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Identification Theory in 'Scott Pilgrim vs the World'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2467 words Published: 9th Sep 2021

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There are many so-called artifacts in pop culture that can be seen through many perspectives. From an audience’s expected perspective, they will either enjoy or dislike the artifact, because it does or doesn’t suit their needs. Whether it’s a song, a painting, or a movie, we are known to be critics of these artifacts and determine whether it was/is worth our time. Other perspectives that one does not normally use to see these products are through a rhetorical lens. In this study, I will explore the movie, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” as my artifact and view it through the lens of identification as coined by Kenneth Burke. I will examine the main protagonist’s (Scott Pilgrim) relationship with a supporting female character, which he identifies her as his girlfriend for a portion of the film, but more specifically, the relationship made between the audience and Scott Pilgrim. My exigence for this study is a website article, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”, written by Abigail Nussbaum, where she critiques this relationship as being misogynistic from Pilgrim’s point of view. The hero’s progression appears to be justified by the audience and brushes off this male-to-female stereotype in the movie. Nussbaum’s review over the movie is unique as this movie is critically acclaimed as being an amazing movie from many sources for multiple reasons, including its cinematography. Scott Pilgrim’s character is also portrayed as an immature adult that the majority of the movie’s audience forgives or overlooks. I will analyze a moral outcome and give an input to the issue using this lens and see if Nussbaum has a view that is worth looking at and supporting that many other reviewers are ignorant of.

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I was intrigued by the movie, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The background of the movie and the content was made to give subtle hints of pop culture and geek-y puns. This was a landmark for its intended audience to have the director, Edgar Wright, make an iconic movie over a minority group in film. Scott Pilgrim vs the World, is a movie based off the graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim, created in 2005 by Bryan Lee O’Malley. He, then, had his imaginary world turn into a video game alongside the film in August 2010. O’Malley worked with the director, Wright, to make sure that he had control over the premise of the film and to stand against the norm of “good-book-turned-to-bad-movie” adaptations that many of us are used to seeing. The film is based on Scott Pilgrim, a twenty-two year old man from Toronto who lives in a small condo with a homosexual friend. He prioritizes most of his time on his garage band, Sex Bob-omb, which he plays bass guitar for. Scott, played by Michael Cera, has to decide between dating his current girlfriend, a seventeen year old high school student, Knives Chau, and Ramona Flowers, an older woman who moved in to town as an Amazon delivery girl, who is originally from New York. In choosing Ramona, he is confronted with a new challenge, where he has to duel Ramona’s “League of Seven Evil Exes” in order to have her heart. Pilgrim has to deal with this group one by one, only to find out that the most recent ex of Ramona and the last person to duel in the “league” is Gideon, the mysterious record executive that the members of Sex Bob-omb have been trying to get a record deal through a “Battle of the Bands” competition. He leaves the band and tries to save Flowers from Gideon where he goes through a soul-searching experience along the way. After an excruciating battle, Pilgrim is deemed victorious with the help of his now ex-girlfriend, Knives Chau, and Ramona Flowers. The movie ends after Pilgrim is given the last decision to leave with Knives or Ramona, which he picks the latter of the two.

Kenneth Duva Burke was born in 1897 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (Your Dictionary). Rather becoming a writer than his intended profession of a professor, he partook in the literary and academic culture, which influenced him to write multiple criticism pieces. He focused on the structure and attitude of human actions towards others around them and their surroundings. He wrote many studies about this including many books like A Rhetoric of Motives, which he released in 1950. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke explains an idea of identification that is used to study relationships. In Brook L. Quigley’s website article, “’Identification’ as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory”, she explains that Burke talks about identification as a means to differentiate his rhetorical perspective from the traditional “persuasion: aspect of rhetoric” (“Identification” as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory). Burke also defines that the idea of identification is only a means, where, even though we are born separately as individual humans, we still finds the means to identify ourselves through communication (A Rhetoric of Motives). He continues to go more in depth by using what he calls “consubstantiality”. By definition, consubstantiality is, “Of the same substance, nature or essence”. In a simpler form, Burke also uses the character ‘A’ and ‘B’ as, A is not identical to B, yet their interests are. In this case, A is identified with B. He explains that a person will identify with another not when their interests are identical, but when one of them is persuaded to believe that they are. “…A is ‘substantially one’” with B, yet he remains different with his personal motives and foci. Burke continues by saying that “A ‘consubstantial’ with B” when you begin to notice their identification. An example that Burke uses is the concept of war, multiple people may identify themselves in war, but not everyone has the same motive (A Rhetoric of Motives 22). Identification can also, only occur when there is first a division between the two.

After watching the film, I stumbled upon a few reviews of the movie. This movie reviewed great scores in general, praising the production for fighting the movie industry norm by reaching a new audience of geek and pop culture fandom. For example, it received an 82% score on Rotten Tomato and an 83% from the website’s audience (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Even though it was well-approved, the exigence for this rhetorical study was a film review by Abbigail Nussbaum, where she criticizes the actions of Scott Pilgrim. In her review, she says that Pilgrim’s actions are misogynistic, where the self-absorbed character cheats on both of his love interests and his only excuse is “but it’s hard” in regards to not taking action in breaking up with Chau. Nussbaum says, “…Scott treated his teenage girlfriend Knives Chau, lying to her, neglecting her, and letting her fall deeper in love with him…all because he couldn’t face the onerous task of breaking off their relationship” (Asking the Wrong Questions). She refers to Flowers’ attraction towards Pilgrim being senseless. I understand her frustration towards the movie, especially, because Pilgrim doesn’t receive any punishment for treating both girls unfairly.

