Literature Review – Equipment for Living in Movies Using the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

Equipment for Living in Movies Using the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

Stacy Cacciatore

Queens University


This paper explores four published articles that evaluate Kenneth Burke’s equipment for living communications theory. While the theories, strategies and method’s vary greatly among the sources, they all have one theme in common, which is that audiences can correlate lessons learned from media to their specific circumstances to help them navigate life’s challenges. Supporting Burke’s theory, I believe that the movie Forrest Gump provides equipment for living for those who believe they can control their own destiny. Forrest Gump achieves this through rhetoric, semiotic communications tradition and symbolism. This paper explores how the authors interpret Burke’s equipment for living theory and evaluates how audiences use both their conscious and subconscious mind to make important decisions based on guidance provided in movies.

Equipment for Living in Movies Using the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

Kenneth Burke is a communication theorist who is known for his equipment for living theory. He not only developed the theory, but he experienced it for himself, as he wrote his novel, Towards a Better Life, when he fell in love with his wife’s sister (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011). Burke spent a lifetime developing the equipment for living theory, which states that rhetoric helps audiences understand and manage life’s challenges. According to Burke, rhetoric can provide us with a map to help us determine the best path to take. This map allows us to follow a path that has proven successful. Part of the trick is to focus only on the details that will serve YOU in your goal of providing your own paper with a theoretical springboard. Most of the paper will be YOUR analysis. You are providing the Literature Review to help readers theoretically locate your work. They can go to read the sources if they are more interested. ]

An analogy I used to better understand Burke’s theory of equipment for living is the way my family uses a Walt Disney World park map. The map provides us with a framework to explore the park, providing us with locations for attractions, characters and restaurants. The map also provides us with several routes we can take to reach out destination. The map doesn’t tell us which path to take, nor does it provide us with detailed step-by-step instructions for reaching our destination. Rather it provides us with a pictorial view of the layout of the park. We use it as a guide to help us reach our destination. Out of the millions of guests who visit Walt Disney World and use the same park maps, they don’t all choose the same path, but they are able reach their destination. Just as a map provides many paths that can lead to the same destination, movies can be interpreted and used in a variety of ways to serve as equipment for living for one’s individual circumstance.

Burke suggests that rhetoric offers words, vocabulary, emotions and actions for helping others both understand and cope with real-world situations (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011). Equipment for living doesn’t have to be a detailed guide with a complete set of directions for one’s exact situation, but rather it can provide an overall attitude, emotion and feeling for others to adopt.

This can be explained further through Daniel Lair’s (2011) evaluation of The Apprentice. Lair explains that not only did the show provide equipment for living for those who want to achieve success in business with specific examples of how to handle real-world scenarios in the workplace, but it also demonstrated this through the hidden sub-context.

Lair refers to “textual winks” throughout the Apprentice (p. 83). By “textual wink” Lair is referring to hints in the dialogue that foreshadow an upcoming event. The “textual wink” serves a purpose to savvy viewers who can look beyond the surface of the show to understand the deeper meaning of the content (p. 84).

Lair provides an example of a “textual wink” which occurred when producers played a clip with Jessie Connors, a contestant, commenting, “If Omorosa comes back I’ll question what this is all about.” Omorosa does come back, so the producers of the show are sending a hidden message to the viewer (“Tit for Tat”, 2004). Is the meaning of this statement to allude that this show is for entertainment purposes only? Is it meant to advise aspiring leaders on how to succeed in the corporate world? The interpretation is up to the viewer.

These hidden winks also bring the conscious vs. subconscious mind into the equation. How often are we influenced consciously by the words, action and images on the surface compared to subconsciously being influenced by the metaphors and deeper meaning within the sub context?

Researcher, Stephen Young (2000) explores the conscious vs. subconscious interpretive processes. Young explores whether an audience consciously makes life decisions based on content in a movie or are if decision-making is a result of subconscious interpretations. It is difficult for a researcher to measure subconscious decision-making since the viewer won’t be aware of changes made as a result of subconscious thinking. This is difficult to measure, but at the same time, I think the overwhelming majority of viewers aren’t aware of the effect a movie has on them, at least not at the time of viewing. Young also takes the analysis a step further by looking at the action that takes place outside of the viewer’s immediate line of sight. Movie components such as camera angle, setting and even the plot are ignored on the surface, but can have tremendous impact (2000).

Lair (2011) uses this same concept when exploring the sub contextual meaning behind The Apprentice, as he explains that The Apprentice serves as a metaphor for corporate America and “New York as a jungle (2011). I believe that The Apprentice serves as equipment for living for young professionals who move to New York find career success. Similar to how other shows, such as Friends and Sex in the City, they depict life in New York for the young professional as challenging. All of these shows help provide equipment for living for this target audience. The Apprentice not only provides concrete strategies, but also attitudes for those who personify life in the big apple.

