Author: Hilary Lowe

Washington Monument by Lena-Marie Lannutti

The Washington Monument is an iconic symbol of the resonance of the Founding Fathers in our modern era. Like the Liberty Bell, it has a federal distinction (besides the fact that it is located in the nation’s capital). It also has a unique history, and has developed its share of stories over time. The monument also has some flaws, that are not as obvious as a crack in the center of the Liberty Bell.

The National Parks Service remarks that the Monument, “…serving as an awe-inspiring reminder of George Washington’s greatness. The monument, like the man, stands in no one’s shadow.” [1] Originally the Monument was meant to be grandeur than it is now. Construction for the Monument began in 1848, funding for the Monument mainly originated from charitable donations, as this project was not federally funded.[2] The architect was Robert Mills, who’s originally plan was, “…called for a 600-foot Egyptian-style obelisk ringed by thirty 100-foot columns.”[3] Due to among other things, a lack of funding, only the obelisk remains as part of Mill’s vision. So, the Washington monument is the only American icon that remains unfinished. Like the Liberty Bell’s crack, it has a unique feature (or lack of one in this case) that sets it apart from everyday objects.

Figure 1: Original Design for the Monument [4]

Public reaction to the Washington Monument was mixed during its construction, especially in the 1850s, when the Know Nothing Party took over the board for the Monument’s construction [5] This was a nativist group, who were Anti-Catholic to the point where they destroyed Pope Pius IX commemorative stone the Vatican sent for the Monument [6] Construction was halted in the 1860s, as the Civil War became the biggest issue in the Capitol. The Monument was halfway finished at this time, and Mark Twain noted, “It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off,” [7] Also during the Civil War the land around the monument itself, “…were used as a cattle pen for the Union Army. There was also a slaughterhouse behind the monument.”[8] Only after the nation itself had healed could construction on the Monument resume, this phase was federally funded as signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876[9]

The Washington Monument like the Liberty Bell has connections to the early foundations of American democracy. The Monument especially is a visual connection to the Father of our country. Jill Ogline Titus remarks that Americans connection with the Liberty Bell, “…but as a bridge to an imagined historical moment in which public officials were idealistic, politicians virtuous, and citizens optimistic about the future”[10] The same could be said for the Washington Monument itself, as a symbol of the mythologized aspect of our collective memory of George Washington. The Liberty Bell has had to grapple with the complex nature of George Washington, as both the American Cincinnatus and a perpetuator of slavery in America Waldstreicher contends that opposition for slavery was attached to “But it did so only after giving Americans the cultural tools of denial…to resist an attack on the institution”[11]. This can explain the disconnect between the representation of Washington in the monument and the reality of his personal contradictions to liberty. Even with this complex legacy the Washington Monument still remains an American icon, and a national landmark.

Figure 1: The Washington Monument[12]

This Land Was Your Land, But Now It’s My Land: The Grand Canyon as an Icon by Emily Grimaldi

This Land Was Your Land, But Now It’s My Land: The Grand Canyon as an Icon

The Liberty Bell, as discussed by Gary Nash, represents freedom, independence, and the founding of a country. However, Nash also exposes the dark past of the Liberty Bell, as it was believed to be a representation of freedom, but not for the slaves living in America. The bell was said to ring for liberty, but millions of Americans were still oppressed.

Though its crack is significantly larger, the Grand Canyon National Park shares both the good and bad histories of the Liberty Bell. The Grand Canyon represents wonder, freedom, and the adventurous spirit of the United States. Often called “The Great Unknown”, the Grand Canyon was a literal blank spot on the map until Joseph Christmas Ives sailed up the Colorado River in search of a trade route to the West. The mapping and “discovery” of the canyon is an example of the adventurous spirit of Americans and the beauty of exploration.

