No, I’m not talking about the anthropomorphic cartoon dog from the 60’s, but rather the character archetype. A couple days ago, I wrote an article (which you can read here) about how the superhero exemplifies the dangerous exceptionalism of our American culture, and I think the underdog does the same, highlighting another – albeit far less problematic – aspect of the ethos of our nation.
Who are the most iconic fictional characters to come out of the United States? Rocky Balboa, Spider-Man, Jon Snow, Huckleberry Finn, Han Solo, Forrest Gump – heck, even Spongebob Squarepants, all of these characters come from humble beginnings and accomplish great things despite being ostracized and/or oppressed by those around them, and these few are far from the only examples.
Take the myriad of sports films that have come out of Hollywood in the past fifty years: Rudy, The Karate Kid, Moneyball, The Mighty Ducks, Seabuscuit…. It seems as if the underdog tale is the only story that Hollywood knew how to tell for awhile. But why?
The first reason is the American Revolution. We are a nation that was born from a confrontation where a disorganized group of tradesmen with muskets were able to defeat a global empire, so how could the underdog story not have influenced our culture? We’ve spent every year in school learning about our founding fathers and how they were nothing more than a collection of lawyers, doctors and merchants who risked execution to defeat tyranny. So, of course we sympathize with the one on the losing side!
The second reason is Christianity. While we were a nation founded by underdogs, we were also a nation founded by predominantly Christians; a religion that, if anything, worships a God of outcasts. Jesus Christ is arguably the very first underdog story ever told, and it’s no secret that the New Testament heavily influenced the literature that came out of the Western world.
Regardless, the underdog is immensely popular, so much so that when the anime Death Note was adapted into an American live-action movie, the main character, Light Yagami, was changed from an academically, financially and socially successful high school student to a failing, poor and socially ostracized one, just to make him more sympathetic to our Western sensibility.