Media Analysis of American Beauty
In analyzing the film American Beauty, the characters are portrayed under transformation from a life of conforming to the dictates of the society to a life where freedom leads to constant change and uncertainty. Apparently, the intended audiences of the film are both individuals and families who see and feel the normalcy of their existence as pointless and who are tempted to change their lives for better or for worse for the sake of emancipation from a boring lifestyle of repeating the same things over and over. The film also focuses on family life, giving prominence to how a family can become happy amidst living difficult times and how a dysfunctional family can still strive to reach their desires. In the movie, Lester Burnham and his family try to break away from their normal lives and seek transformation. As they undergo a series of changes in their lives, they find themselves caught in the mesh of the troubles that came upon them. They struggle to survive their personal ordeals and continue living their changed lives. Towards the end of the movie, Lester is shot to his death although he did realize that he was living a happy life all along despite all the nuances he and his family have experienced.
American Beauty is trying to send the main message that a perfect life is not always a better life. Rather, one can also find a happy life in a life filled with uncertainties, changes and personal difficulties. Like Lester Burnham, every family member can end up in a state of constant change as a result of trying to break away from the dictates of society. By giving up some of our possessions that we do not find any satisfaction with in exchange for the things that satisfy our desires, there is the risk of not being able to control the direction of our lives. But that, perhaps, is exactly the reason why some people are more inclined to abandon their old lives for something new yet entirely unfamiliar at the same time. The freedom to follow and to do the things that we yearn for is a freedom that is untamed and, more importantly, is exciting.
Apparently, the movie begins with a portrayal of the traditional roles of family members and continues with a transition from traditional roles to what one may call “deviant” roles. For example, Lester is first portrayed as a working father married to Carolyn, a realtor, earning a living for his teenage daughter, Jane. As the movie progresses, each of the family members undergo a transformation: Lester quits his job only to work in a fast food chain, trades his mid-size modern car for his dream vehicle, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and develops an infatuation to his daughter’s classmate; Carolyn meets a business rival and develops an affair with him to the indifference of Lester upon finding out; and Jane flees to New York together with her neighbor who also happens to be her lover. These alterations in the traditional role of family members shown in the movie indicate how a traditional family can make a complete turn and become an entirely different family.
Since the typical roles of family members are observed to be the normal roles that should be imitated, non-conformity eventually leads to “deviancy”. The traditional role of the father includes remaining faithful to his wife whereas the traditional role of the wife is to likewise remain faithful to her husband. In the film, the infatuation of Lester, Carolyn’s infidelity and her husband’s indifference to her unfaithfulness all indicate a breach from the traditional role of fathers and mothers. Another traditional role of fathers portrayed in the film is the case of Lester’s neighbor, Col. Frank Fitts. Fitts shows disgust at homosexuality and even suspecting his son, Ricky, of having homosexual tendencies and of being attracted to Lester. His attitude fits the description of the traditional father that looks after the behavior and growth of his children, ensuring that they grow-up according to the norms of the society. However, near the end of the film, Fitts kissed Lester as the former appeared emotionally distressed before the latter. That shift in the behavior of Fitts implies a shift in his traditional roles as a father.
Based on the character portrayals presented in American Beauty, it can be said that the film challenges traditional notions about families. At first, the film seems to reaffirm the idea that families following deviant social norms are bound to implode and become destroyed in the process. However, towards the closing parts of the film, Lester realizes that he is actually happy with his life even though his family may appear to be broken before the eyes of other people. With that in mind, the film signifies that not all families who have followed deviant social norms are bound to be put into waste as there are also individuals who find genuine happiness from being liberated from the dictates of the society.
In Shifting the Center: Understanding Contemporary Families, author Susan Ferguson contends that families are socially constructed entities. She also gives us the idea that our understanding of the so-called “deviant” family forms should not be seen in that limited way alone. Rather, such family forms should also be compared to other diverse family forms without presupposing the notion of social deviance. If families are indeed socially constructed entities, it tells a lot about our contemporary notions surrounding the concept of family. If there is a rise in the numbers of the so-called “deviant” families in today’s generation, there is reason to suspect that we are living at a time when shifts in the traditional family roles are transpiring. Apparently, there are foreseen dangers to such shifts in family roles from the traditional to the non-traditional ones. Those include but are not limited to the decline in the responsibilities of parents in ensuring that their children are reared according to traditional behaviors and the placement of the respective desires of parents and of their children first before the interests of the family as a whole. Liberating families from traditional roles prescribed by the society may likewise result to the danger of losing the integrity of the family in terms of emotional bond, thereby causing a disruption in the emotional stability and growth of the family, further weakening the family relationship among its members.
Based on the theme of the film, I think the movie’s creators are coming from a liberal political perspective. The reason for this is that one of the film’s producers, Bruce Cohen, has certain links from the liberal political side. For instance, he has been writing for a well-known liberal blog which is the Huffington Post as a contributing blogger. In the film itself, the viewer can be able to recognize several liberal points of view intertwined in some scenes, most especially the view that individual liberty should be the cornerstone of the society (Neal, p. 665). For example, the film emphasizes on the liberty of the individual characters in the story, such as Lester liberating himself from the dictates of his former employer and from the dictates of the traditional role of fathers to their wives, or Jane emancipating herself from the traditional view that perfection should be the main preoccupation of individuals and that anything far less is unacceptable or should be strived at to become better.
In essence, American Beauty is a film that describes non-traditional families in the face of turmoil and constant changes in life. The film also portrays how deviation from social norms are not always bound to cause more harm than it can ever cause any good to individuals. In her book, Susan Ferguson reaffirms the idea that there are many ways to look at deviant family forms and not just looking at them from a negative perception. The liberal political beliefs embedded in the film further highlight the existence of non-traditional families and family roles in contemporary society.
American Beauty. 1999. Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, September 8, 1999.
Neal, Patrick. “Liberalism & Neutrality.” Polity 17.4 (1985): 664-84.
Shifting the Center: Understanding Contemporary Families. Ed. Susan J. Ferguson. 2ns ed. Mountainview, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001.