Falling Short of Perfection
The dystopian society of Gattaca places a premium on genetic potential. From the second a person is born, his genetics are used to gauge his potential. Subpar genetic material is a considered an unconquerable barrier to a high level of achievement, leading to preclusion from many opportunities. Gattaca tells the inspiring story of Vincent, a man who surpassed his genetic potential, smashing through this societal barrier to greatness – a true triumph of the human will. There is, however, a darker side to this issue: for Vincent to succeed, Jerome first had to fail.
This is the dual nature of genetic determinism. If it is possible for people to surpass their designated potential, it is inevitable that others, like Jerome, will fail to reach theirs. From birth, the genetic elite are conditioned to believe that they are the best. The world is their oyster, so to speak. They are expected to succeed in all endeavors and to fulfill their genetic potential by rising to the top of society. This endless psychological conditioning has a powerful effect on the genetically superior. They become accustomed to success to the point that they are unable to accept failure.
A NASA refrigerator magnet – the slogan certainly applies to Gattaca
To the genetic elite of Gattaca, failure is a foreign concept. Like the teenager who believes he is invincible, they see it as an abstract notion that will never apply to them. They honestly believe they will always be the best. Well, anyone familiar with literature could predict the downfall that is likely to result from such hubris. It’s as the proverb goes: pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Jerome is a prime example of a devastating confluence of factors. As a superior specimen, even among the genetically engineered – “quite a catch,” as it is put in the movie – he feels an intense pressure, both internal and external, to succeed. The problem is that those with whom he competes are held to the same standard of perfection, and have been engineered to perform as strongly. As a simple matter of logic, only one person can come in first. All the others are losers, also-rans, failures.
As a biologist, I see a parallel between a person’s psychological response to failure and the body’s immune response to a virus. If you have contracted a certain virus before, say a particular strain of the flu, then your body knows how to respond. This is known as acquired immunity. Though you still feel the symptoms, you’re usually able to combat the virus effectively and recover before too long. Facing failure is the same. Once you’ve experienced failure, you build up a resistance. The next time, you are better prepared to deal with it. Most of us experience failure early and often, developing a healthy response along the way. This is not the case for the genetically engineered society of Gattaca. They have no “acquired immunity” – no psychological defense – against failure, because they have never experienced it before. The results can be disastrous.
Raised on high expectations and completely unaccustomed to failure, Jerome is disgusted with his second-place finish, deeply ashamed of earning anything less than gold. While it would be easy to assume upon first meeting Jerome that his inner demons are a result of his paralysis, in truth they stem from his inability to digest failure. He cannot reconcile the disparity between his vision of perfection and his result, leaving him mentally crippled.
Still, just as two different people suffering from the same virus may experience different symptoms and to varying degrees, not everyone responds to failure the same way. It is only fair to consider that there could be members of this perfectionist society who, despite all odds, are sufficiently able to cope with failure. Jerome, however, is not one of them, and I think most others would have a similarly extreme response.
This raises the question of where failed elites such as Jerome fit into a society with no tolerance for weakness or failure. Is it possible for such a person to retain his elevated socioeconomic status, despite having an imperfect mark on his record? If not, and the failure is completely shunned by high society, can he fall back on becoming a member of the lower, natural-born caste? Given the tension between the two parties, the likelihood of either one embracing this option is dubious. Perhaps in the world of Gattaca, there is simply no place for a fallen star.