May 4, 2015
I love movies. If I’m being honest, I probably love them a little too much. For me, movies are, among other things, a window into how other people see the world. Among the great filmmakers of our time, Quentin Tarantino has one of the most unique perspectives I have encountered, and Kill Bill is one of his greatest works.
There is a great exchange between the protagonist and the antagonist, in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. It goes like this:
Bill: “As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.”[who still has a needle in her leg] “How long does this shit take to go into effect?”
Bill: “About two minutes, just long enough for me to finish my point. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton.”
The Bride: “Ah-so. The point emerges.”
Bill: “You would’ve worn the costume of Arlene Plimpton. But you were born Beatrix Kiddo. And every morning when you woke up, you’d still be Beatrix Kiddo. Oh, you can take the needle out.”
The Bride: [does so] “Are you calling me a superhero?”
Bill: “I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.”
What is great about this quote is Tarantino’s insight, spoken through the character Bill, about how we costume ourselves to blend into our preferred surroundings–our social groups, our professional cadres, our peer groups. Tarantino’s great insight is not merely the observation that human beings do this; such is obvious. What is insightful is the observation that our attempts to blend into our peer groups constitute a critique of that group. How we try to conform to social norms reveals how we see the group into which we are trying to assimilate.
Whatever industry you are in, there are peer groups into which you will need to assimilate, people you need to influence, relationships you need to forge. As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” For this reason, we need others; it benefits us, therefore, to pay special attention to what our attempts to blend-in to new social and professional groups say about the way we see others in those groups.
When we attend a networking event, for example, what façade do you adopt? Are you, perhaps, one of the few, bold people who choose to simply, sincerely be yourself? In our culture, we spend a lot of time telling people to be themselves. When we are thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, however, we are rarely comfortable immediately being ourselves. Much more often, we adopt the costume of the person with whom we believe others will be most comfortable. Being inexpert at donning such a costume, however, can make appear awkward or even off-putting. If one is very bad at making first impressions, he may even come off as insulting, especially to people who pick up on insights like Tarantino’s.
If you want to be perceived as the person in the room to meet, the trick is not to be the best chameleon. The trick is to set the tone for the group, to be the person to whom others conform. In short, be a leader in what you say, in how you dress, in how you act, and in how you feel about yourself. Superman is most comfortable being Superman. If you are Superman, don’t be Clark Kent. If you’re Bruce Wayne, be Bruce Wayne. Just remember, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” When you lead, expect others to respond, and make sure you’re setting a positive example. That’s the difference between a hero and a villain.
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