Over on Forbes, I wrote an article about how Long Shot challenges our Theory of Mind. As I didn’t want to get into any spoilers over there, I’d like to expand on that piece here and discuss the mechanics of the movie.
I encourage you to read the Forbes piece first for some context. But if you’d rather not, here’s the gist of it:
More than a romantic comedy, Long Shot is also a political film with feminist ambitions. The success of Charlotte (Charlize Theron) and Fred’s (Seth Rogen) romance hinges on their ability to cope with Charlotte’s bid for president of the United States.
Long Shot also happens to closely resemble Claire Simier’s Forbes article “Roadmap For Success: Women And Executive Leadership”. Which is interesting, because it made me realize that Long Shot serves as an example of how women can rise in leadership positions—something that’s notably very difficult for them to do.
In fact, the problem has a name: The Women’s Leadership Gap. And this is where Theory of Mind comes in.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, sums up Theory of Mind like this:
“Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
Basically, Theory of Mind is our ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. In effect, stories have the capacity to shift popular opinions on social issues. Neuroscience has shown that placing characters in fictional settings allows us to discuss very important issues in an environment that is seemingly detached from reality…yet very relevant to what many people go through in real life. When stories trigger our Theory of Mind, we are challenged subconsciously and grapple with our opinions on these topics.
Long Shot’s main topic is the difficulties women face and the steps they must take in order to obtain high-level positions in America. And Fred offers a “male gaze” perspective who has no idea how fucking hard it can be for women. The movie makes that heavy topic more digestible by playing it out alongside a love story.
And here’s where Theory of Mind works its magic: as Charlotte and Fred’s feelings for one another grow, the harder it becomes for Charlotte to maneuver through those problems women face in rising to leadership roles. So as she improves her relationship with Fred, it coincides with inching closer and closer to a presidency. As we watch their love grow, we may not realize that we’re also experiencing how women achieve high-level positions in America.
So how does Long Shot use Theory of Mind to work in how women can succeed in achieving executive positions? Let’s break down the five steps listed by Simier’s article and how Charlotte’s rise in an executive role coexists with the very accessible romance we’re watching.
1. Build your personal brand.
“I believe a good personal brand is always tied to your individual professional story. In order to resonate with your managers, peers and clients, connect your past experiences and skill sets to your present role.”
When Fred sees Charlotte at a fundraising event, he recalls a story from years earlier when Charlotte used to babysit for Fred. Skipping past the embarrassing part of that story that involves a little boy boner, what Fred most fondly recalls is Charlotte’s ambition to become class president of her high school and create some meaningful change.
As Charlotte’s speechwriter, Fred uses this to her benefit, as Charlotte starts to relate to the public by telling stories about how she wanted to change the world back when she was a kid. It’s not just some act—Charlotte and Fred bond over this very real passion that Fred found inspirational even as a teen.
This is the beginning of Fred and Charlotte’s renewed relationship after many years apart. The first step that Simier claims women must take in advancing themselves in an executive position coincides with the romantic arc of the film. This positions the professional journey Charlotte must go on alongside her growing relationship with someone she cares for.
2. Promote your brand.
“One effective alternative to touting your resume is to demonstrate your expertise through content creation. This can be an effective way to simultaneously promote your personal brand and add to your tangible contributions.”
At first, Fred is hesitant about accepting the speechwriting position. He’s intrigued by Charlotte’s plan to get 100 countries to commit to a worldwide environmental plan, but he also knows that politicians often make promises they can’t keep. And part of Charlotte’s sell to Fred is that the world’s two biggest nations, China and India, will be part of the plan. But when she fails to land India, it causes Fred to be hesitant of her once again.
Being a political journalist who has a history of exposing the lies of politicians, this becomes an important character arc for Fred. An outsider to the inner-workings of politics, Fred has to learn to trust the negotiating process that takes place with these kinds of massive deals and trust Charlotte’s vision.
In addition, Fred’s hesitance exposes to Charlotte how fickle the average voter can be. By reasoning with Fred and explaining the process, she ends up strengthening her message to the public. By building trust with the man she’ll grow to love, she in turn builds trust with the public.
Once again, the professional journey correlates with the romantic one. As their relationship strengthens, so does Charlotte’s brand as a leader.
3. Cultivate your professional network.
“Cast your net wide, and seek to build these relationships externally as well. Aim to increase the number of people familiar with your talents and abilities to open yourself to opportunities for advancement.”