Prior to this discovery and exploration of the canyon, the U.S. government began to acquire western lands through public domain. Along the way, Congress and various presidents created treaties with American Indians that resulted in small reservations and in some cases, relocation. Several decades later, following Ives’ exploration, most Navajos were removed from their reservation near the Grand Canyon, and relocated to a smaller area in New Mexico. War was waged between various native groups and the U.S. military for several years, but eventually the U.S. won and was able to acquire the reservations surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, thus officially making the native lands  federal property. Not until 1975 with the passage of the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act were some natives able to gain back a tiny piece of their ancestral land.

This story of the founding of the Grand Canyon National Park through the removal of Native Americans is comparable to the history of the Liberty Bell and slavery. The Grand Canyon and Liberty Bell represent wonder, freedom, and liberty, but not for everyone in America. Native Americans are unable to enjoy the meaning of the Grand Canyon because to them it meant losing their lands and being oppressed. Slaves were not represented by the Liberty Bell because it existed in a time where they were not free to enjoy what it represents.


With all this information in mind, some may still find it difficult to liken these American icons to such dark beginnings. It is important not to overshadow these origins with what these icons mean to America today. We must acknowledge the complicated histories of the Liberty Bell and the Grand Canyon in order to better understand how they serve American society today.




Nash, Gary B. The Liberty Bell. Yale University Press, 2010.

Mount Rushmore by Alyssa Deguzman

Just as the Liberty Bell is important to American history, Mount Rushmore does not fall too far back behind. From the year 1927 to 1941, it would take 14 years to create such a memorial so colossal and so vast.¹ On these large mountains were carved faces of four U.S. presidents who helped develop this country into what it is today. These people represented America’s history, and were the men of their eras during presidency. Meaning, that they contributed so much to this history that it is almost impossible not to know what they stand for. Mount Rushmore displays the four founding father of the country: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. These faces are recognizable to the public and tell the story of the birth, growth, development, and preservation of this country.³

Both the Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore share the fact that they both represent freedom. In Gary Nash’s Liberty Bell, he states that, “Perhaps only the face of George Washington could rival the Liberty Bell as a design motif, and in both cases freedom-America’s gift to the world-was the point to be made.” During the time of these presidents, they became icons to the country due to their desire to create a land full of equality, democracy, and freedom.Mount Rushmore continues to grow as a, “symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds.”³ The Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore are the same because even though they are just a mountain and a bell, they express the hardships America has gone through in order to make it a great country.

Mount Rushmore holds a sense of uniqueness because unlike the Liberty Bell, it was forged purely from nature on the mountains in the Black Hills. Its creation symbolizes the dedication of the four hundred people who worked on the memorial had for their country, and how they used their pride to create something so great. Building the memorial was dangerous as well, as ninety percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite.¹ This shows, that despite the dangers of building this memorial, it was still sought through in order to show America, and the world, that these four men uphold our values. It serves to unite us as a country and remind us that since we are all American, we have the same “founding fathers.” Meaning, we all have a basic idea of American ideals and what these men would have wanted for us, and the country.

¹Charles D’Emery, “Carving History” last modified September 2, 2017.

²Gary B. Nash, The Liberty Bell (Yale University Press, 2010), 34.

³Gutzon Borglum. “History and Culture” last modified April 19, 2017.

Douglass as Self-Made Man by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

In the speech Self-Made Men,Frederick Douglass gives his definition of a self-made man. Douglass rejects the idea of a self-made man by claiming that “properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”[1] He believes that “no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.”[2] Despite the fact that Douglass himself does not believe in the term of “self-made man,” the personal history of Douglass indeed illustrates what means to be a self-made man. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, Douglass is a self-made man who demonstrates his life as a journey in which he creates his own character out of nothingness. (Figure 1. Frederick Douglass (Photo from ))

Born into slavery and without the care of parents, Douglass is the only person who determines his own identity. In the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, James Matlack points out that “most autobiographies open with a birth date and a description of the author’s parentage. Douglass can supply neither.”[3] As Douglass mentionin his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass begins his story from slavery and never knew who his father was.[4] Douglass saw his mother only a few times in the middle of the night. When he was seven, his mother died, and he describes it as making him feel like it was the death of a stranger.[5]Douglass’s childhood and background make his identity and future as a piece of unknown blank paper. Douglass, “must forge his own character and sense of himself.”[6] He is the only person who is able to change his own fate.

