Whether it was intentional can be debated, but the makers of the movie “The Truman Show” made an effective argument against structural-functionalism as a theory of social development. On the show within a movie, Truman was the lead character in a television show that revolved around his life. He was placed into the show and the surrounding stage/town at birth, and all the decision regarding other actors’ reactions to him were scripted based on his actions. Truman, of course, believed that this was real life.
In the movie, product placement within the town was based on the shows advertisers and every need that Truman had was met in some way by the show’s producers. The problems that are the core plot of the movie develop when it becomes clear that the need the producers cannot meet is his need for self and for happiness. This shows us the core failings of the structural-functionalism theory of social development. In the structural-functionalism theory of social development, a person’s physical and social development are reliant on the social institutions in their lives.
The theory asserts that society meets the biological and social needs of the individual through institution. Thus, Truman’s need for warmth, love, and protection could be met through his family. His need for faith and a spirit of community could be met through his church and even his need for self-fulfillment could be met through his work. The major failing of the theory is that it does not address the needs of the spirit or the soul or possibly the intellect.
Each of these hard to define portions of what makes a human being a person and vice versa were ignored in “The Truman Show”.
Though Truman occasionally had conflicts when warranted by the ratings war, he never was forced to resolve conflicts in a manner that leads to personal development. The solution was either given to him or taken out of his hands, leading to a deep-seated unhappiness that Truman can neither explain nor define. Truman has been taught that his life is meant to be ordinary, that he is successful, in a fashion, as an insurance clerk and married to a beautiful woman. He has had the best friend since he was seven years old. It appears that producers have met all of Truman’s needs.
But much like the theory of structural-functionalism does not take into account personal desires, Truman’s world begins to crumble and he begins to suspect something is up when he meets Lauren on the street and falls in love with her. The character Lauren is quickly written out when her family moved to Fiji and Truman develops a desire to go to Fiji to find her. The show and the theory met his needs for companionship and for a sexual relationship with his “wife” Meryl, but never accounted for the something else that is the spark of love.
The theory in essence dismisses human emotion as an impact on social development and relies on the most physical state of social needs, not the emotion that accompanies them. The “producer” of the television show within the movie did the same thing. He made certain that Truman’s physical needs were met, but never considered the need for other forms of stimuli. Another prime example of this is the manner in which they deter Truman’s efforts to explore.
Though it seems like a basic human need to understand and possibly control their environment, the producers induced such fear in Truman that he could not even explore the island that was his set. When he attempted to do so, producers used a viscious dog to scare him back into the controlled environment. They also had his “father” drowned in an early season to ensure that Truman would develop an unreasonable fear of water and thus be confined to the imaginary “Seahaven”. In fact, producers were so interested in controlling Truman’s environment that they had an environmentally controlled dome, regulating temperatures and the weather.
In his mythical home of “Seahaven”, Truman never had to worry about anything, even the weather. This utter lack of conflict in his life lead to a very status quo existence, another of the key criticisms of structural-functionalism. The person is never challenged, never able to or even desiring to, improve themselves or their situation. Perhaps the most telling failure of the Truman television show and of structural functionalism is the failure to understand the desires of the heart. Truman wants to explore his world and eventually, even fear cannot hold him back any longer.
In addition, after meeting Lauren, his desire to see her again upsets his world view and helps him to overcome his fears. Ultimately, the structural-functionalism employed by the show failed to me his transcendent needs. If we were discussing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we would be talking about the need for self-fulfillment. Up until that state, it is beleiveable that the world around us could provide for our basic needs and development. However, ultimately that need for self-fulfillment is internal and cannot be controlled or aided by outside forces.
By meeting all of Truman’s basic needs, food, shelter, sex, etc. they allowed him to develop to the point where he could consider self-fulfillment and nothing in structural-functionalism or in the Truman show allowed for that. In essence, the lack of conflict in his early life, which was dominated by structural-functionalism lead to the need for conflict; the need to be challenged, to compete and to win and to fail. In the end, “The Truman show” demonstrates very vividly that a single sociological theory cannot be used to describe a development process completely, but may be used to explain some stages of that development.