In the last blog post, I critiqued the cliched use of “challenging people” in motivational culture; I challenge you to bullet journal; I challenge you to get a coffee enema; I challenge you to just, like, be better. We are continuing in that vein, investigating another of these motivational cliches: the hitting of the rock bottom.
You know about the rock bottom; it’s the thing that everyone hits before the moment in the story that their life suddenly changes. Spoiler alert: the rock bottom doesn’t exist. Your rock bottom isn’t a fact; it’s not predetermined just waiting for you to stumble on it so you can say “a ha!” NOW I can finally put down the credit cards/drugs/french fries, whatever. The rock bottom is rhetorical; it’s rock bottom aaaall the way down. It can’t motivate you because it isn’t apart from you; it comes from within you because YOU decide where your rock bottom is. And then decide “oh no, that’s not it.” And THEN decide, “this is definitely it, I can’t keep going like this.” And THEN decide, “well, I can keep going a little longer I guess.” See? Rhetorical.
Nothing demonstrates the seduction and disappointment of the rock bottom cliche better than the movie, Brittany Runs a Marathon, released last year on Amazon Prime. I figured the movie has been out long enough that you have had sufficient opportunity to enjoy it before I give it the RhetoricLee Speaking treatment. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it; I did. I enjoyed it quite a bit. You can enjoy things AND critique them; you can even enjoy things MORE because you can critique them.
Brittany Runs a Marathon tells the tale of a hot mess of a millennial trying to get her shit together. Brittany is a chubby white 20-something who begins the movie as a typical dramatized dumpster fire; she has no friends, only frenemies, self respect of the blow-a guy-you-just-met-in-the-bathroom variety. She’s broke, trolling shopping mall doctors for a recreational Adderall script. By the end of the movie she runs the New York City marathon. And gets fit, though not skinny. And throws away her scale. And abandons her commitment issues. And manages to reform her man-child romantic interest into a steady and reliable domestic partner.
How the film gets us from dumpster fire to upstanding citizen, I will argue, is actually really insightful but everyone misses it because the film makes it too easy to graft on cliche explanations for Brittney’s transformation.
If you search for “Brittney Runs a Marathon” on Google, this synopsis comes up, which, for effect, I will read in a Valley Girl Accent. In the movie, when Brittany is feeling awkward, she uses a British accent; consider this my homage to Britt:
“A hard-partying woman receives a startling wake-up call when a visit to the doctor reveals how unhealthy she is. Motivated to lose weight, she soon takes up running to help her prepare for her ultimate goal of competing in the New York City Marathon.”
Here’s what the screen says on Amazon Prime right before you click “play” on the movie:
“hilarious and outgoing, Brittany Forgler, is everybody’s best friend–except her own. Her partying, underemployment and toxic relationships are catching up with her. Too broke for a gym and too proud to ask for help, Brit is at a loss, until her neighbor pushes her to run one sweaty block.”
And here is Wikipedia:
“Brittany is a hard partier, overweight, and abuses Adderall. Visiting a new doctor to score a prescription, she receives unwelcome news; she must get healthy and lose weight. She visits a nearby gym only to find even the cheapest fee is out of her reach. Despite her fear, she tries running for the first time, successfully running one block.”
We come away, then, with two major reasons for Brittney’s about-face. The first is a harrowing trip to the doctor’s office. The second is a motivational neighbor. Talk about cliche alert.
Let’s start with the doctor’s visit, recognizable as the classic “medical crisis rock bottom.” This is, by the way, a real thing, it’s called “mortality motivation” and it usually kicks in when a doctor tells you, “you’re going to die” and, facing your mortality, you decide to make a change.
Now, let’s compare the scene we ACTUALLY heard to the cliches that the people who professionally write descriptions of movies think that they heard.
First of all, “startling wake-up call” is a really tough sell. Mortality motivation fails as often as it works (because nothing kicks up a craving for cigarettes like finding out your craving for cigarettes is killing you) and, even if it were the ultimate solution, there’s no mortality motivation here.
The doctor says “your body mass index is high. A healthy BMI is 25 and yours is 31 or 32” then he motions to a chart on the wall with the various zones of weight in bribht colors and, right in the middle, there’s a yellow stripe representing “overweight” with a stick figure that actually looks pretty normal; the obese figure to the right in the “obese” category is very round. Brittany’s BMI numbers are right at the border of normal-yellow-person-round-obese-person. Visually, I’m not really getting “startling wake-up call” from this image. For the record, I have around a 30 BMI. That is basically fat enough to not love shopping but nowhere close to “wake-up call” territory.” That’s not even like fattest-person-in-yoga-class territory.