Like Franklin, who was an indentured slave to his brother and suffered “harsh and tyrannical treatment”[7] working in his brother’s printing press that is described by David Waldstreicher in Runaway America, Douglass was beaten by his master Mr. Covey, who gave him “a very severe whipping,” which cut his back causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on his flesh.[8] Although they were living under oppression, Franklin and Douglass both highly valued education. They used all kinds of methods to create opportunities for self-improvement. In The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth, John Swansburg highlights that Franklin saved his money and invested them in books to “feed his hungry mind.”[9] In similar ways, Douglass demonstrates there is no limitation that can prevent him from obtaining knowledge.

When Douglass was eight years old in Baltimore, he began to learn his A B C’s (alphabet) from Mrs. Auld. [10] However, this opportunity was prohibited by her husband, who claimed that “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”[11] Even though Douglass was denied obtaining an education, he did not allow the condition to limit himself. Over the next seven years, Douglass used any possible resources that he was able to find to educate himself. “He stole bread and traded it for bits of knowledge from white street urchins. He picked up letters of the alphabet from marks on timbers in the shipyard. He practiced his handwriting between the lines of young Thomas Auld’s discarded copy books.”[12]Douglass’s determination and hard work made it possible for him, a person born into slavery, to learn how to read and write. Later in Douglass’s life, his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave became a bestseller. He also founded the North Star, which became “one of the leading abolitionist newspapers of its time.”[13]Through self-education, not only did Douglass learn how to read and write, he also became an influential writer, which illustrates what it means to be a self-made man. (Figure 2. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Photo from

Knowledge is wealth, Douglass is a self-made man who created paths for himself to successfully become a “wealthy man.” Similar to Franklin, a son of a candle maker who later became a world-famous scientist, “an influential patriot and diplomat, and, not least, a wealthy man of business,”[14] Douglass changed his fate from a slave to a powerful abolitionist, an excellent orator, a bestselling author, and a famous newspaper publisher. Both Franklin and Douglass created opportunities for themselves beyond their limitations, which truly makes them self-made men and iconic figures in the United States.

[1] Frederick Douglass, “‘Self-Made Men.’ Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, PA,” Frederick Douglass Heritage The Official Website. Speech, 1872. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Self-Made Men).

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” Phylon (1960- ) 40, no. 1 (1979): 21.

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Electronic Edition.” 1818-1895. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[7] David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, slavery, and the American Revolution ( New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 3-4.

[8] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[9] John Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.” September 29, 2014, 6.

[10] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[11] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[12] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 22.

[13] “The North Star.” The North Star (Educational Materials: African American Odyssey). December 9, 1998. (Accessed February 01, 2018).

[14] Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man,” 7.

Lil Chano From 79th by Connor O’Rourke

Chancelor Bennett was not always the inspirational rapper that he is today. Now known as Chance the Rapper, Bennett grew up in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago, deep in the south side, famous for its gang activity and gun violence. Chance is very vocal about his childhood growing up, and the negative effects that his location had on him as a youth. Battling through drug addiction and the death of his best friend, Chance was able to defy the odds and make it big in the music industry. Chance began his music career rapping about drugs and violence, however, after dropping his third album, Coloring Book, Chance has blown up the rap game, proving that spirituality, family, and social justice have a place in the industry.

Although I feel that Chance can be viewed as a self-made man, he credits his success almost entirely to his grandmother. In his hit song, Sunday Candy, Chance explains the relationship with his grandmother. Powerful lines including “I like my hugs with a scent, you smell like lights, gas, water, electricity, rent” clearly show how Chance leaned on his grandmother at times. Chance has explained that he feels he would have been another victim of gang violence if his grandma had not worked so hard to keep him off the streets.

