American Beauty – Holes in the theory of the “Traditional Family”

Throwing out the “Traditional Family” dream

Never heard of this film before watching it in class, now its in my top 10 “best movies of all time” list.

This film truly exposes the true American dream family theory that has been present since really after the second world war. The ideal family was, mom and dad both have jobs, work 40+ hours a week, and both make a decent living. Everyone eats dinner together at night, and following these rules ensures that your family life will be great. To me, this movie debunks that ideal family situation. This movie, through excellent story telling and acting, proves that following these traditional rules does not make your family happy, in fact, it might even hurt it.

Through the media and society, people came up with this “ideal/perfect family” image, but the fact is, that it can never be attained. Society has tried to portray this image, as the “norm”, the normal situation most families should be in, when in fact I believe it is the complete opposite. No family is perfect, this is due to the fact that no individual person is perfect, and due to the fact that society has changed a lot since the end of the second world war, and so the “ideal” family situation of that time period, is not an accurate representation of the time today.

The director of this movie showed us these holes in that “perfect image”, by transforming each character in the movie, gradually, starting from the time the character is in his/her traditional “mode”, finishing the transformation off in the end, by showing us who these characters really are.

Lester Burnham (the father)

With the father, the directer projects him as the typical traditional dad, that is in the “perfect family”. He has a job, and makes a decent living. The director then shows the ideology of “re-birth”, Lester becomes very bored with his life, and being constantly ignored and ordered around by his wife.  Lester shows us that being the typical father, does not make the father happy, that it actually takes any ounce of enjoyment out of life, and it becomes worse the older you get. Thus, Lester transforms, quits his job, yet still gets paid a full years salary, starts smoking marijuana, and lifting weights. This makes him happier in life, rather than being the “perfect dad”. (Spoilers) Even when Lester dies in the end of the movie, he seemed so happy, making me sense that he would rather live a short life, that is meaningful, rather than a long one with no enjoyment.

Carolyn Burnham (the mother)

Carolyn starts off as the “ideal” mother in the beginning of the movie. She is very hard-working, makes a good living, takes care of the flowers on the lawn, while still making time to cook dinner for her family. What could go wrong? Wouldn’t she be happy? In the beginning it was hard to gauge the mother, I had trouble predicting if she was miserable deep down inside, or that she was actually just that perfect. As the movie progresses, we see the deterioration in the mother. She goes from the ideal mom, to actually being the worst character in the house, deep down inside. Basically the director is showing us that, those who seem the most “perfect”, are the ones that are actually suffering the most, and are the ones who are the furthest from “perfect”. You could say that on the outside the father looks like the bad parent between the two, but you find out that Carolyn is actually the one who cheats on her husband, making her the more “bad” parent between the two. This reminds me of  Harvey Dent in the Dark Knight Rises, how he goes from being the “most perfect guy” in Gotham, to the villain by the end of the movie.

Jane Burnham (daughter)

For Jane, the transformation is more of a revelation, a realization of who she “truly” is. A lot of times, you act like someone else due to the group of friends you hang around with, or associate yourself with, this puts on a “mask” to hide your true identity. In the beginning of the film, Jane is just your average, typical teenage girl, with hormones going through the roof, and a lot of “highschool” issues. But, what the director shows us, even in the beginning of the movie, is that even though, when the father and mother were perfect parents in the beginning of the movie, that their daughter was still not happy, debunking the myth on how being the “perfect” mother and father does not always guarantee success, and that the perfect mother and father is actually quite different from the traditional “image” of a perfect mother and father. In society today, different kids have different personalities, characteristics, and situations that they are in. Problems that kids face today is not the same as the ones kids faced during the 1950’s. So, since the problems and kids themselves have changed, parents have to change too, and there is no “one size fits all” way of doing it, every kid will be different, so each parent has to parent differently, to be the “perfect” role models for their kids. This was my take on what the director wanted to show with Jane. The perfect example is the first dinner scene, you can tell that even though the parents are acting “as they should”, the daughter is still not happy. By the end of the movie, you see Jane transform, realizing that she is not like what her friend Angela is, and that she is “different” from the “usual” high-school student, and she accepts that by the end of the movie.

Angela Hayes (Jane’s best friend)

Angela starts off as the “super-model” high-school student, every guy wants her, and she knows it, and embraces it fully. She has slept with a lot of guys, and she is not ashamed of it. In society today, especially for young people, there is a certain expectation to have intercourse often, not having done so is not the norm, and so in order to “fit” into society’s expectations, Angela makes up lies, in order to project herself as “popular”, “sexy”, etc. By the end of the movie, we find out that everything she said about her sexuality is a lie, and that she is a virgin, (spoilers), this is discovered when the father is about to have intercourse with her, and she confesses her lies. I believe that a lot of young people do this today, lie about their sexuality, so that they fit into “society’s” image of being “cool” and “normal”. The director portrays this through Angela, and while she does not represent the broken family argument, she does represent the overall theme of the movie, which is that people hide their true identities in order to fit into society’s image of being perfect.

If you can take any message away from this movie, its to not judge a book by its cover. Overall, an excellent movie.

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