Social Conventions in American Beauty

The paradigms that govern the film, American Beauty. Through the exploration of capitalism and how it constructs societal expectations, the film’s main topics of happiness and sexuality are examined. These topics will be analyzed both independently and jointly in how it influences the choices of the characters and the effects that their choices make. Though at face value, this film portrays rebellion of social norms, deep down it actually sets a precedent of what not to do. The parameters of how the film actually reinscribes social conventions will be assessed Keywords: paradigm, social construction theory, rhetoric, expectations, reality, happiness.

A paradigm is a set of beliefs or assumptions that create a specific reality for a group. That reality contains our values and these values are, at least in part, socially constructed. Social construction is a theory that human values are created by humans for human purposes. The means by which the socially constructed reality is evaluated is through rhetoric. Rhetoric is the ability to ascertain and analyze, in any given context, the available means of persuasion Movies are forms of rhetoric and are important because they convey the general and specific principles of a certain paradigm.

Deconstruction of Conventional Norms The entire movie is a critique on the morality of the supposedly typical American families. Only the unconventional family with the gay couple is portrayed as happy. The Fitts and the Burnhams are all subject to the pressures of conveying a pretense of perfection while somehow achieving happiness.

For Lester, Ricky, and Jane, they undermine social norms.

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For Frank Fitts and Angela, they both adhere to social norms and attempt to go above and beyond in what is expected of them. This suburban angst that occurs leads to a double life that is portrayed in many shows and films today, such as Breaking Bad, Little Children, and The Graduate. These antiheroes, in a sense, are all brought down by the realization of their unhappiness and their inability to achieve their happiness in their current way of life. A major change then occurs, resulting in temporary feeling of contentment and success, before everything falls apart once again. For Lester Burnham, the feeling of false happiness is achieved through his rejection of responsibilities and pursuit of Angela. However, once he was about to attain Angela, he realized that reality was not like his fantasy.

Through the repercussions of his actions, he then gets shot in the end Lester finally learned what makes up his happiness, but only gets to relish in his understanding for a few moments before dying. The ending reveals that undermining societal norms is destructive and should not be done Plot Synopsis.  In the movie American Beauty the lives of middle-class suburban families are influenced by paradigms that dictate the standard of normalcy and happiness. The film introduces the narrator, Lester Burnham, and recounts his dissatisfaction with his wife, child, career, and self Carolyn, his wife, is also dissatisfied with her husband and is harboring feelings of inadequacy with her career His daughter Jane is struggling with self-esteem issues. It is only when Lester meets his daughter’s friend Angela that he is motivated to change. From this point on, he regresses back to his teenage days when he resorts to smoking pot, working out, quitting his job, working at a fast food joint, and buying his dream car.

Throughout this process, his wife begins an affair with her career rival and his daughter starts a relationship with Ricky Fitts, the boy next door and Lester’s drug dealer. Everything unravels when Ricky’s secretly closeted but openly homophobic father assumes that his son is having homosexual interactions with Lester. Meanwhile, everything Lester has worked towards is almost made reality when he is about to have sex with Angela. However, when she admits that she is just a virgin, Lester comes to a realization about everything he has done Just as he regains his understanding, Ricky’s enraged father shoots and kills Lester, resulting in both his as well as the film’s end. Fulfilling Expectations and Pursuing Happiness. The issue that first started the snowball effect in the film was that Lester was unhappy with ultimately everything in his life. His job, wife, and daughter were all dissatisfied with him and vice versa.

As events unraveled, every single main character decided to leave their previous facades and pursue what would make them happy. This pursuit for their own American Dream is a journey that many Americans feel entitled to. According to the book Chasing the American Dream by Mark Rank (2014) there are three elements to the dream: “Having the freedom to engage and pursue one’s interests and passions, the bargain that hard work should lead to economic security and success, and the importance of hope, optimism, progress, and successfully confronting the challenges in life” (p. 152). Whether this is a middle-aged crisis or a revitalization of yearning for the American Dream, Lester‘s dream takes form through the pursuit of Angela. For Angela, her dream is to feel extraordinary For Carolyn, it is to have success in her career. For Jane, it is an overcoming of her self» esteem issues.