I feel that the reason that Chance’s story resonates so well with me and with so many other fans of his, is the actions he is taking currently to help people who are in similar situations. In my opinion, Chance does more for Chicago than any other celebrity does for anything when it comes to charity and giving back. He donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools (more than half his net worth at the time), and his generosity encouraged other Chicago born celebrities to donate as well. He is constantly hosting open mic nights at libraries around Chicago to encourage young kids to get off the streets and explore their passions for music in a safe environment. He has even, on multiple occasions, bought out an entire movie theater so that youth who couldn’t afford to go to the movies could come and watch for free. I could go on all day speaking of the great things he has done for the city that raised him, and for that reason Chance has been a huge inspiration to me. Chance is a self-made man, who is doing everything in his power to build up those coming from the same streets as him.

Self-Made Man by Vincent Limon

Image result for abe lincoln

Ever since we started talking about the topic of “The Self-Made Man” in class, one name has continued to occupy my mind.  This person fits the description and embodies what it means to be self-made in the American culture; someone who goes on to obtain great success through sheer determination, willpower, and hard work when everything else seems to be against them.  Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States and the man who was able to successfully lead the Union to victory during the Civil War, is the closest thing to being self-made that anyone could find.  It is important to note that Lincoln is simply the “closest” person to fitting the mold of what the self-made man is.  One important concept that was covered in class is the idea that no person is entirely self-made.  This is because people are often dependent on other people for their success.  As Oprah Winfrey once stated, “Surround yourself with those who only lift you higher.”  What Winfrey is saying in this quote is that if someone wants to be the best that they can be at something, they are going to have to surround themselves with other people who have the skills to elevate that person to be the best.  This sort of practice is often seen in the most successful companies and has yielded positive results for almost anyone who has tried it. (photo via

With this in mind, when analyzing Lincoln, it becomes very clear that while at points he was dependent on individuals for his success, most of his accomplishments came without the help of others.  From an early age in rural Kentucky, Lincoln was able to almost entirely self-educate himself–he did receive about eighteen months of formal education as a youth–by reading anything he could find (depicted in photo below via

Image result for young abraham lincoln cabin

He was able to teach himself Law and practice successfully before being elected to the Illinois State Legislature and the United States House of Representatives.  While he lost in the famous 1858 Illinois Senate Election to Stephen Douglass, he did not let defeat deter him from his goal of making America a better place without the heinous practice of slavery–this idea of perseverance and the underdog is also popular in American culture.  (depicted in photo below, via,

Image result for lincoln douglas debate

Using his great performances in the Lincoln-Douglass Debates he persevered and won the Presidency in 1860.  As President, he was able to accomplish some things that politicians today could only dream of; leading America through its darkest times, abolishing slavery, and signing legislation like the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant act are just some of these impressive accomplishments.  Almost all these accomplishments show his limited dependency on others and reinforce the fact that he is mostly a self-made man; while he did have a cabinet of advisors and Congress to help him with all these situations/ideas, he was the one at the forefront of all of these and the one who was primarily responsible for their success.

Icons like Abraham Lincoln are the ones that Americans and people from all around the world should be looking up to and striving to be like.  Of course, Lincoln was not without his flaws, and these flaws are often overlooked/forgotten about due to the pedestal that al icons are put on where myths seem to take over reality, but overall, he is a great role model and the closest thing to being a “Self-Made Man” that there is.

Rise & Grind by Celeste Joyce

“I used to be a slave.” During a speech at a campaign event, the newly-Republican Abraham Lincoln told the crowd that he had been a slave. This statement was partially true: until he was 21 years old, Lincoln’s father had rented out his son’s labor and kept all the profit. It is also completely false. Lincoln was still free to go. He may have worked hard, and toiled under unfair conditions, but he was still able to become a lawyer, a state representative, and eventually president of the United States- things a slave could never have done.

