Critically analyse the Representation of the American Dream in American Beauty and Rocky.

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The University of Adelaide

Politics, Power and Popular Culture

Major Essay


November 2009

Marius Zanin


‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ (The Declaration of Independence, 1776). Critically analyse the Representation of the American Dream in American Beauty and Rocky. 

The American Dream is ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’ (Adams 1931). ‘It is a desire of people to be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. It is to dream of opportunity and success, with the promise that regardless of ascription or background (race, class, gender) hard work and fair play will almost certainly lead to success’ (Cao 2009). It definitely sounds appealing and therefore it’s no surprise that the storyline of the American Dream plays a role in many popular Hollywood films. Some films, such as Rocky (1976) support the idea of the American Dream while others such as American Beauty (1999) criticise it. The American Dream began back in 1776, when the idea of freedom being a right and that tyranny could be successfully opposed was the belief amongst the people. There was also thought that the government could support all the people, not just a few, and while this was revolutionary in 1776, it still also is today.  Some critics have suggested in recent times that the American Dream is something of the past; that ‘dreams rarely come to pass and those that do rarely last. The American Dream is no exception’ (Schoon 2008).

‘The idea of the American Dream has been attached to everything from religious freedom to a home n the suburbs, and it has inspired emotions ranging from deep satisfaction to disillusioned fury’ (Hochschild  1995, 15). The dream inspires thought that anything can happen to anybody and it can all be good. While many Americans have achieved their own dream, most will be disappointed and disillusioned. Some say the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity, people work long hours for bigger houses, fancier cars, designer labels, but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others claim that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of some people, particularly the working poor, who must work two jobs to ensure their family’s survival. While there are a few who have chose their American Dream to be less focused on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple and fulfilling life. American Beauty portrays these different views of the American Dream through all their characters (Probst 2000, 80).

American Beauty portrays a ‘real perspective on the lives of one special and dynamic American family’ (Dannhauser 2006). While many people like to believe that all typical American families living in typical American suburbs lead a happy ‘normal’ life, American Beauty challenges this and attempts to challenge the idea of what we think is ‘beautiful.’ It is a ‘portrait of the suburban comedy, a jolting shock of realisation and a cathartic sense of hope’ (IMDb 1999). ‘The suburbs are a trap, not an escape, a place where life has become predictable, stale and without wonder or enchantment’ (Deneen 2002, 101).

The film depicts a number of people who are all in their own right striving for their own American Dream, yet few achieve it. It is only Lester who achieves the Dream and yet his happiness brings his death.  Audiences connect with the characters who are all simply looking to be happy, but first they must endure the way of life in which they are trapped.

While depicting it, American Beauty also rejects the American Dream through Lester. He chooses to start his life over and reject everything he has accepted up until now. Although their actions are controversial, it is the only way in which they can find happiness. He is presented to us as a loser who is subjugated at home and work. He is treated badly by his wife, daughter and boss. While he seems beyond redemption, he transforms from this loser, into a self defiant person. The film opens with a pan over the street which is neat and tidy, while Lester narrates ‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. In less than a year I’ll be dead. In a way, I’m already dead’ (Deneen 2002, 101). It seems like the perfect setting for one to endure their American Dream and yet we hear that Lester will not only die within a year, but he feels he is already dead, that his life is meaningless and nothing. Lester is on the Pursuit for Happiness. He is living the suburbanite existence and is seeking to become a happier person. ‘All the characters hide underneath this veneer of normality and respectability, yet they are all revealed to be nothing but the opposite, depressed, depraved and desperate’ (Dannhauser 2006). Lester shows this and attempts to change.

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‘His realisation comes from watching the cheerleader’s routine at the basketball. Following this he claims that he has been in a coma for twenty years and is only now waking up’, (Deneen 2002, 101), which suggests that the majority of his life, indeed the time in which he has been married, working the professional job, raising and daughter and living in the prosperous suburbs with nice cars and fancy furniture has meant nothing. He attempts to change and re live his youth. He quits his job and applies to work at a fast food outlet, typically worked at by ...

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This is a fairly insightful analytic critique of the way that "the American Dream" is represented in two very different films. It is written in clear, lucid and simple language - a lack of pretension that is very much to its credit. Although there is much that is very well observed, there are inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the argument as a whole, all of which derive from the fact that the focus of the essayist's research was into critiques of the films rather than critiques of the mythology of the American Dream. Actually, these perspectives are very much a part of the critiques of some of the writers that have been cited, but the essayist has either not understood this or chosen to ignore it. This is a pity, for it seems unthinkable that an essay about a cultural mythology should be undertaken without some reference to the feminist, post-colonial and Marxist critiques of the American Dream, even if it is only to refute the perspectives brought to the question by those disciplines. 3 stars