On this same token, researcher, Lisa Perks (2007), makes a correlation between two reality shows, Supernanny and Dog Whisperer. Perks argues that both shows provide equipment for living for those who need to create an organized home, even though the subjects differ. Supernanny works with parents of small children while the Dog Whisperer deals with pet owners (Perks 2007). Perks argues that both shows provide strategies for establishing household order, which are important for disciplining children and animals. While I agree with Perks evaluation that there are some similarities and homologous forms of discipline that apply to both subjects, I disagree that the same strategy or “equipment for living” can be used for both children and animals. Children and animals differ tremendously.

Perks overlooks a key component in this research, which is that human’s have, the power of language, deep intellectual capacity and ability for introspection. Animals don’t have this same capacity and therefore the approach to behavior control must vary depending upon the subject. I would have preferred to see Perks review the subjects independently, or group reality parenting shows, such as Supernanny with Wife Swap, instead of combining parenting and animal control.

This is related to what researcher, Stephen Young (2000) stated, which is that Burke’s equipment for living theory is based on the fact that human’s are self-aware and can make conscious connections between art and real world. This is not something that animal’s can perform. The very nature of the study of Burke’s theory lends itself to the uniqueness of the human experience and I would hope that Lisa Perks could translate that in her studies. I think she missed the mark on her research.

I think that a much better correlation in the application of equipment for living is in Burr-Miller’s (2011) research about fantasy baseball as equipment for living. Burr-Miller says that she believes that fantasy baseball serves as equipment for living by providing baseball fans with symbolic ways to connect baseball to their own personal experience. What this means is that the act of participating in fantasy baseball creates a new medium in which to develop friendships, connect and express themselves (2011). The fantasy baseball player relies upon rhetoric and media to understand the games, players and statistics. Through the interpretation of the rhetoric, the player then bridges the analytical knowledge with interpersonal relationships. Burr-Miller provides a personal example of this, showing a conversation she had with others during the fantasy baseball experience. Her experience demonstrates that this medium forged relationships and allowed her to bridge fantasy with reality.

The way I see it, movies are like a dress rehearsal for real life, providing us with the strategies, language and concepts to apply to real-world situations, as well as engaging our subconscious mind and allowing us to mentally rehearse scenarios

A method I used for better understanding this concept is by comparing how I use my dreams as equipment for living. When I’m nervous about something, whether it’s an upcoming race or delivering a project for work, I’ll incorporate that performance into my dream. For example, the day before my marathon, I visualized myself putting on my running gear, lining up for the race and running calmly through 26.2 miles. My dream acted as my dress rehearsal for the real thing the next day. Because I had visualized my roadmap for completing the marathon, complete with a challenge that I was able to successfully overcome, I was able to feel more confident the day of the event. My dream served as my “equipment for living” for my real life event in my subconscious mind.

Young explains movies as equipment for living in the same essence. He says that viewers interpret films and use that synthesis to handle the challenges in their real life scenarios (2000).

In conclusion, movies can provide us with equipment for living in many ways. From serving as a metaphor for real-life situations, to engaging our subconscious mind to providing us with a map for navigating similar scenarios. The movie Forrest Gump uses strong semiotic communications tradition, symbolism and outstanding writing to provide viewers with equipment for living for finding their destiny.

Destiny is a highly debated philosophy, which clearly has two sides of the coin. Some believe that our destiny is pre-determined while others believe that we can take charge of our destiny and life the life we desire. Through the research that communication theorists have uncovered, one can apply a variety of concepts and theories to this movie to demonstrate how Forrest Gump helps others forge the path to find their own destiny and take charge of their future.


Burr-Miller, Allison C. (2011). What’s Your Fantasy? Fantasy Baseball as Equipment for Living. Southern Communication Journal, 76(5) 443-464.

Lair, Daniel. (2011). Surviving the Corporate Jungle: The Apprentice as Equipment for Living in the Contemporary Work World. Western Journal of Communication, 75(1), 75-94. Doi: 10.1080/10570314.2010.536966

Littlejohn, Stephen W. and Foss, Karen A. (2011). Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Perks, Lisa. (2007). Equipment for Living in an Ordered Home: Disciplinary Homologies in Supernanny and Dog Whisperer. Conference papers– National Communication Association. 1-20.

Tit for tat [Television series episode]. (2004, February 12). In M. Burnett & D. Trump (Executive Producers) The Apprentice. New York: NBC. Retrieved from YouTube

Young, Stephen Dine. (2000). Movies as Equipment for Living: A Developmental Analysis of the Importance of Film in Everyday Life. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 17(4), 447-468.


You don’t need to include the months in parentheses with the year if you have a volume number for a peer-reviewed journal. Daily newspapers and trade periodicals usually need dates within the parentheses.

Italicize the name of the journal, book, series.

Punctuate your entries correctly (this is always a pain-in-the-neck detail): Period follows author; period follows year parentheses.


One thought on “Literature Review – Equipment for Living in Movies Using the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

  1. Pingback: Theoretical Literacy | Stacy Cacciatore's Digital Project Portfolio for Queens University of Charlotte

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