Malbreaux: Consumerist Masturbation

The classic take on consumerism in “American Beauty” is still relevant today.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 1/12/17 12:15am

For many Dartmouth freshmen, winter break is a time to reflect on the past term while relaxing with family and planning for the terms ahead. It is a much-deserved period for rest and introspection. And, of course, a time to watch Netflix.

Looking at the promotional poster on Netflix, I didn’t have high expectations for “American Beauty.” An image of a naked woman’s torso lying in a bath of rose petals gave me an impression of a highly-fictionalized, raunchy drama from the ’90s. But after finishing this film, I can sum up the highlights in one simple phrase: Kevin Spacey is the man. Period. And, the character Angela says in “American Beauty,” “there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” Yeah, well, this movie is anything but.

The story focuses on Spacey’s character Lester Burnham, a middle-aged advertising executive who lives with his wife Carolyn — played by Annette Bening — and teenage daughter. After going through a mid-life crisis, Lester concludes that his life has been nauseatingly mundane, as he is unaccomplished in all aspects of living. Lester, the narrator, presciently explains that “in less than a year, I’ll be dead,” then conceding shortly afterward that, “in a way, I’m dead already.”

Lester is dually bound by his monotonous job and his unfulfilling marriage to Carolyn. Emasculated, Lester literally takes a backseat to his daughter when the family commutes. But Carolyn’s dominance in the relationship was not always so — the narration reveals that Carolyn’s demeaning attitude toward her husband started much later in their marriage. This leads the audience to believe there was some clear cause for the change. Even though it is never explicitly stated, it seems that both Lester’s inferiority complex and Carolyn’s high-paying job at a real estate firm were at fault. Affection in Lester and Carolyn’s marriage is dependent on salary, so Carolyn’s higher-paying job became a pressure point. It also explains why Carolyn has an affair with a richer, more successful real estate broker, who she refers to as “your majesty” while denigrating her husband as a “loser.”

These interactions serve as commentary on how American capitalism can breed pernicious materialistic tendencies. In a society where the paparazzi covers celebrities’ fantastic lives 24/7, where tech companies release new versions of gadgets every year and where product branding causes people to change entire lifestyles, escaping from the barrage of a constant cultural onslaught seems impossible. Since the birth of American consumerism in the years following World War II, the struggle for the American married couple has been the possession of an ideal life. That ideal life includes not only material wealth but also a desire to fulfill traditional roles. Carolyn, for example, desires a husband who will be the “man of the house” and, consequently, the one with the larger paycheck. “American Beauty” therefore emphasizes the desire for both material possessions and a normal life in suburban America.

Viewers expect the protagonist to overcome this obstacle during the hero’s journey. However, Lester’s search for independence from a weary life does not come how one would expect but rather through masturbation. In fact, masturbation is constantly referenced in the film, elevating the action beyond an attempt to achieve sexual pleasure. For Lester, masturbation serves as a return to normalcy: to relive his youth when he was “flipping burgers” and “getting laid” — anything to reminisce on his days of freedom before marriage. Even after twenty years of unhappiness, he still has one way to escape the horror that is his everyday reality. Thus, he confesses in the opening scene: “jerking off in the shower. This will be the highpoint of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”

But the beauty in “American Beauty” is not masturbation in the shower. No, the beauty is seen in how wonderfully futile Lester’s attempt at escape from living is. So much so that when he actually dies, his voice-over recalls the moments that made life worth living —not the Mercedes SUV or the two-storey house but “lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars and observing the yellow leaves from the ginkgo trees that lined our street.”

Sometimes, it is hard for us to keep focus on what truly matters in life. As we enter 2017, “American Beauty” retains all its relevance, even nearly 18 years after its release. As people embrace an attitude of “new year, new me,” “American Beauty” is a sobering reminder to be true to ourselves — and that doing so is the biggest accomplishment of them all.