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American Dream: The Untenable Perception of Reality

Posted by Elle Latham on June 2, 2013 at 8:25 PM

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” This quote from “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald encompasses the beliefs of millions in the American Dream. People believe that coming to America bestows upon them certain unalienable rights that they wouldn’t normally have access to in their home country. These rights have been incessantly and falsely depicted in pop culture and modern cinema. They show that famous rags to riches story of a young person rising up from nothing to eventually build an empire through the magic of luck and old-fashioned hard work. That is the basis of the American Dream as we have come to understand it. In truth, the American Dream is a myth because the media and certain class systems perpetuate an illusion that society, as a whole, perceives as reality.

When one looks back at the history of modern civilization, it is clear that the perception of American values and the idea of manifest destiny has been blown out of proportion. Such is the subject of an academic journal from American Scholar by John Tirman. He states that:

“…The myth is resilient. The alternative is to reinvent it, to co-opt, in effect, frontier symbolism from its destructive tendencies and transform it into something more vital. Many leaders have attempted to use the frontier metaphor as a way of launching ideas for reform or renewal, invoking, for example, "the war on" campaigns—the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer—which draw on the conflict and moral struggle that played such a central part on the frontier…Yet very few political or opinion elites recognize the frontier myth—the restless urge to expand and to dominate—as the root and branch of our self-defined global role. Thus very few have tried to alter its course and meaning.”

This is indicative of the mentality of modern civilization overlooking past transgressions in order to create a world in which Americans are not responsible for their sinister role in expanding their rule throughout the world at the expense of those who came before them.

The American frontier is not the only myth being shoved down society’s collective throats on a regular basis. Modern cinema has been reflecting the ideal of the American Dream in its films for decades now. In "The American Dream of Family in Film: From Decline to a Comeback”, an article written by Emanuel Levy, Levy explains how the roles of families in film have always been portrayed as nuclear and how they have embodied the American Dream from the early days of cinema up to the early 20th century. Levy supports this claim by explaining that:

“The mass media serve as a major source of information about a variety of social roles, including family roles. This sociological function has been particularly important for children and adolescents who have dominated the movie-going public in recent decades. These viewers often gain their first insights into the ‘real world’ through exposure to the mass media of film and television.”

He goes on to say how films have been such an influence on the audience and shaped their expectations in their own lives of how they think their families should be. By showing women cleaning up the house while the father is away at work, the filmmakers are choosing to perpetuate the many gender stereotypes that have long since dissipated from the social landscape.

In a way, these films are doing more harm than good by taking the American ideals from the 1950’s and misrepresenting them as fact in the modern era.

This phenomenon is further explored in the selection titled “What We Really Miss About the 1950’s” by Stephanie Coontz. She explains how people became enamored of the idea of a nuclear family much like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” in the following excerpt:

“People didn’t watch those shows to see their own lives reflected back at them. They watched them to see how families were supposed to live—and also to get a little reassurance that they were headed in the right direction.”

The thing is America has never gone in the “right direction.” For some reason, this nation continues to latch onto ideals from forgotten eras that simply don’t work anymore. It is highly doubtful that they ever did.

The ideal of a happy life with a stable job and all the trappings in between is just that: a trap. Families aren’t meant to be perfect. Life isn’t meant to be perfect. Whoever started this ridiculous notion of working hard and being rewarded with a beautiful life was frankly an idiot.

Anyone who has gone to school only to be bombarded with shameless promotion and advertising from various soda companies, breakfast cereal brands, and soup brands would find it difficult to believe this is the American Dream that they reside in. That is the basis for “Idiot Nation” an illuminating piece of journalism by the ineffable Michael Moore. He states that more and more schools are making deals with these companies to gain funding in exchange for the students’ mindless consumption of their goods in this excerpt:

“…Schools and corporations sometimes turn the school itself into one giant neon sign for corporate America. Appropriation of school space, including scoreboards, rooftops, walls, and textbooks, for corporate logos and advertising is up 539 percent.”

This quote was taken from a 2002 publication, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant to what the world is like today. Nowadays, one can’t go to see a simple movie or turn on their favorite TV show without being barraged with product placements hidden within (or sometimes blatantly obvious) being sold to them. This is the doing of the all-knowing advertisers who will take every opportunity they can to build awareness of their product. It is something that started decades ago with the advent of television as a new medium. Slowly, it got less and less noticeable until the 2000s when history decided to repeat itself as it so often does.

While Moore rails against corporations controlling our modern school system, John Taylor Gatto takes it to a whole other level with his indictment of the educational system itself which he claims we don’t even need. Gatto believes that school is irrelevant. He argues:

“We have been taught…in this country to think of “success” as synonymous with… ‘schooling,’ but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people…educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that…resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?”

Indeed. I agree wholeheartedly with Gatto’s argument. This society is full of schools that teach the same thing; to be the same, to believe the same thing, to have the same answers. There is no individuality. There is no information one can use out in the real world. The students are stuck. That is what the powers that be want. They don’t want students to realize how powerful they are and fight against the system enslaving them on a daily basis.

Everyone has been told they’re special at some point in their lives. If that were true, wouldn’t we all have wonderful careers and a loving family? There are homeless people everywhere, in every city. If they are just as special as everyone else, what happened? Did the American Dream fail them? Or did society fail them? Maybe it was their false hopes of a brighter tomorrow. Everyone wants to believe in something. Sometimes, believing in the wrong thing can bring about disastrous consequences.

The bottom line is everyone is different. Everyone’s journey on this Earth is different. While there are certain situations where something is handed to someone on a silver platter, it is not true for 99% of America. Most of the American people have struggles day-to-day, can barely afford to feed their families, and work a grueling job that pays them next to nothing. As much as these people would like to believe their journeys will end in being rich and famous or running a multimillion dollar company or winning the lottery, they know better than to trust in that belief. Nick said it best in The Great Gatsby when he realized, “I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” Thus is the American Myth---sorry, Dream.

 

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