It’s also unlikely that this doctor would have shocked Britt with this news; what 28-year old woman living in New York City doesn’t know exactly to the 2nd decimal point how much they weigh or, at the very least, where they fall in the pants-size-hierarchy? The idea that any of this would have been so profound as to demand an entirely new, uncomfortable, and painful self-actualization manifesting in the running of a fucking MARATHON is ridiculous.
When the doctor utters the word “body mass index” you do get the impression that Brittney is realizing her size for the first time. She does this kind of “wh-wh-my-what” thing and that’s when he explains the chart. But I just don’t buy that putting the label “body mass index”–about the most clinical and sterile way to say “fat” that there is–would be enough to catalyze a revolution of habit. People talk about seeing a photo of themselves overweight and that being their rock bottom or having a kid call them “fat” in public and that being their rock bottom–but being told they’re a couple numbers too high on the body mass index? Maybe that’s a factor for someone who has let themselves go a little bit after a lifetime of reasonably conscientious living but to someone who is deep in the trenches of ignoring their own welfare, the distance between 25 and 31 is negligible at best.
Even if the BMI was this lightbulb moment of a wake-up call, we’ve still got two other factors. First, there’s Brit’s well-honed sarcasm shield, which she begins to deploy almost immediately, berating the doctor and making jokes. She’s got a set of defenses to rival Niegan’s camp on the Walking Dead; if she doesn’t want a realization to set in about her health, it won’t. Second, the doctor gives her a ready made list of excuses: thyroid, etc. I know he’s giving her those points in prediction of a counter-argument, but given her character development over the course of the movie, she’d grab onto those concessions and hold them for dear life as insulation from making a change. ANY of us would because change is hard and making excuses is easy.
The scene just doesn’t work. Essentially you had some people who wanted to tell an amazing story of this woman’s transformation and they sat around brainstorming ways that people decide to lose weight. And the cliche “startling medical diagnosis” came into play and this is the scene they wrote. It may have even been based on a true story; but it would have still been the story that someone told based on their interpretation of a set of experiences; it’s not a fact.
But when you put the rock bottom cliche under scrutiny, it falls apart. There’s nothing inherent about a “bottom line” that motivates people to change. Why? Because bottom lines are RHETORICAL constructions; they’re made up. My bottom line is your Tuesday and there are heroin addicts shooting up blown out veins who are like, “bottom line? Where.”
Example: Johnny Weeks from HBO’s The Wire. Gets popped for the world’s saddest drug buy. Dries out in rehab. Gets an HIV diagnosis. First thing he does when he gets out of rehab? Heroine. Why? Because he’s a former-addict who just got out of a state rehab facility with an HIV diagnosis.
There’s nothing cliche about that shit. There’s also nothing uplifting about it, either.
Also, if this medical diagnosis were so startling then in the next scene then Britt would be, like, sobbing over an uneaten cheeseburger at the drive-through before she finally throws it all in the garbage and buys a salad. Instead, she’s in the club, getting sloshed, spending money she doesn’t have.
There is this moment, amid the cloudy haze of the nightclub, where she glimpses herself in the mirror in a sparkly gold, form-fitting dress; some poor man’s Hitchcock camera works gives a sense of her understanding, for the first time, how big she is. The mirror is a classic “awareness” metaphor. And it would work. If she’d literally never seen a mirror. But, presumably, she’s seen a mirror before. Presumably, she saw the mirror when she was putting on the dress an hour ago. Also, she’s wasted. When I’m wasted and I look in the mirror I think I look like Jessica Rabbit. I don’t think, “you’re fat; you should go running.”
Also, if this is her typical night out, surrounded by night club mirrors and, I say this with no judgement, wearing what amounts to a bedazzled sausage casing, then this moment has happened a hundred times before. The life of a chubby single woman in a New York City club is basically one, long, sideways glance in the mirror, accompanied by a good dose of mental shaming, punctuated by moments where you forget about your body only to remember it again three seconds later. The scene works fine but it works fine as her TYPICAL night; not as the exception to the rule. So, again, there’s no rock bottom in that mirror. Or, if there is a rock bottom, it’s a rock bottom that will quickly be forgotten when, awakening with a wicked hangover and a solid dose of regret, no “body mass index” warning could drown out the call of fried food and lots of it.