I was at first, surprised by Nussbaum’s review in her website “Asking the Wrong Questions”, because it was the first that I noticed to be very negative. It was negative, not because of the bad cinematography or acting, which some films are critiqued through that lense, but because of the character’s actions and lack of responsibilities. I wondered where the rest of the reviews with similar taste were. Why is this unique and not noticed anywhere else? Because of this, I thought that the best thing to do is watch the movie again. This time I was able to see her perspective and I have to agree. As much as I truly enjoy this movie, I do see the self-centered and cavalier Pilgrim.

I noticed that the audience of this film focused on the progression of Scott. Using Burke’s consubstantial theory, the audience identified with Scott’s playfulness and pursuit to reach the “love of his journey”, Ramona, by defeating the league. They saw his child-like character and how he interacts with the other characters like his bandmates or his gay roommate. But even with them, he loathes about his issues, always going to his roommate, Wallace, and younger sister, Stacey, for advice. The audience wants to be this guy who fantasizes about the girl and shows off when he defeats the next evil ex. In seeing how great he is, the audience of this film overlooks the division between the character and themselves. For example, in a scene where Scott is boasting about a second date that he is having with Ramona, Wallace says that he is fine with it, but in return he has to break up with Knives. Pilgrim’s only response is, “but it’s hard”. This shows his lack of responsibility and how he hates conflict. But with the way the scene is presented, happy-go-lucky Scott is prancing about his date to the point that such comment seems as part of a funny line. I did chuckle when I first saw this part. The audience also has the right to move on, since the task is brushed off as it introduces the next evil ex that Scott has to face. When they return to Chau’s and Pilgrim’s plotline, She wants to invite Scott to dinner to meet her parents. They don’t know of this relationship, so Scott asks, “Are you even allowed to date outside of your race or whatever? (Knives is Chinese)”. To which she responds that she doesn’t care and admits her love to Scott. It is depicted through on screen words like a comic book’s onomatopoeia. Scott reacts to the word distastefully by brushing it off like cigar smoke. He then proceeds to break up with her saying it’s not going to work out. Ouch.

So in this case, what is the reason for Pilgrim to start a relationship with her if he doesn’t appear to have any mutual feelings with her? Scott identified with Knives through the love of video games and his band, which he also equally identifies with his bandmates in the same manner. But that wasn’t the whole case. Scott, in order to get over a massive breakup that happened a year prior, he seeks for more attention, by which he finds from Knives. There is a division in age and Knives not being as cool as Ramona, as it seems. He is not identical to her, but is still able to identify with her through those means described above. You can also see the motives for his relationship with Knives is to get approval from his friends when he boasts about it. Scott interferes their conversation, “So you were saying ‘She seems awesome’” in order to have them talk about him more. This is backed up by Quigley when she says, “…the use of words by human agents to form attitudes and induce actions in other human agents” (“Identification” as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory). Scott is able to identify with these parties through the praise that he gets from communication. What is important about this study is that I am not able to notice this criticism without the help of both parties and how they interact with each other.

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In the similar sense, we need to return to the viewers of the film. Nussbaum refers to the lack of criticism in the film, “…the film is too silly, too steeped in and conscious of its unreality, to take seriously enough to criticize.” There is a magazine article that supports this claim. The New Yorker Magazine writer, Anthony Lane, critiques the lack of tough guys in films and proceeds to talk about Michael Cera’s character in this motion picture (Tough Guys). Scott panics at the sight of Ramona’s hair in one scene, because she dyes it from pink to blue, explaining that she does it every other week, so he should get used to it. This is one scene that Lane critiques as well as touches the bad fighting skills that Pilgrim has, yet he miraculously wins all of his fights. He recalls Stacey, Scott’s sister, calling him “chronically enfeebled” and notes, “Who cares if Scott winds up with Ramona, Knives, or anyone else?” It is bad, nonetheless, and Lane finishes off his criticism on the film by saying, “I strongly suspect, in fact, that he stayed in bed and dreamed the whole sweet movie. Call it “Inception” for geeks.” You can see that, as Nussbaum claims, it is not a serious movie whatsoever. But, again, Lane overlooks the mistreatment to Knives from Scott. This issue still persists in reviews that aren’t so fond of the movie, so does it continue to become a problem? By the end of the film, he needs to learn to stop deceiving himself as he did when he originally thought to have feelings for Chau, be more responsible, especially in the way he handles his relationships, and be less cavalier with others’ feelings

As I continued to read Abigail Nussbaum’s article, I wondered, where does she fit into this study of identification? I honestly found her to be consubstantial with Wallace, the gay roommate. She questioned Scott’s actions throughout the whole movie also focusing on other scenes and relationships, giving light to Scott’s flawed and self-absorbed character. She is not identical with Wallace, yet she identified with his comments. I see this study as a great example to notice Burke’s theory and how it is applied to the artifact. Seeing the ignorance of the issue at hand by most reviews found online, I see only to support Nussbaum in her article and see that there was a problem in the movie. Even though we are involved in a movie’s primary premise/plot, we, as the audience, need to focus on the character’s actions. We will fall trap to identify ourselves with an imperfect character or with a false person without noticing.

Works Cited

  • Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.
  • Lane, Anthony. “Tough Guys.” New Yorker 86.24 (2010): 94-95. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 May 2016.
  • Nussbaum, Abigail. “Scott Pilgrim vs the World.” Asking The Wrong Questions. Blogger, 15 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. .
  • Quigley, Brook L. “”Identification” as a Key Term in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetorical Theory.” AC Journal. Web. 18 Apr. 2016. .
  • Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Dir. Edgar Wright. Perf. Michael Cera, and Ellen Wong. Universal. 2010. Film.
  • “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango and Flixster, 2010. Web. 2 May 2016. .
  • “Your Dictionary.” Kenneth Burke Facts. LoveToKnow, Corp., 2010. Web. 07 May 2016. .


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