Jennifer Lawrence, the 25-year-old Academy Award-winning actor, plays the inventor Joy Mangano in the new movie “Joy.” As a part of the team here at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, I took it upon myself to watch this movie, “for research,” and discuss it here. Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Joy Mangano has over 100 patents to her name, but the invention that put her on the map is the Miracle Mop. While the cast and crew of the film were explicit in their insistence that the story they wrote was a fictional account, the fundamental plot points were based on real-life events, although Hollywood-ized.
The most successful inventors say the same thing: the best inventions are those that solve a problem. The story of the Miracle Mop – the real story – begins back in the late 1980s. Mangano was a single mom to three children, working various jobs in and around Long Island. As the main breadwinner and housekeeper, she was always busy. What set her apart from many others in similar situations was her tinkerer’s mind. The daughter of a machinist, she was not averse to getting her hands dirty and making tools, and she had always been a bit of an inventor (she invented but didn’t produce a florescent pet collar as a teen), and that inventive spirit led her to figure out a way to make the everyday mop easier to use, cheaper, and more effective. She identified the main problems: mops of the day were not absorbent enough for large spills, they suffered from poor manufacturing and would often fall apart after a few uses, and they were difficult to wring out.
At this point, although with a few small details changed, the movie and real life are telling the same story. The movie, however, adds a dramatic twist when Joy (Jennifer Lawerence) cuts her hand on broken glass that had found its way into the head of one of those cheap mops. This is the trigger that sets in motion the invention process quickly. So quick, that the mop is essentially created overnight.
Not so fast! As scholars of the history of invention, we know that rarely, if ever, do inventions happen overnight. Inventions are a result of a process that involves prototypes, failures, and tweaks. In reality, Mangano never mentioned the hand injury, and in fact, the Miracle Mop took several years to develop, according to an interview with Mangano. But there’s no arguing that blood is dramatic.
When she finally did have a working prototype, she made 100 of them and started pitching. The whole development process cost about $100,000 she told Biography.com, a far cry than the $200,000+ cited in the film.
The next part of the film version also diverges from reality, but not by much. In the film, it’s unclear how long Mangano struggled to sell her mop. It seems like it was a few months or a year. In reality, her big break came two years after the first run of 100 were produced. In both versions, Mangano has a meeting with executives at QVC, the home-shopping channel that, in 1992, was fledgling television network on the brink of explosive success. And in both versions, QVC agrees to try the mop out on air. It’s a huge flop. I’ve been trying to track down footage from the very first broadcast, but to no avail. It seems, though, that real life and the film are the same here. It sold zilch.
Next, we see Mangano pitching the idea of appearing on the network herself, in order to sell her mop. It takes some prodding, and (in the film and real life, apparently) a daring Joy bursting into a closed-door meeting between QVC brass and a group of lawyers. While skeptical at first, the senior producer, played by Bradley Cooper, capitulates. I’m sure this process was also sped up for the film, but it nonetheless follows real life.
During Mangano’s first appearance on television, the Miracle Mop sells out. In the film, the number is around 50,000, and in reality it’s 18,000. But the fact is that the mop was an instant success, and the producers were right to take the chance in allowing her to go on television. There were only one or two other inventors on television selling their products at the time; none were women. (Ron Popeil, the famous infomercial salesman was one of them.)
In real life, this launches Joy Mangano to a dazzling career as an inventor, product developer, and television personality. In the film, we see the effects of this in the last scene: Joy in a new gigantic house, helping other would-be inventors develop their products.
In many ways, it’s the classic rags-to-riches story. Character has and idea, works hard, and makes it big. But it’s not the typical story. For every 10 Joy Manganos out there, there are hundreds, if not thousands of failures.
From the standpoint of the process of invention, the film version of the story of Joy Mangano is inspiring, but incomplete. At the Lemelson Center, we’ve been researching and documenting the history of invention and the invention process for over 20 years.
Through our own research and talking with scholars and inventors, we’ve honed in on the steps most inventors take when bringing a new invention to market. We call them the “It Phrases”:
- Identify a problem or need (Think It)
- Conduct Research (Explore It)
- Make sketches (Sketch It)
- Build prototypes (Create It)
- Test the invention (Try It)
- Refine the invention (Tweak It)
- Market the invention (Sell It)
And while I’m fairly certain Joy Mangano went through each step of the process, some of them don’t make for compelling storytelling.
The Lemelson Center is thrilled to see Hollywood take on an invention story, and we’re even more thrilled to see a woman inventor depicted. But, as historians (read: big time nerds), we just can’t help but wish we could have seen the entire process, warts and all, play out on the big screen.