Fast forward in the movie and we get some hints at a dead-dad trauma driving the overeating–classic “being overweight must mean deep emotional damage” cliche. I ain’t got time to unpack that.
Fast forward and Brittney is inside a gym asking about memberships. I had trouble with this. In fact, when the scene popped up, I was like “why is she at the gym?” Looking at a gym membership could potentially make sense because buying a gym membership isn’t technically an action; it’s a consumer behavior; she’s just buying something. But she can’t afford the membership, cracking a joke about “how running is free.” And she leaves, membershipless.
Next scene she’s home, putting on the sneakers; there’s some weirdness with a close up of her thighs while she gets dressed–we’ll also leave that alone–and she’s finally outside intent on her run when she catches a fun-house mirror view of herself in the shiny metal of a passing hot dog cart and runs back inside to the familiarity of the fridge. =
The distorted fun-house fat image is ludicrous. At this point, she’s already done the whole “getting dressed” thing AND managed to get herself to walk into a gym. And she’s already outside. Now is NOT the time that he would go back inside. The quit would have happened after the gym…maybe while she was getting dressed. The film is drumming up drama and resistance in the wrong places. Not to mention that it already did the mirror thing–putting her into a dress that essentially turned her reflection into its fun-house mirror version–and it supposedly worked so why would the second dose then NOT work? And where are all these fucking MIRRORS coming from?
So then she’s eating and she’s crying and the skinny hot neighbor who is always running knocks on her door. Britt lets her in and makes a bunch of increasingly hilarious self-effacing jokes we’ve, by now, come to expect. Hot neighbor says some cliche “feel better” nonsense. But then she says she was in rehab in her 20s for heroin. And she says that she gets through life one day at a time by setting “little goals.” Brit tells her to get lost. Then a tell-tale close up of running sneakers. Then Britt is outside walking. And she says, “one block.” And she runs one block. And it sucks.
The synopses describe this exchange between Brit and the neighbor, thusly:
“Brit is at a loss, until her neighbor pushes her to run one sweaty block.”
“Despite her fear, she tries running for the first time, successfully running one block.”
Like the doctor’s office, the synopses overstate the role of the neighbor. The neighbor, in fact, doesn’t push anybody to do anything. The neighbor gives Britt a NEW THOUGHT: little goals. Now, to some of us, little goals are not revolutionary. Anyone who has read anything about goal setting has learned about little goals. But, to Brittney, I can see this being somewhat of a light bulb moment. Here’s why; she’s looking at this assumedly successful, hot woman who runs marathons and is all the things that Britt wishes maybe she could be but is not. (Later we will learn that hot neighbor is suffering silently through an awful divorce but, for now, the illusion is unsullied).
When that woman tells Brittney that all of this started because she did small goals, she gives Brittney a new paradigm, a new way of thinking. A new way of thinking does not motivate her; it does not make her run; it does not drown out all of the negative, shitty, quit-on-yourself thoughts that, up to this point, have dominated Britt’s monologue. What the new thought DOES provide is a new choice; Brittney can run one block. And that thought leads to another thought, “I could do one block.”
When we look back, from this point in the film, to the previous fun-house-hotdog-mirror scene, we actually see that the hot dog cart was not a metaphor for Brittney’s awareness of her size–which is confusing given that it’s only a few minutes after the previous mirror metaphor; the writers really dropped the ball here–we can see now that it was a metaphor for the insurmountable impossibility of whatever bigger goal that Brittney was imagining–a mile, maybe. The distance between where she was and where she wanted to be was overwhelming; but the distance between where she is and one block is doable.
Ultimately, this is what Brittany Runs a Marathon gets right: for people to act in a new way, even the tiniest of new ways–what we might call behavior change–they need two things: One: they need a new thought. (You like how the take-away from this episode is the theme of the whole podcast? I’m good like that). Two: they need the distance between the new thought and the old thought to be small enough to allow a second thought: “I can do this; this is enough.”
But that formula isn’t sexy or easy or complicated; it’s so simple that you can’t sell it or buy it. You just have to start and do it. That formula requires YOU–and by you I mean us–to take responsibility for how we THINK.
So we keep the rock bottom fantasy alive because it allows us to believe that if we just keep doing what we’ve always done–which is precisely avoiding practicing new ways of thinking–we will eventually fuck up badly enough that the rock bottom will arrive and that will just MAKE us run the mile or put down the bottle or call the lawyer.
But your rock bottom isn’t coming. And let’s all thank our stars for that. Instead, you get to get busy going out to find your new thought.