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Whilst movies in most cases are taken in as entertainment tools, they are also educative. Moreover, apart from the dramatic aspects of movies, they integrate other aspects touching on different fields of study like psychology, sociology, and political science among other.
The movie Easy Rider is one such movie. Easy Rider has more than two bikers traveling from Southwest to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in search of freedom. In addition to its thrilling nature, it touches on some deep aspects of sociology viz. structural functionalism, conflict interactionism, and symbolic interactionism. However, this paper focuses on the structural functionalism aspect of this movie.
According to Parsons (1961), “structural functionalism implies that social institutions; collectively forming a social structure, function to maintain the harmony of the social whole” (18).
In society, there are constituents that work in concert with each other to achieve the nature of society, as it exists. Among these constituents are institutions, customs, traditions, and norms among others. These constituents are cohesive and none can exist in absence of the other. In Easy Rider, structural functionalism comes out clearly, as Wyatt and Bill take their ride to ‘freedom.’
To understand the application of structural functionalism in this movie, it is important to note some of its themes for they give meaning to the movie hence validating the actions that bring about structural functionalism. During the time when this movie was being written, America was grappling with the reality of corruption, violence, bigotry, paranoia, and conformism to some extent. Everyone was crying for freedom; no wonder, Bill and Wyatt set to find this elusive element of humanity.
Structural Functionalism in Easy Rider
In society, drug abuse and drug trafficking is a biting issue; however, the greatest question remains, how do these drugs come from producers to consumers? The most appropriate answer to this question is structural functionalism.
In society, there are structures that facilitate this process and this fact stands out clearly in Easy Rider. Wyatt and Billy smuggles cocaine from Mexico and takes it to Los Angeles. This scene answers the ‘how’ question in the mystery of drug trafficking. Wyatt and Bill form a critical ‘constituent’ in American society in terms of drug trafficking.
Well, as noted in the definition of structural functionalism, there has to be intermediaries and consumers of these drugs for the existence of a society stained with drug abuse and drug trafficking. Remember, without these intermediaries, these drugs would not reach the consumers; therefore, there would not be existence of drug abuse in the society. There may be drug trafficking but no drug abuse and this would nullify the validity of structural functionalism.
The intermediary in this business is a man (acted by Phil Spector). This man buys the trafficked cocaine from Wyatt and Bill and supplies it in the streets of Los Angeles. The structural functionality element is now complete at this point. The constituents here are drug traffickers (Wyatt and Bill), intermediary (Phil Spector), and consumers (residents of Los Angeles).
The result here is a society that is maculated with illegal drugs. The ‘harmony’ of society talked of in the definition of structural functionality is achieved and maintained. There are structures facilitating this process.
Different institutions are involved. First, the failure of authorities to guard borders plays a key role in this functionalism. As an institution, authorities facilitate drug trafficking from Mexico to Los Angeles. To complete the structural functionality presented by failure of this institution, Wyatt and Bill utilize that opportunity to traffic in cocaine.
On the other side, in Los Angeles, drug laws are lax and this gives Phil Spector easy time in peddling the cocaine. Once more, the authority as an institution, acts as a constituent in society that fosters structural functionality. Drug abusers on the other hand complete the harmony in this social structure of drug trafficking and abuse. As aforementioned, the societal constituents may be institutions, customs, traditions, and norms among others.
Despite the fact that drug laws are lax in Los Angeles, the culture of drug abuse is deeply rooted amongst residents of this place. In these constituents, there is no mention of human beings (people); however, people are the building blocks of all these constituents. For instance, from people there comes culture, customs, norms, and even institutions.
After Wyatt and Billy are arrested for “parading without a permit” (Fonda & Hopper), they find a lawyer in jail who helps them to get out. In society, jails would be of no use if there were no crimes. Likewise, lawyers would be irrelevant if there were no criminals to be defended in court. In society, the culture of hate and selfishness is prevalent.
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Nevertheless, there has to be victims and villains of the same. As Wyatt, Bill and George have their early lunch in Louisiana, local men and police officers start mocking them with racist abuses. One of them is heard saying, “I don’t believe they’ll make the parish line” (Fonda & Hopper). This scene complements the theory of structural functionalism.
There has to be perpetrators of a given norm to give society its nature and function. American society as presented in this movie is racist, untrustworthy without freedom. George observes that, “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it…Americans talk a lot about the value of freedom, but are actually afraid of anyone who truly exhibits it” (Fonda & Hopper).
In other words, George is describing the status of affairs in America at this time. However, where does this form of society come from? One would ask. This form of society, void of freedom and pregnant with hate sprouts from the societal constituent of hate culture. The perpetrators of this hate culture are components of structural functionalism.
Finally, one would wonder how prostitution thrives in society. Again, structural functionality answers this question. Logically, prostitution could not thrive without ‘consumers’ and ‘suppliers.’ After reaching New Orleans, Wyatt, and Bill finds their way into a brothel and secures services of two prostitutes, Karen and Mary.
There are different institutions that are constituents of structural functionalism in this case. First, Wyatt and Bill are willing buyers while Karen and Mary are wiling sellers. This culminates into a business deal. Moreover, authorities have allowed the presence of this business while building industry has availed good structures for brothels. All these factors function in concert to give the result of a society marked with prostitution.
The movie, Easy Rider presents more than entertainment. It is educative and looked from a sociological perspective; one cannot fail to see the structural functionalism side of the movie. In society, there are structures that work in concert to maintain the harmony of society. Easy Rider gives such structures and shows their application.
For drug abuse to exist in society, there has to be producers, suppliers, and consumers. Wyatt and Bill are the ‘producers’ by virtue of bringing cocaine to Los Angeles, Phil Spector is the supplier while willing Los Angeles residents are consumers. In society, there are structures that function in concert to ensure harmony and existence of a given society and this defines structural functionality.
Fonda, P., & Hopper, D. (1969). Easy Rider. Columbia Pictures Corporation; New York.
Parsons, T. (1961). Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. Free Press, New York.