Lincoln’c story of hard work, perseverance, and grit is compelling. It also writes out any mention of luck, chance, or privilege. The myth of the “self-made man” necessarily requires some doctoring of one’s own story. The most important component, the one that is always left in, is the hard work. Whether to convince others of the validity of the self-made man’s success, or to convince oneself, hard work is the common thread of every self-made story. Lincoln purposefully left out the fact that he had married into elite society in his “I used to be a slave” speech. He didn’t mention that his father was financially stable, or that he was allowed to pursue education as a child instead of being forced to work more. Even his height gave him a decided political advantage. Instead, history has created a narrative of a tireless hard worker, whose success had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with strength of will.

In older, more traditional versions of the self-made man fable, this hard work often took the form of manual labor. A self-made man was always that- a real man. His legacy was quite literally founded in the sweat off his back. Many of the self-made men of John Swansburg’s article fall into this category. Ben Franklin made sure people saw him pushing his wheelbarrow around and waking up early. Lincoln’s strength of character was forged while splitting rails as a child. The author’s own father got started pouring tar on rooves. He could feel a good real estate prospect “in his balls.”

Even more contemporary success stories, which don’t rely on balls or backbreaking manual labor still focus on the necessity of hard work. Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal reminds her aspiring readers to work hard: “If you’re a #GIRLBOSS, you should want to work harder than everybody else.” She goes on to discuss the various menial tasks and dead-end jobs which taught her to “tolerate shit [she didn’t] like…” and reminded the #GIRLBOSSes of the world that on their way up, they might have to do some unsavory jobs because “this is not an ideal world and it’s never going to be.”

The rhetoric of every self-made man is blind to the fact that the world is unfair, unideal. What Amoruso cites as “shitty learning experience” jobs might be the only job someone will ever get. Through no fault of their own, it will not lead to multi-million dollar profits. Scrubbing the floor, no matter how well you do it or how diligently you apply yourself, does not guarantee a $50 million investment. For some people, “stepping-stone” jobs are the only one’s they’ll ever have. And although she states it in her own writing, Amoruso does not seem to acknowledge that the world is not ideal.

America has an obsession with hard work. There is a pervasive American ideal that working is like freedom- it keeps you honest and wholesome. There is also the indelible, inescapable American promise: that you are always free to work (wherever you want, in whatever profession). There is no promise of freedom from work. After all, if you want to make it, you have to put in the sweat equity. No one promises this more than the people who have made it.

As Swansburg’s article illustrates, the self-made men and women of the world love to tout the value of hard work. This maxim is in their autobiographies, their speeches, and their self-help books. After all, hard work is the only guarantee in America. You will have to work hard. No one can guarantee luck, chance, or privilege. It’s far prettier to insist that hard work creates opportunities, than to suggest that opportunities might be as random as chance.

Blumenthal, Sidney. Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Oprah Winfrey: A Self-Made Woman by Andrea Morales

Oprah Winfrey was born Orpah Gail Winfrey to a single mother in Kosciusko, Mississippi. During her childhood in the deep south, she faced dire living conditions in extreme poverty. After being left with her grandmother by her mother, Oprah often wore potato sacks as clothes due to their unfortunate economic situation. This did not deter Oprah, for she learned how to read before the age of three and would often recite bible verses in their entirety in church. Despite her impoverished upbringing, Oprah turned out to be the world’s first female African-American billionaire and a critically acclaimed talk show host, actress, producer, and director. Oprah encompasses the “American dream” in the way that she came from abject poverty but by sheer will and determination, accompanied by grueling hard work, she became one of the world’s leading women.

