Getty Images

Many a high school football coach has told players, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” And many an American parent has reinforced a win-at-all-costs attitude by making spectacles of themselves at their kids’ swim meets, Little League games or soccer matches.

UVA media studies professor Shilpa Davé enjoys competition as much as the next American. She’s a football fan—the Green Bay Packers are her favorite team—and an avid tennis player. At the University, she covers American values related to competition in a one-credit seminar called “Competition Culture.”

Media studies professor Shilpa Davé Erin O'Hare

“I’m interested in looking at ideas of competition, from The Hunger Games, where competition really runs amok on all different levels; to reality TV shows like America’s Got Talent and Survivor, to education, college admissions and spelling bees,” says Davé, whose most recent book is Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film.

In her course, Davé examines how the American culture of competition places emphasis on the individual, which in turn presents a lopsided, inaccurate picture of reality. “There is this narrative presented to us in the media, the image of being on top and staying on top,” she says. “But the ways in which our culture and society actually work are more often in terms of teamwork or cooperation than on individual achievements.”

Take the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which Davé, whose primary research area is American cultural narratives of immigration, has studied for years. “It struck me that the spelling bee is the American story,” Davé  says. “It captures some of the core elements of our culture, like first-generation college-bound kids, the thrill of competition and prevalence and relevance of one national language—English. It’s also a ritual that many of us have witnessed and participated in and can look back on with a sense of nostalgia.”

The stories the media tell about the spelling bee revolve around winning the competition, the strict training regimens and the substantial monetary incentives. Some of the reports raise questions about whether too much pressure is being placed on these children. Davé, however, discovered a refreshing aspect to the competition.

“These kids are not out to beat each other, or put people down,” she said. “They’re excited to be there and find others who like spelling the way they do. It’s more like they’re celebrating what they all can do. This year was particularly nice because there were co-champions who were glad to share the award.”

She was miffed when a CNN reporter asked the winners, “Don’t you want to face off so one of you will be the real champion?”

“What was this guy thinking, bringing that into it?” she says, sighing. “This glorification of the winner at any cost is something to look at critically.”