The movie Erin Brockovich (2000) is a perfect illustration of the life-long and continuous development of every individual and the surprising ability with which a woman confronted by social and familial constraints is able to build her agency to be relevant to society.
The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, stars Julia Roberts in the lead role as Erin Brockovich and was based on the real life story of Erin Brockovich and her leadership in the Hinkley town’s fight against the water polluting activities of the energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG & E).
More importantly, the film reveals the tremendous capacity of human beings to rise above their individual and personal hardships and pursue causes that often seem impossible or even unattainable.
At first, Brockovich’s narrative is one that seems to be predetermined. Twice divorced and left to fend for her self and three young children, Erin appears to be in a disparate situation as her career prospects are constrained by single motherhood and unemployment.
Things go even worse when she figures in a car accident and her lawyer, Edward Masry, fails to land her a settlement for a personal injury suit. Thus, Erin is portrayed to be a victim of unfortunate events beyond her control and which have often left her helpless to change the course of her life.
Erin’s identity is therefore established as a single mother and a woman whose experiences of failed marriage, unemployment, and unfortunate accident define the unconventional ways with which she copes with her difficulties.
On the other hand, it is these clearly through these experiences that Erin’s individual capacities are honed and strengthened, reflecting Erikson & Erikson’s (1996) belief that encounters with periodic crises enable individuals to build up their resources for resolving problems. In Erin’s case, the absence of prospects forced her to ask for assistance from her lawyer by hiring her at his law firm.
This action would later prove to be both an opportunity and a challenge for her and a turning point in her career as she stumbles upon intriguing medical records of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG & E) placed in the real estate files.
Her later decision to continue investigating the connection between real estate and the energy giant’s medical records and to be involved in the prosecution of the PG & E after she discovers that it has been dumping toxic waste that threatens the water supply and health of the town of Hinkley represent a major shift in Erin’s narrative and in turn, her identity, from the disparate single mother to an individual concerned with social and ethical issues.
Thus, Erin’s involvement with the case represents another important development in her life, one that could possibly result in gains or in losses for herself and the community she chose to be identified with. (Baltes, 1987; Elder, 1998)
In retrospect, Erin’s unlikely triumph over an influential and moneyed adversary is the outcome of her individual persistence and strong sense of ethics and responsibility as well as the availability of social support that enables her to pursue her own development despite the painful reality of previous failures and frustrations and the presence of constraints.
It is in this aspect that Erin’s story resonates with the lived realities and experiences of its audience, especially in terms of fulfilling their need for development and coming to terms with changes in career, relationships, and life in its entirety, as it shows that learning and human development does not stop with divorce, single motherhood, or failure. On the other hand, they represent new opportunities and challenges with which individuals can draw meaningful lessons to grow from.
Baltes, P. G. (1987) Theoretical Propositions of Life-Span Developmental Psychology. Developmental Psychology, 23: 611-626.
Elder, G. H. (1998) “The Life Course and Human Development,” Handbook of Child Psychology, William Damon (Ed), 5th Ed. New York: Wiley, Volume I, 939-991.
Erikson, Erik & Erikson, Joan (1996) The Life Cycle Completed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Soderbergh, S. (2000). Erin Brockovich. United States.