Being born into a disadvantaged position certainly provided Oprah a set of austere challenges from the beginning. Her first challenge was being an African-American woman in the rural south during the Jim Crow era. She later moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her single mother who worked as a maid. Her mother proved to be a physically abusive presence in her life and less supportive than her grandmother whom she had previously lived with. While living with her mother, she was transferred to a high school in the suburbs because of her academic success. She was later sent to Tennessee to complete her education. Oprah acquired a scholarship which allowed her to attend Tennessee State University. However, I believe it is important to note that not many African-American children were allowed this opportunity at the time. Most were enrolled in schools where the education was lacking due to government funding or they had to drop out to support their families. So I think in this sense, Oprah was privileged in the way that she was granted a scholarship to continue her post-secondary studies and study communication. It is possible that if she had not been able to study in the affluent suburbs for the period of time that she did, she would not have been able to attain the scholarship which allowed her to earn her degree. A recurring theme from the reading by Swansburg is the discussion of the prevailing myth that everyone, despite their background, can become a self-made person. Yet, everyone in that article was white and most of them were male. There is the factor that minorities in America lack resources and opportunities those mentioned to be self-made may have been offered. That is why I think that Oprah is not only a self-made woman, but an icon. She prevailed over the limitations which were built off of hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination and became one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential women.

Rocky: Not My Hero Posted by Maxine Elizabeth Whitney

“When they’re cheering for Rocky, they’re cheering for themselves” – Sylvester Stallone

Many movie buffs and locals to the city of Philadelphia would argue that Rocky is one of the most influential and inspiring fictional icons in the history of American media. He is an average, middle class white American who is given an impossible task. He takes it on without fear to show that he is not just an average joe because of where he comes from. He is a symbol for masculinity, self-respect, and and drive that all people in his place can look up to. In his piece Reaffirming Tradition Values, Daniel J Leab explains that the reason Rocky got as much praise and appreciation as it did is because it mimicked the mood and the important aspects of 1970’s America. As written by Leab, “the film touched “a live nerve with the public,” as Frank Rich put it. American audiences, influenced by the bicentennial’s strong emphasis on the validity of the American Dream, had lost interest in downbeat themes, in bleak reality, in attacks on old-fashioned values- all subjects which as films of one sort or another had recently done well at the box office” (Leab, 269). Rocky showed middle class America that they can put up a fight against bigger powers and make a name for themselves no matter their background. This is what 1970’s America needed, to see that there is hope for those in a similar position, who until then felt hopeless.

However, does Rocky really deserve the icon status he has gained? I understand that I was not alive during that time and I may not understand the struggle or feel the connection that so many American’s had to him. However, its my outside, modern perspective that will allow me to make the unbiased critiques. First of all, its frustrating to me that the embodiment of the 1970’s American dream has to be a fighter. I understand its symbolic, I understand that if you get knocked down you have to get back up, but I would never idolize someone who could make 150,000 dollars for knocking someone out. I don’t think for a second that that is a realistic standard for the American dream. He did not even really do much to earn the opportunity to win that money. Someone found him and picked a fight with him. That’s not working to achieve a goal, that’s being handed an opportunity and working not to waste it. Not all Americans are going to be put in that situation.

However, I do see that his story is one that was heavily connected to what people were feeling at the time, and that’s something I will probably never be able to fully understand. However, I think my main frustration and the cause for my ranting is that I think a majority of the people who idolize him in present times may not be critically analyzing the film. In fact, I was one of those people before I actually watched it. In addition to my realization about his false American dream image, the racist and sexist under-themes are frustrating and make it hard for me to see him the same way. I think this is why he has maintained his iconic status even beyond the time period where he was most relevant. People don’t watch the film with the intention to critique, hence he stays relevant because he is a tough guy who beats his odds. Since this kind of character is much more popular in modern times, I am rejecting it. I say no more to the strong, violent male character who does more than he thinks he can. Where my girls at?

Works Cited

Leab, Daniel J. “Reaffirming Traditional Values The Blue Collar Ethnic in Bicentennial America: Rocky.” Hollywood’s America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film. Ed. Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts. N.p.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 264-71. Print.

