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Oh, Those Lovable Underdogs...

Between cheering for the amazing Oakland A’s as they battled seemingly insurmountable odds to win their division title this past week, and a recent viewing of The Bad News Bears* with my kids, I’ve been thinking about underdogs of late. They’re the disadvantaged. The marginalized. The nobodies. The Boy Who Lived and The Girl on Fire.

But whether in movies or life or literature, these are the characters we fall in love with. They capture our hearts and hold our emotions, and we root for them, no matter the obstacles.

So what is it about the underdog myth that intrigues us?

A recent article published in the Basic and Applied Social Psychology journal titled The Future is Bright: The Underdog Label, Availability, and Optimism** seeks to understand the concept and how it has worked its way into our cultural psyche. The authors of the article suggest that our love affair with the underdog is based on two different (and seemingly incongruent) factors:

  1. The underdog is unlikely to win.
  2. We believe the underdog will win.
The authors also note that in real life, a team or individual with a competitive disadvantage is, well, probably going to lose. But because our society so reveres the rags-to-riches, against-all-odds types of victories, it is the underdog-as-winner stories that stick in our minds and get retold again and again. The emotional payoff is huge and these tales become a part of the cultural lore. It's not as interesting when the hare beats the tortoise or the evil stepsister gets the prince or the Yankees win the World Series again, so now we've come to expect the underdog to prevail...even if that expectation isn't rational. 

What do you think of the underdog myth? Do you have a favorite underdog character or story?


*If you've seen The Bad News Bears, then you know it's a story that actually bucks the underdog myth in a very specific way. And if you haven't seen it, do! It's a great film. 

**Goldschmied, N. & Vandello, J. (2012). The future is bright: The underdog label, availability, and optimism. Basic and Applied Social PsychologyVol. 34, Iss. 12012.
Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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9 comments:

  1. I LOVE underdog stories! While Oakland was stealing away the AL West from the Texas Rangers I kept thinking that Michael Lewis needs to start working on Moneyball 2. Unfortunately the 'Hollywood ending' never happens in real life, so the Yankees always win. (And yes, I have seen the Bad News Bears )

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    1. Ha, I would love to see Moneyball 2. And it's true, the underdog story is so archetypal that I always root for them in real life (and will be cheering for the A's to go all the way!).

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  2. One thing I find very interesting about The Hunger Games is that Katniss is really only an underdog until she gets the bow. That happens not that far into the game, and after that, she's the most dangerous person in the arena. Plus, she has actual allies most of the time she's in there.

    I've always liked underdog stories. It's a good point you make that, despite the logical likelihood that they will lose, we do expect underdogs to win. When yet another difficulty appears in the underdog's path, we don't think, "Oh no! Maybe she's going to lose after all!" but rather, "Wow, how will she get past this one?"

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    1. Thanks, Nic. I think you're totally right in that our thinking shifts when we expect the underdog is going to win...the threat is never *that* dire that the hero will lose, and the story becomes more about how they're changed on their journey.

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  3. Yep, everyone loves a good underdog story. I imagine it's sort of universal, but it seems to be especially strong in our time period. I was just reading today about how because of this mindset, modern readers of /Frankenstein/ sympathize more with the monster than their 19th century counterparts did.

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    1. Oh, that's fascinating about Frankenstein. I wonder what it is that makes us identify with the monster more at this point in time?

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  4. I just read "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer and I realized I was pulling SO hard for Cinder because she's such an underdog. It's a retelling of Cinderella, and your mention of the evil stepsister reminded me of it.

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    1. Ah, I haven't read Cinder yet! But how can you not root for Cinderella when she's treated so poorly?

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  5. I immediately thought of Slumdog Millionaire while reading this post (the title primed me to, I suppose). Love the book and the movie!

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Item Reviewed: Oh, Those Lovable Underdogs... Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn