A few weeks back, I wrote about Caster Semenya’s degrading treatment at the hands of sports authorities, having her take hormones to make her more feminine, which would also lower her performance level, putting her in line with the way women in sports are supposed to be.
I mentioned that example in class and I asked my students to imagine what such a thing would look like if we applied it to education: let’s make smart kids a bit dumber (I am sure we can find some medications to do that). A few days later, one of my students brought me Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron (full text). I did not know that story but it certainly relates to what I was talking about. Except for one major difference: in Vonnegut’s story, the equalization and handicapping are applied equally throughout society. In the Semenya case, the central aspect of is that it is applied exclusively to women in order to solidify the essentialist gender binary and keep women in their place.
Interestingly enough, there was a television movie made out of the short story:
And ironically, this television movie (1) misses the point, and (2) proves the point of the KV story. It misses the point by making Harrison a bland and sweet young man played by Sean Astin who you cannot imagine hurting a fly, rather than the raving lunatic of the story. The worst distortion of the story is the ending. The director / producer must have thought that audiences would be not be able to handle the pessimistic ending of Vonnegut’s story. So, they tacked on a sappy, happy ending that opens up the possibility of change where the story provides none.
Vonnegut’s story is about a form of social engineering that not just dumbs down the population but turns them into childish beings thanks to dumb entertainment as well. The television movie does exactly the same twice: with this ending, of course, but also with the sequence when Harrison takes over a TV studio, all he can come up with to accompany the wonderful works of arts he shares with his audience is dumb, childish commentary, especially when he addresses his family.
Way to miss the point, totally.
How often do TV programs infantilize audiences through a variety of childish emotions? All the time.
This seems to stick closer to the story (trailer only):
Unfortunately, it also seems to miss the madness of Harrison and turning him into an individualistic revolutionary. Compare the text of his speech as opposed to what he says in the film. There is no heroism in the story, just a grotesque and brutal character.
Now, it is tempting to interpret this story as some sort Randian rant against socialism. Think again, what this society has is a minority that dominates the population through dumb media, extensive surveillance and a police state when all else fails. Sounds familiar? It also assumes a pre-existing meritocratic society where only individual characteristics matter and class / race / gender are no longer issues.
A nice contrasting story is Star Trek’s The Cloud Minders, which I have mentioned before.