For Ricky, it is beauty For Frank Fitts, it is his to maintain his closeted orientation. Though nationalistic habits cause people to believe that anyone can achieve their dream if they tried hard enough, everyone underwent negative backlash for their pursuits, Some did come to a greater understanding afterward, like Lester, but his fate was met with death. It is important to remember the satirical nature of the film. Lester Burnham, or any character in that case, is in no way a model of perfection to follow and the film reinforces that with the unhappy ending. An interesting difference to note is that for the female characters, their happiness is reliant on beauty, the definition of beauty is dependent on the individual character. However, for all the female characters, beauty is not pursued solely for its physical or internal merits, but instead, it is wanted because of the power that is gained through it In the book The Psychology and Economics o/Happiness: Love, Life and Positive Living, lack of happiness comes from, “a deficit of ‘mental goods‘, rather than a lack of material goods”.

These mental goods include love, a sense of security and autonomy, contentment, self-esteem, self-acceptance and freedom from anxiety. All these female characters lack the mental goods needed for happiness, Therefore, to be happy, they all have individual goals in the film. For both Angela and Jane, they try to achieve a sense of self-empowerment but pursue it in different ways Angela seeks sexual desire and envy from others in order to create a pretense that she is extraordinary Jane seeks it through feeling trying to feel authentically beautiful, while Rick enables her to realize by the end of the film, Carolyn, on the other hand, is more focused on a regain of power from her disconnect with her husband, daughter, and career. She attempts to achieve this through having an affair in which she feels both beautiful (and wanted) as well as powerful.

American Beauty shows obvious gendered separation of the focus on power, having the women be represented by beauty only belittles the situation of the female and generalizes women as superficial. The fact that the only character that understands beauty is Ricky Fitts, a male, only reinforces this idea. He sees beauty through an inanimate object whereas the women try to find it through the appreciation and recognition of others Similarly, the issue with power manifests itself through repression and misrepresentation. Just as the women of this film have their own gendered focus, for men (other than Ricky), this focus is through authenticity, or a lack thereof Like his wife, Lester pursues a regain in his power through. His repression of happiness occurred because of his compliance with societal norms. Power, to him, is freedom and he achieves this by renouncing every previous responsibility, he is at the peak of this freedom during the culminating scene where he is about to fulfill his desires with Angela.

However, when she confesses about her virginal state, Lester realizes the irrationality of equating happiness with Angela, He realizes his mistakes and, in the last scene where he looks at the picture of his family, also realizes that he had happiness but he overlooked it because of his ‘desires’. Frank Fitts, however, maintains his repression of sexual orientation, which then transforms into a misrepresentation of his self, It is the internal buildup that causes him to seek power and control over others. In psychiatric terms, this would be called the Paranoid Stater With the issue of laten homosexuality first explored by Freud, Dr, Salzman (1960) wrote an article explaining the effects of this state: “The paranoid state. .. is accompanied by secondary defensive externalizations, projections, and transference of blame made necessary by the environment” (p.679). The paranoid state is what causes Frank Fitts to desire an overly controlled environment. When his environment becomes disorganized and he loses control, Frank reverts to blaming others. He blames Lester for denying Frank‘s advances and therefore, blames him for the unacceptable homosexuality. Unlike Lester, who realizes his mistake and steps back, Frank lashes out in this paranoid state and kills Lester.

Adopting the general consensus through structure-functionalism is the guiding force of the following paradigms that, in turn, influence the creation of this film. In American Beauty, the paradigms of capitalism and family are immanent. The need to achieve the “American Dream” includes having a stable, respectable job and being married with kids However, the film highlights the errors that this dream can created from being completely unhappy and wanting to step away from societal norms, like Lester, or following the norm so closely it leads to inauthenticity, such as Frank. With the end resulting in Lester’s death, he acts as a warning to show Viewers that undermining these social conventions leads to demise No one in the end scene actually achieves happiness. On the other hand, Frank tries to stifle his sexuality and trade his authenticity for normalcy, but he also does not end with happiness Instead, he is depicted as a bloody, guilty mess in the end scene Ultimately the film emphasizes the idea that pursuing perfection does not always lead to happiness.

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Social Conventions in American Beauty. (2023, Jan 09). Retrieved from

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