On Joy and the Harsh Reality of Capitalism

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than I am in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

-Stephen Jay Gould 


I think of this quote often, as someone who constantly feels the crushing weight of capitalism and as someone who has watched it tear apart my life and the lives of the people around me. I think of all the things I would like to do, the things that I feel would give my life a sense of purpose and the things that I think would help better the lives of others, like my lifelong dreams of going to medical school, of teaching, of writing professionally. The dreams I have feel so far out of my reach, far past my capabilities and opportunities as a woman who can’t afford to finish college and as a person who has to work full-time just to make ends meet. I have been poor my entire life. My parents gave me the best life they could, but in a capitalist society it’s hard to even exist, unless you were born into wealth. Long work weeks yielding low pay, enough to keep a roof over your head but not enough to ever lead to the possibility of getting yourself into a better situation. Capitalism makes the rich richer and strips the poor of everything they have. 

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the new movie Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that was hosted by Gabi Fresh (thanks Gabi!). While the movie itself was a little strange, I enjoyed it and I appreciated the realistic portrayal of how capitalism affects people. 

Jennifer Lawrence was a good choice for this role. She played Joy, an intelligent woman whose life had been consumed by responsibility and obligation. She lived with her mother who required a lot of care and also with her grandmother, her children and her ex-husband. Her father, who was an angry and emotionally abusive man, also came to live with her in the beginning of the movie. Joy obviously struggled with the weight of supporting her entire family, both financially and emotionally. Women are often forced into this role as a part of our societal conditioning- the role of caretaker. I appreciated the care they took in developing this image of her life and of the stress and pressure of a life that was forced onto her out of familial obligation. 

Her mother was treated poorly by her father (at Joy's wedding he gave a speech about how he was miserable with her mother, and he screamed at her and broke her things) and it seemed that the trauma from their marriage and his behavior toward her caused her to break down, which is a feeling I’ve experienced at the hands of men. Once her father had effectively broken her mother’s spirit, he set his sights on Joy, onto whom he projected his own fears and feelings of inadequacy. At every opportunity, he attempted to instill into her the understanding that she was and would always be a failure, while simultaneously demanding more from her and pressuring her to succeed. I feel like this is truly a spot-on metaphor for capitalism- implying failure if you aren’t financially successful without providing the resources to succeed and making success impossible.

Joy was the only one in her family working to support them. Her ex-husband was a kind man who cared about her, but he was also a man who hadn’t grown up and refused to find a job to help ease Joy’s financial burden. Despite the tremendous effort Joy put into caring for her family, she was the person who everyone slandered and demeaned, seemingly unaware that without her, they would have had nothing. Women are conditioned to support the people around them, even at great personal loss, and Joy had a conversation with her best friend that flashed back to a moment in her past that fundamentally altered her trajectory, a moment where it became apparent to her that supporting her family and following her dreams were mutually exclusive. 

Joy had a creative mind, though her creativity was put on the back burner in order for her to direct her energy toward her family. She developed an idea for a self-wringing mop, a mop that I have in my house today and a mop that saved my life when my apartment flooded a few weeks ago. It was the kind of idea that could only come from a person who spent their lives mopping, a person who’d experienced less efficient mops and a person who knew the effect that this design would have on the lives of others. Joy’s idea was practical, useful and simple. She was determined to succeed, and she did, briefly. She managed to get her mop manufactured and to sell it on a home shopping network, with the help of her best friend Jackie (as played by Dascha Polanco who I adore).

Once she experienced some success, the harsh reality of capitalism set in and her manufacturer tried to charge her more money for the mop parts, and with the price increase she wouldn’t be able to make a profit and would instead sink further into debt. She went to the plant to try to reason with them, only to discover that they’d stolen her idea and were planning on manufacturing the mops themselves. She sought legal counsel and was told that she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy to try to save herself from tremendous debt. Joy had a breakdown, screaming and sobbing as she tore down her original mop designs before she reluctantly signed the papers.

I wish the movie had ended here, at the lowest point in Joy’s life where she’d come so close to success only to have it ripped away from her by capitalism and opportunistic white men. I thought of something Kanye West said, about feeling like he’d been swimming for ten, twelve years of his life and how when he became successful, it was like finally seeing land. I imagine that Joy felt similarly, like she’d been fighting so hard just to exist and it finally seemed like she was done fighting, only to find out that it was an illusion and that she would have to fight forever just for things to stay the same. It would’ve felt more realistic to me if the movie had ended here, because that is reality. If you’re poor, you work for your whole life just to be able to keep a roof over your head. The implication of this film that one day, you will have a stroke of luck and break the mold is, at best, highly unlikely and at worst, dangerously naive. 

With my willingness to suspend my disbelief, I liked the ending. It was nice to feel like maybe I could be like Joy and have some luck and get out of poverty. I liked watching her succeed and I appreciated that once she was successful, she had meetings with women who were in the situation she’d been in before to help them make money too. There’s a concept among women called “shine theory”, that boils down to, “I don’t shine if you don’t shine”, or successful women not seeing other women as competition but as friends, and I think that’s really important. 

It’s not usually the type of movie I would go to see, but I’m glad that I did because it was validating to see a woman like myself struggling with capitalism in a similar way, and despite my feeling that the ending was unrealistic, it gave me a little bit of hope that maybe things won’t always be this way. It comes out Friday, and it’s definitely worth seeing.