacity to grow and break free. And I’d argue that that idea, that people can change how they engage with social systems, and in so doing transform, or even abolish those systems is an incredibly hopeful message.
Paths of least resistance in the real world are rarely as well defined as the directives aboard the Axiom, or the rules of a board game. The social expectations in our daily lives are often unwritten, and we conform to their norms unconsciously. For example, imagine you hear someone tell a sexist joke. The path of least resistance is typically to laugh.
Imagine being confronted with sexual harassment in the workplace. The path of least resistance there might be to stay silent. Predatory sexual behavior is not just the result of a few very rotten apples. It’s part of a much larger systemic problem. Social systems of male entitlement work to reinforce, excuse, and enable that type of behavior Social systems are one of the most important and one of the most misunderstood concepts in my work around media and masculinity.
From time to time, I’ll use terms like misogyny, patriarchy, male privilege or male entitlement and that tends to elicit a very defensive reaction, especially from guys, who feel they’re being personally condemned as villains. However, these terms are not meant as an indictment of every individual man. They’re simply ways of describing the larger social systems that we’re all part of. One of Allan G. Johnson’s key insights from the Monopoly example is that we can describe the game of Monopoly and its outcome without describing the personalities of each individual player. This also means that we can describe the framework of real-world social systems without necessarily saying anything about the personalities of the people participating in those systems. The passengers and rebellious robots aboard the Axiom all eventually step off the path of least resistance and, as a result, change the fate of humanity. And we, as people in the real world, can collectively step off our own paths of least resistance and refuse to be complicit in oppressive social systems.
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Wall-E as Sociological Storytelling