During a meeting with her team, Charlotte is confronted with the fact that she’s…not very funny. More pointedly, she’s had trouble connecting with the public, which would hurt her in a run for president. Thus, Fred is brought on to the scene to punch up her speeches.
But what Fred extracts from Charlotte isn’t just some act; he’s not just feeding her jokes that she then regurgitates for laughs. Fred’s openness, sense of humor, and genuine interest in Charlotte brightens her up, allows her to truly inhabit the speeches he writes for her.
Let’s take it one step further: Charlotte feels pressured to dump Fred. As Maggie (June Diane Raphael) points out, his journalistic background and less-than-ideal appearance could hinder Charlotte’s run for office. So it actually takes courage for Charlotte embrace Fred for who he is instead of playing the safe route.
All of these internal struggles Charlotte must work through? They end up affecting her image and how she’s presented to the world. And as she embraces the side of herself that Fred brings out during her world tour, the more and more she’s able to convince countries to sign onto her environmental plan. As her relationship with Fred strengthens, so does her global influence and her ability to win over world leaders (which will in turn benefit her foreign policy credentials and a presidential run).
4. Get that feedback.
“Studies indicate a major impediment to women’s advancement to the C-suite is the quality and quantity of feedback they receive. Women are less likely to receive developmental feedback when referring to business outcomes, which can put them at a severe disadvantage when seeking promotions. If you have identified sponsors, mentors and trusted peers, regularly seek their advice and candor outside of formal performance reviews.”
This step for succeeding in executive leadership is probably most relevant to Long Shot. Charlotte has an entire team that is constantly watching her, polling potential voters, delivering statistics, and offering suggestions for how to improve her image in order to obtain the most possible votes—but she doesn’t truly start to form a relationship with the public until she steps outside her comfort zone with Fred.
This highlights that it’s not necessarily about what kind of feedback you’re getting, but who you’re getting that feedback from. As step three pointed out, as a woman in a leadership position, you should “cast your net wide”, and Fred is an outsider to the inner-workings political system. While Maggie and Tom (Ravi Patel) can offer scientific data, Fred offers humanistic advice that extracts the kind of emotion that connects with voters. He challenges her to think outside the “safe” zone that supposedly wins elections and embrace the Charlotte he fell for years ago.
This is pretty reminiscent of a relationship, right? In a way, you’re always “getting feedback” by reading a person and learning more about them, and then adjusting yourself to make the relationship work better. By the end of the movie, Charlotte has retained a tight grasp on her ideals, but she does sacrifice several parts of herself to make it work with Fred. Finding that balance not only makes their relationship work, but appeals to voters as well.
5. Practice your leadership.
“Finally, prioritize work that gives you an opportunity to develop your core leadership skills. This can give you a handle on complex decision making, change and conflict management, and effective communication across diverse groups. To begin developing these skills, start by assessing your own strengths and the areas on which you can improve. A professional assessment is an effective way to garner insight about your own preferences and leadership style so you can charter a plan of action in line with your goals.”
This final step essentially states that leadership isn’t easy, so of course it takes practice. And what else takes practice???
The final step Charlotte must take in her bid for president is rejecting the president’s demand that she water down her environmental plan. President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) and Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis) blackmail Charlotte by threatening to release a video of Fred masturbating. This directly lines up her political ambitions with her love life—one decision affects the other.
Not only does she compromise her environmental plan, but she compromises her relationship with Fred. Later, during her speech before announcing her run for president, she recalls her 16-year-old self who would have been ashamed that she concede on something so important. And because of Fred, she realized that painting outside the lines strengthened her as a leader.
By refusing to comply with the oldheads of politics, embracing and practicing her strongest asset as a leader, Charlotte chooses to create her own path…and also chooses love—in turn bolstering her romance with Fred. Fixing one fixes the other.
Thus, fixing one fixes the other. By embracing and practicing her strongest asset as a leader, she in turn bolsters her romance with Fred.
This may be the biggest trigger for Theory of Mind. As a woman in a high position, the deck is perpetually stacked against her, and the flak she’ll receive for remaining with Fred is monumentally more detrimental to her than it would be to a male in the same position. Yet, she succeeds and becomes president, not only providing inspiration for women seeking leadership roles, but showing men just how difficult that journey can be.