The American Dream is an idea that predates the independence and sovereignty, since it was conveyed by Pilgrims departing Europe in search of better living conditions in the “new world.” Even though the interpretation of the American Dream has evolved over time, it is now commonly acknowledged to refer to financial stability and residential contentment; a “deeply entrenched trio of the landscapes of the United States with economic progress, a perception that insures a fresh start, a new phase, and a promising future (Aronson).” The American Dream could be regarded a distinguishing aspect of the nation’s nationalism, given its long existence and influence on several Americans’ daily lives. Because of its enduring significance in American society, it has become a popular motif over time. From literature to television shows like The Sopranos and Hollywood films, The Dream has been depicted in practically every aspects of media. Because of the United States’ years of supremacy in the worldwide media scene, the primary concepts of it have spread so far past the nation’s popular culture, and the quest is identifiable to global consumers. Celebrity and popular culture has had a toll in the contemporary American dream like in the application of the 2011 film, The Descendants.
Today, nonetheless, the American Dream is regarded with a growing amount of cynicism. Since the 1970s, economic circumstances that have lowered the standard of living for lower and the middle class Americans have made realizing the American Dream more difficult, while huge numbers of Americans have just recently began to seriously question it. The United States’ image is deteriorating both domestically and internationally, owing to a severe economic downturn, waning political clout following the highly contentious invasion of Iraq, and internal social and political strife. As a result, those pursuing the American Dream must contend with unpleasant realities, the most significant of which is international and national economic uncertainty. Regardless, the “American Dream narrative” is still the most considered topic in popular culture.
However, how has popular culture, particularly film, handled the notion of the American Dream and its present situation in particular? Several scholars argue that, instead of evaluating or commenting on the idea, Hollywood films have aided in its development by depicting realistic illusions and “great” movie stars (Dittmer and Bos). Recently released films, on the other hand, have gone deeper into the American Dream, its successes, disappointments, and ideals. According to some, modern Hollywood films have moralized success, incompetence, and materialism. Popular films support this assertion by portraying upward mobility for hard working people and ethical citizens, a personal taste for moral achievement over dishonest economic success, and cross-class interconnection that remuneration troubled topmost characters with personal wellbeing while impoverished lower-class characters are compensated with material possessions. As a result, contemporary Hollywood films play an important role in maintaining the American Dream’s supremacy and converting its political-economic systemic limits to the level of personal inadequacies associated with individuals.
The Descendants describes the tale of Matt King (George Clooney), a man who appears to be meeting the American Dream: since he is a proficient lawyer who gets paid well and tends to make sufficient money to avoid having to use his family trust; he owns a single family home having a pool; he is a married man with two daughters; and he resides in what others perceive to be paradise. A closer examination of the film and a select scenes from it indicate that this is not the truth, but rather a delusion that even King has succumbed to (Carpio). After his wife is discovered in a coma following a waterskiing tragedy, it is discovered that she has been committing adultery. The elder daughter was sent to a private and boarding institution after her dependency on drugs, and the younger sister has problems with her schoolmates, always attacking them since she can’t cope with her mother’s injury. King is clearly estranged from his family; he even refers to himself as the “back-up dad,” revealing to audiences that without the presence of the wife, he is clueless what to do with his children. He also discovers that the supposed infidelity stemmed from his wife’s loneliness and a sense that something was lacking in their relationship.
In short, King prioritized his law profession over his family, which represents hard work, aspiration, and status, and his family has now emotionally and physically disintegrated. These opposing forces, domestic happiness and economic stability, emphasize some of the fundamental concepts surrounding the American Dream. Economic stability, on the other hand, does not always imply that one needs work hard, as King descends from a wealthy Hawaiian background and therefore could be sustained quite comfortably off his trust fund (Blizek). The protagonist has nonetheless opted to work, putting his family’s status in jeopardy. This fact calls into doubt both King’s Puritan work ethic and former form of upward mobility through personal action, and also the subsequent version of the American Dream, which prioritizes the collective.
The film depicts an earlier view of the American Dream, one in which family comes first over power and financial security, and nature and land take precedence over wealth and “good life.” Winn’s critique of current Hollywood movies that proselytize working-class ideals such as honor, family and patriotism is connected to this vision of the American Dream. He contends that presenting a United States wherein the common people have a stronger moral standing and are therefore more “virtuous” (and probably superior) than the upper classes preserves the hegemonic system by bolstering their current social status. The film may represent this, but it also includes the contemporary situation of the United States and the American Dream, wherein the economic stability and security for all save the “one percent” are becoming progressively complex to acquire (Payne et al.). It’s feasible that, more than ever before, a re-assessment of the Dream and mainstream portrayals that better portray the potential and aspirations of regular Americans is required. Although this may serve to maintain the status quo, it does not provide spectators with unrealistic expectations of upward mobility, as previous films have done.
Ultimately, the essay is centered on an examination of the idea of the American Dream and its representation in movies, with the main film being The Descendants. The idea is that it rewrites the American Dream story by prioritizing land and family over financial prosperity. This rewriting can be viewed in two ways: as a reaction to the contemporary status of the United States and the American Dream, or as a means of maintaining the dominant social order. Conversely, the essay suggests that before drawing any judgments about the film’s broader influence on society, more consideration should be made to its larger context. Additional research could involve audience research to know how viewers reacted to the film; or, maybe more intriguingly, examine why modern films often promote the American Dream notion, in one form or another, but current television casts doubt on its viability and appeal. The explanation could be found in people’s anticipations for each media, or in the economic necessities of films and television series, respectively.
Aronson, Pamela. “Contradictions in the American Dream: High Educational Aspirations and Perceptions of Deteriorating Institutional Support.” International Journal of Psychology, vol. 52, no. 1, 1 Nov. 2016, pp. 49–57, 10.1002/ijop.12396.
Blizek, William. “The Descendants.” Journal of Religion and Film 16.1 (2012).
Carpio, Vanessa Del. “Dreams of Today: Analyzing the American Dream on Film in the Context of Contemporary America.” Revue YOUR Review (York Online Undergraduate Research), vol. 1, no. 0, 2014, pp. 66–74, yourreview.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/yourreview/article/view/40304/36497, 10.25071/ryr.v1i0.40304.
Dittmer, Jason, and Daniel Bos. Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity. Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Payne, Alexander, et al. “The Descendants.” IMDb, 9 Dec. 2011, www.imdb.com/title/tt1033575. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.