What’s your definition of the American Dream? Until recently, Americans would probably give the standard “good career, suburbs, 2.3 children, and white picket fence” answer. However, with the emergence of mass media and an ever-changing economy, the “American Dream” has taken a dramatic shift.
Gone is the “Leave it to Beaver” definition of families where the strong father figure “brought home the bacon” while his wife held down the household. These days, both parents tend to be career-oriented to keep the household financially afloat. This has led current and future generations to be raised by television and other forms of modern and social media.
Once-upon-a-time, the father or mother figure was the greatest influence in a young person’s life growing up. Now, adolescents may look towards their favorite musician, Instagram model, or reality television “star” for influence.
This transformation in American culture subsequently led to a change in the average American’s definition of the “American Dream.”
The New Media
As quoted by famous activist Malcolm X, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power, because they control the minds of the masses.”
Although this was said in the 1960’s, the words ring true now more than ever. Although Malcolm X couldn’t have possibly foreseen the internet or social media, their influence on contemporary American society is undeniable.
In various videos, people are asked basic third-grade level geography, political, and history questions. The vast majority cannot answer these questions correctly. However, when asked questions about pop-culture phenomena, the correct answers improve significantly. This speaks volumes to the rise of mass media as the main source of information for the majority of Americans.
According to an American Institute poll, 87% of Americans said they get their news via television, and 69% said they receive their news via the internet. Now, the options for where to get one’s news seem staggering, with hundreds of channels and publications available.
However, 90% of media publications are owned by just 6 corporations. This gives an illusion of choice rather than true options. More so, these major conglomerates are profit driven. So, their content steers toward sensationalized headlines rather than relevancy or accuracy.
Rather than provide an unbiased view of events, new stations have adopted the “tell them what you think they want to hear” approach. This is why you can read an article on Fox News and that same event may read totally different on CNN.
The race for viewership among these corporations has given rise to fast-food journalism, where controversial content is provided fast and cheap. This has led to the emergence of the “viral celebrity.”
The case of Antoine Dodson is a prime example of this new type of viral fame. Mr. Dodson helped his sister fight off an intruder and stop a sexual assault in their home in Huntsville, AL in 2010. Rather than focusing on the residents’ brave actions catching the criminal, the media became sensational for Antoine Dodson’s flamboyant interview after the incident.
The interview went “viral” soon after airing, and songs, television appearances, and even movie roles emerged for Mr. Dodson. This, despite having no formal training or experience in any of these ventures.
Although his fifteen minutes of fame has since cooled, many other viral celebrities have surfaced. Some have managed to parlay their fame into reality shows, product endorsements, books, and other media undertakings, subsequently becoming household names.
The “American Dream”
The ethos of the “American Dream,” at its initial core, was built behind the basic concept of upward social mobility. Simply put, anyone, despite previous social and class standing, could come to America, work hard, and put their family on the path to prosperity.
However, Atlantic writer Chris Andrade spoke on his experiences when asking a group of youth in Yazoo, MS their thoughts on the subject.
“I was traveling around the country asking people about the American dream, and when I asked them, they answered without pause, a rapid-fire succession of desires for wealth and fame, obtained via the NBA, NFL, and hip-hop.”
Indeed, it seems the American Dream has shifted from providing for your family with a good career, to being rich, famous, and powerful while doing the minimum of real work.
The dramatic shift of the premise of the American dream coincides with the rise of mass media around the 1960’s and 70’s. The popularity of early soap operas in the 1970’s gave rise to the voyeuristic obsession into the lives of real celebrities. It also led to development of one of the first reality television series, 1984’s “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous.”
This show was the forefather of shows like MTV’s “Cribs” and “The Real World.” Despite the glamorous lifestyles these shows portray, they never mention that many of these possessions are rented or leased to portray this sort of lifestyle.
It was even revealed later that MTV encouraged celebrities to rent more luxurious homes and vehicles for the basis of filming if they felt the celebrity’s real house and cars weren’t extravagant enough. The illusion of choice given by the media corresponds with the illusion of wealth broadcast by these shows, all revolving around advertising and consumer dollars.
For many, the “American Dream” has become all about wealth and fast money. However, there are still those few in society that still hold on to the original ideology of hard work, family, and the pursuit of happiness.
While Americans may have become numb to the luxuries afforded to them simply by being born here, immigrants in this country still hold on to the idea of the “American Dream.” Another quote from the previously cited Chris Andrade article sums it up,
“A recent immigrant from Mexico, taking his son fishing in the Rio Grande on a bright Sunday, shot back when I asked about the American dream. “I am living the American dream. I have a job, a family, and my son goes to a great school, and if he works hard enough, he can have any job he wants. I didn’t have that. He does. That is a dream come true.”
The media may have warped the idea of the “American Dream” in the minds of many, but immigrants prove the original concept is still alive and well. They’re living proof of it.
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