The first picture :

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Rocky, Symbol of a City by William Kowalik

WK1Rocky is much more than an iconic film in American culture. Rocky is representative and encyclopedic of a particular time and place. Rocky, the character and Rocky the movie are inextricably linked to the City of Philadelphia. I think few films have such a deep connection to a specific place, as does Rocky.

Philadelphia is much more than the setting of the Rocky (and Creed) franchise; it is an integral part of the movies that blurs plot and setting. In the case of Rocky, they’ve very much one and the same.

Philadelphia is Rocky. Rocky is Philadelphia.

wk2Not to mention Philadelphia’s long and storied legacy of boxing plays into the story. Much as the architecture of Frank Furness spoke to the industrial city of Philadelphia, melding the industrial with the beautiful. Rocky speaks to post-industrial Philadelphia. Rocky, like the city itself is down own his luck, but still trying to make something of himself, up against, and in the shadow of those better than him. Rocky puts up a good fight against Apollo Creed, but still ultimately loses. Philadelphia a once great city has long lagged behind its main competition New York in many ways for over two hundred years, but has slowly found its niche. “Stallone hit at the core of the matter in his comments on audience response to the film: ‘when they’re cheering for Rocky, they’re cheering for themselves’” (Leab 271).

In his chapter on “The Blue Collar Ethnic in Bicentennial America”, historian Daniel Leab uses Rocky as his example.  Leab’s picture of life in the 1970’s–particularly urban life in the 1970s, as a gloomy era when everything looked to be hopeless is part of the “Rocky narrative”, however, peaking through this darkness is some form of the American dream, some will to triumph and overcome. This same attitude is one that Philadelphia experienced during this time, coming to a very dark place at the time of Rocky, and then slowly rising up from that depression. In just the last census, conducted in 2010, Philadelphia five-decade population decline began to reverse. “Rocky’s life is bleak. He seems to have no future” (Leab 265).  Despite the darkness in the film, critics and viewers see Rocky as “optimistic, idealistic, and sentimental” (Leab 269).

The character of Rocky Balboa is flawed and multidimensional, despite that the fact that he might not seem so at first look. Issues related particular to race, racism, and sexism, which in itself is an entire topic to delve into, but would be inappropriate not to mention. Especially given Rocky’s clear and specific depiction as an Ethnic White, the film’s relationship to Philadelphia, where race has long been a heated and difficult topic.

WK3There’s a certain self deprecation and criticism from the community. Several individuals throughout the film call Rocky a bum. He ardently denies this claim. A marketing push for Philadelphia on billboards in the 1970s, which certainly didn’t speak well for the city, touted: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is”.

Rocky is a symbol of the city, this city, Philadelphia. But he is a symbol of this city at a very defined moment in its history. The once great industrial city, fallen and down. While Philadelphia has come back strong in many areas—a leader in healthcare, education, and culture, with a thriving tourism industry—where in fact tourists marvel in the sights of our nation’s founding, and make the trip up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to, run, climb or walk the seventy-few steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Visit Philadelphia proudly declares that in 2011, the steps were named the second most famous filming location in the world, second only to Grand Central Terminal in New York. At the same time, few tourists will venture away from Center City to experience the rest of Philadelphia; where over a quarter of city lives in poverty. The gritty image of the city, has sold well, and continues to do so. Five months after Rocky was released, they had earned over $50 million. And on top of that, Rocky still earns money (Leab 268). Even though much of the city has changed from the time of Rocky in 1976. Many Philadelphians still have a bleak future, and still live like Rocky. This further emphasizes that Rocky is not exclusively a snapshot of one place and one time, but part of the narrative of city; it’s not the story (or just the story) of a boxer, of a man; it is the city.


Leab, Daniel. “Reaffirming Traditional Values: The Blue Collar Worker in Bicentennial America: Rocky.” Hollywood’s America: Twentieth Century America Through Film. Ed. Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 264-71. Print.

Eakins, Thomas. Between Rounds. 1899. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

Rocky Statue:

Philadelphia Billboard: