As many of you know, once you start committing sociology it is hard to stop. It is so hard to stop that Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias was able to find sociological relevance in Fast and Furious 6, which was last weekend’s number one movie an improbable 12 years after the release of the original. Beyond muscles, cars, explosions, and tanks, though, Yglesias makes a compelling argument for the continued success of the franchise: loyalty to family in a world of increasing inequality and decreasing trust of social institutions. As Yglesias writes:
Sociologically speaking, this is a classic moral outlook of a low-trust society well-captured by the allegedly Bedouin phrase “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers.”
The problem, of course, is that this sort of particularistic outlook is very dysfunctional on a social level. You can’t have a prosperous and secure society unless the law is enforced. But how can the law be enforced when the prison guards are massively corrupt? Ultimately a functioning economy depends on functional politics, and functional politics depend not just on monitoring and incentives but on esprit de corps and a willingness to make abstract ideals a priority.
It would be comforting to simply dismiss the Fast and Furious franchise as an ethically unfortunate series of movies about illegal street racing. But as David Madland has written, the low-trust ethics it embodies are in fact typical of societies featuring a high and growing level of income inequality…
In a world where the system increasingly seems to be rigged, it’s natural to turn to the Dominic Toretto’s of the world as heroes. Yet Dom, for all his hard work, ingenuity, and undeniable skill doesn’t really do anything useful or productive. He’s a nice guy who’s loyal to his friends and family. He lives by a code. And his outlook is increasingly appealing in an increasingly unequal America. But it’s ultimately destructively of the social institutions needed to generate prosperity. And yet at a time when elites long ago stopped caring whether the gains of economic growth would be widely shared, and in recent years seem to have turned their backs on the unemployed altogether then these are the heroes we’ll turn to.
Also working in its favor is another sociological factor: diversity. As Gitesh Pandya at Box Office Guru notes, “From day one in June 2001, the series has invested in ethnically diverse casts which has broadened the consumer base. Sales from urban youth have always been key. And appeal has been strong with women too. This weekend’s audience breakdown showed a 49% female crowd which is incredibly high for a macho action sequel. 40% is common. 57% were age 25 or older and 32% were Latino.”