Social Anxiety in Movies: Napoleon Dynamite

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Napoleon Dynamite is the type of movie you either love or hate. Except in my case, I both love and hate it. At first, I wasn’t sure why. I enjoy quirky independent comedies, and Napoleon Dynamite features socially awkward characters (like me), so it should have been right up my alley. But I didn’t love the film wholeheartedly like so many other fans. There were certainly parts of the movie I found funny, but other parts rubbed me the wrong way. After re-watching the movie recently and thinking about it further, I realized part of the reason I “hate” Napoleon Dynamite might be the way it portrays social anxiety.

Just about every character in the movie is socially awkward in some way. They have flat facial complexions and speak in monotone voices. It’s like they’re bad actors. But they’re not. They’re good actors acting like bad actors. Because that’s how people behave when they feel social anxiety.

Normally, I’d appreciate seeing social anxiety portrayed in a movie through normal people and not a villainous serial killer or something. But there’s something about the way Napoleon Dynamite portrays social anxiety that feels almost exploitative. Like, if these characters do have social anxiety, then it’s kind of messed up to show them suffering on screen and expect that to be funny.

But… I DON’T think that’s what’s happening here. First of all, it’s clear that writer/director Jared Hess has affection for his characters, as they’re based on himself and his family and friends. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hess said, “Everything in the film is so autobiographical. I grew up in a family of six boys in Preston, Idaho, and the character of Napoleon was a hybrid of all the most nerdy and awkward parts of me and my brothers growing up.”

So I don’t think Hess is trying to mock or make fun of his socially awkward characters in a malicious way. It’s more like having a self-awareness and sense of humor about your own awkwardness. Instead of feeling anxious about being awkward, embracing it.

Which is why I think these characters, or at least Napoleon, does not have social anxiety. He is simply socially awkward. And there’s a difference. Socially anxious people act stiff and awkward in social situations because of fear and nerves, but when alone or with close family and friends, they behave more relaxed and less awkward. But Napoleon always acts awkward, even alone in his room. Meaning his awkwardness doesn’t come from social anxiety. He’s just naturally “awkward.” What we perceive as “awkwardness” is his baseline personality.

The famous final dance scene highlights this point. On stage, Napoleon looks super awkward, dancing stiffly with his hands in his pockets, which would make it seem like he’s nervous and has social anxiety, but someone with actual social anxiety would probably never be able to go up on the stage to dance in the first place, let alone be awkward doing it. Napoleon, however, doesn’t seem nervous at all during the dance or care one bit what the kids in the audience think. He’s just being his normal self, which is socially awkward.

There can be a misconception that all people who are socially awkward have social anxiety and vice versa, but this movie shows how that is not necessarily true. Some people are just naturally awkward (compared to most people, because there’s really no such thing as “normal”), and they feel no nerves or anxiety about the fact that they are “awkward.” Napoleon never seems to show or hint in any way that he’s suffering from anxiety or fear.

Napoleon has a confidence about himself. He says and does crazy things like talking about Ligers and nunchuck skills, and he doesn’t care what others think of him. Which is basically the exact opposite of social anxiety. Someone with social anxiety may be into Ligers and nunchuck skills like Napoleon, but unlike Napoleon, they might be afraid to admit that to others, for fear others would mock and reject them. But Napoleon doesn’t worry about that at all. Likewise, people with social anxiety often wish they could look or act differently, but Napoleon doesn’t do that either. He is exactly the way he wants to be—hair, glasses, moon boots and all.

As for other characters like Deb, it’s harder to tell if she has social anxiety or is just awkward like Napoleon. We don’t get many scenes with her in her private life to see if she always acts that way. At one point, Deb goes door to door to sell beauty products and gets really nervous when she talks to Napoleon. Then, in the middle of the pitch, she runs away, leaving her supplies on the porch. Her nerves and awkwardness indicate social anxiety, but not so much the running away. At least for me, making a scene by running away would cause more attention than I’d want to garner. I would probably just suffer in awkward silence until Napoleon said bye, then I’d walk away. (And feel horrible afterward, second-guessing everything I said and did, etc.)

Which gets back to my love/hate relationship with Napoleon Dynamite. I love that they portray socially awkward characters (like me), but I hate that the characters are not socially awkward in the same way and for the same reasons as me. Which I realize is an unfair criticism, but still…

In conclusion, I would say Napoleon does not have social anxiety, but anyone struggling with social anxiety can learn a lesson from him. Don’t care about what other people think about you and just be yourself. Even if you are socially awkward and feel uncomfortable, that’s ok. Do whatever you wanna do. Gosh!

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