I wanted to like Rocky. I really tried to get into the film, and to feel inspired as he punched meat and jogged around in gray sweats to instantly recognizable theme music. I understand the underdog story, and its appeal (especially in the context of the film’s release coinciding with the country’s bicentennial), but, in the end, Rocky was just… okay.
I went into the movie thinking that I was already at a disadvantage being a yinzer. A yinzer is a stereotypical Pittsburgh native, and I believe that a lot of Rocky’s appeal comes from the classic shots of Philadelphia, and the embodiment of the struggle of “ethnic white” and lower-middle class Philadelphians. I assumed that, by my resident alien status in this city, this was something I was just not going to be able to understand. (Like, for example, the term water ice. If it’s ice, then obviously it is water… )
But after watching the movie and reading the Leab article, especially the sections about the struggle of the ethnic white class, I was struck by the similarities between the quintessential Philadelphian and the yinzer. A yinzer may be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced their, shall we say, charm. I highly recommend watching a few Pittsburgh Dad videos on YouTube to fully immerse yourself in yinzer culture, but, generally speaking, a yinzer is a blue collar worker who speaks with a heavy Pittsburghese accent, bleeds black and gold, loves Donnie Iris (pronounced Dawny Arrris) and puts french fries on everything (see attached image of a “salad” featuring fried buffalo chicken tenders and fries, YUM!, my kind of salad!!). Yinzer takes on an almost pejorative meaning, portraying the idea that these Pittsburgh people lack sophistication, that the off-brand pop they drink and their rundown row homes in the Pittsburgh hills are indicators of their lesser social status. But the rundown row homes are not exclusive to Pittsburgh. In fact, Leab discusses the similarities between many ethnic neighborhoods – “tiny front yard”, “neat but worn furniture”, chintz lamps.
The similarities between a Yinzer and a Philadelphian like Rocky are striking, at least in terms of their lifestyles and economic struggles. No, the comparison doesn’t hold up when the Pens play the Flyers or the Wawas turn into Sheetz on the Turnpike but what’s important are the shared beliefs in making an honest living. The working class spirit is essential to both the yinzer and to Rocky. Both of the groups feel a connection to the American Dream, and both groups were influenced by the bicentennial and the subsequent revival of entrepreneurial spirit and patriotism.
A yinzer is certainly an icon. It has a graphic component (wave a Terrible Towel in the air, drink an Iron City Beer, and put a folding chair with a Pirates “P” emblazoned on it on the side of the road to reserve your tailgate parking spot), which is key to any icon. As Kemp defines an icon, “it has widespread recognizability” and it can move across space and time. A yinzer seems permanently stuck in 1994, clad in a black and gold Starter windbreaker, but that image resonates just as strongly now as it did then. And, in this blog, I have tried to make the argument that a yinzer can also travel through space into Philadelphia. Because what makes a yinzer truly iconic is not a sports team alliances but a spirit that never waivers, even under economic hardship. And this spirit is shared by Rocky, Rocky fans, and the people who live in the City of Brotherly Love.
Imagining Rocky as a yinzer rather than an Italian south Philadelphian, and I start to see more of his appeal. An underdog story always resonates with audiences, but an underdog from your hometown who embodies your very personal story is incredibly empowering. And this speaks to the versatility of Rocky, as well as the versatility of the yinzer.