Napoleon Dynamite and Social Identity Theory

Even though people will either annoy or terrify me depending on the day, I readily admit I am fascinated by how we work. I don’t necessarily mean the biological mechanics of our bodies because most of that is filed under the “gross” category, but I mean the psychological and sociological ways we interact with not only each other but ourselves. In reality, we really are all living Lincoln Logs trying to fit and get along with each other just so we can build a cabin in and not be eaten by wolves. Obviously this is why applying social identity theory to Napoleon Dynamite makes total sense to me.

Like any movie, Napoleon Dynamite has its share of lovers and haters.  However, it seems as if when I find myself in conversations about my favorite wolverine hunter, the movie becomes a heated topic. What is it about this film that causes such an emotional response I have actually seen high school friends delete other people from Facebook because over it? If we can’t even have civilized conversations over whether or not it’s okay for some people to laugh over Napoleon needing Chapstick, then what can we talk about?

I had to understand this mystery so of course I went to my understanding of social identity theory and its hypothesis regarding of in-group/out-group dynamics. Simply defined, social identity theory is an individual’s sense of Self based on his or her group membership because this membership provides a feeling of self-worth and esteem.  This is what gives us a feeling of identity, or belonging, to the world.  In order to enhance our self-image, we then begin to add achievement badges to the group we belong to by enhancing it (“My team is better than that team. My school is better.”) or by making comparisons (“Republicans are heartless rich jerks. Kids today are lazy.”).

Cognitively, we naturally sort things because our brains are designed to do categorize. Social identity theory basically states that the in-group (Us) will discriminate against the out-group (Them) in order to enhance their status, thereby improving each individual’s sense of belonging to the world.

At this point, I was nerd-gasming all over the place because I wondered if this was what it was like to solve math problems on the first attempt.

There had to be something in common with all the people who loved Napoleon Dynamite and those who hated it since it appeared, to me, there were not many who fell in the middle.  Who are these people? The people who were popular in high school and those who were not.  Before I get hate mail, let me remind people: 1) Don’t rain on my Nerd Parade, and 2) Obviously, I speak in generalities. “GOSH!”

My observation, then, is that three types of people who hate this movie:

The “popular kids” in high school and think they still are — We know these people. I don’t even have to go into detail because we know them that well.  But these are the people who live in fear that they will wake up one morning and see what we see, the glory days are long since over. The Popular Kids watch Napoleon Dynamite and don’t understand why anyone would love this movie because the Nerd is the main character and therefore the hero. Their brain explodes.

The “popular kids” in high school who feel remorse — These poor souls watch the film and don’t recognize the emotion they feel is not from disliking the movie, it’s from voting for Summer all year long and realizing it was poor choice.  But their kids are the cool kids now, so that’s awesome.

The “nerdy kids” in high school who can’t let it go — Guys, can you please ignore the whole movie and just learn from Uncle Rico?

Of course, those who love this movie?

The egalitarian kids in high school — The people who might have been popular but didn’t really care or notice because they were too busy being friends with everyone. They watch this movie with the ability to identify with everyone and are able to laugh because of it.

The “nerdy kids” in high school who have moved on — The people who lived an awkward stage, maybe they’re still in it, and just don’t even care. Life is too short to be practicing football outside a van.

The “popular kids” in high school who have moved on — They graduated from those halls, went on and have lived their lives. They can now watch this movie and laugh at themselves.

So who is the in-group trying to maintain its status while discriminating against the out-group?  In this particular situation it would depend on who is participating in the conversation, though to me it makes it easier to understand why some people are so viciously invested in oppressing Napoleon. Especially since I knew them in high school and they took that popularity stuff as seriously as someone trying to be their own pharaoh in a pyramid scheme.

I just want to watch the flippin’ movie.


C. Streetlights
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Published by C. Streetlights

I wrote and illustrated my first bestseller, "The Lovely Unicorn" in the second grade and I've been terrified of success ever since. Published by ShadowTeamsNYC and represented by Lisa Hagen Books