Stereotypes are extremely prominent in modern cinema, the first example that springs to mind is that of the film “American Beauty”, directed by Sam Mendes, in 1999. Here is a seriocomic look at suburban America, which utilizes various stereotypes in order to make a broader statement on the symptoms supposedly brought upon us by living boring suburban lives. While the stereotypes work to the filmmakers’ advantage in the film’s cutting comic stages, once the film devolves into melodrama, the stereotypes become much more apparent, changing the film from a scathing satire to a parable of sorts.
The plot of the film can be summarized by saying that it concerns the character of Lester Burnham, just as he is about to begin a mid-life crisis. Lester is becomes somewhat of a hero to the average, middle-aged, 9-5 American. His wife, Carolyn, is your average fading all-American girl, who has become a shrill drone, critical and sexually unresponsive to her husband’s advances.
Then, of course, is their daughter Jane. Jane is going through the all too familiar stages of adolescence which cause the teenager in question to become perpetually glum as well as perpetually disgusted by anything her parents might say. The only thing she seems to care about is acquiring some sorely unneeded breast implants.
Jane’s best friend is Angela Hayes. Angela might be considered more attractive than Jane, and Angela seems to know this. It is suggested that Angela may only be friends with Jane because she knows this, and keeping Jane around would only make her more appealing to men. Angela constantly brags about her sexual exploits, but one wonders why. The tales she tells, which may or may not be true, paint her in an entirely negative light.
One person however who would disagree with this writer’s position on Angela being more attractive than Jane, would be Ricky Fitts, the new next door neighbor. Ricky is an oddjob who enjoys filming nearly anything that catches his eye, or that he finds beautiful, including Jane, often without her knowing about it. He is the strange and beautiful outsider who turns everyone’s lives upside down.
Why Ricky is so strange is easily explained once one meets his family. His father, Colonel Frank Fitts is an army veteran who is so openly homophobic that one immediately recognizes that he will eventually be revealed to be a latent homosexual. He forces his wife and son to sit on either side of him while he watches old army films and laughs alone. He is aware that his son has a history of selling and using marijuana, and he routinely takes urine samples from him. Ricky’s mother is a piece of work, as well. She has clearly lost her mind. She sits around the house staring at walls, not hearing when people talk to her. One funny scene involves Ricky bringing Jane over to his house, and Ricky’s mother apologizing for what a mess their house is. The camera then cuts to an unnaturally immaculate living room, straight out of a home and garden catalog.
This pretty much sums up all of the major players in “American Beauty”. But the question is, what purpose do these stereotypes serve? It seems that it is to paint a portrait of middle class America, but there is a chance that the film is attempting to skewer these stereotypes. Much is made in Dyer’s article of stereotypes serving as a shortcut. It describes a shortcut as being “a simple, striking, easily grasped form of representation.” Now this would work if the film contained the stereotyped stereotypes, if you will, such as the black man, the alcoholic, or the dumb blonde. However, this film deals with more complex stereotypes, such as the bored American dad, the homosexual who isn’t revealed as such until near the end of the film, and the marriage devoid of intimacy.
For instance, there comes a moment in the film where a revitalized Lester Burnham makes a pass at his wife. He brings up old romantic memories of theirs, back when they were actually in love, and she changes the subject, ruining the moment by telling him he might spill his drink on their couch. While one senses that his wife is overly materialistic, her reaction is more believable because of the fact that she is most likely shocked by his sudden display of affection, and made uncomfortable by it. The idea that the stereotypes in this film are used as shortcuts does not really work in this case because the stereotypes are so fully explained by various methods such as voice over that they are not shortcuts at all, but are in the fact the actual substance of the film.
Nor are these stereotypes manifested out of the “fortress of tradition.” This would imply that the stereotypes of the film are used because of the conventions of the genre, and this film is anything but conventional. As a matter of fact, the film tries so hard to be “original” and “idiosyncratic” that it is clear that the last thing it intends to do is adhere to the conventions now standard in the majority of films. However, this just makes the film even more maddening because while the fact that the film is made by stunningly original auteurs is more or less stuffed down the viewers’ throats, one can not help but feel that they are a little too familiar with the territory that this film explores. The bored and unhappy American family has been written about for ages and ages before 1999, the year this film was released.
Another thing one must examine when discussing the purpose of stereotypes in film is their sociological value versus their aesthetic value. The sociological value, meaning the stereotype’s function in social thought, in this case, is to show us what would happen to the ultimate all-American family that let apathy drive them to their absolute breaking points. The stereotypes in this case are not a negative thing at all, but the point of the story. The inclusion of the word “American” in the title of the film says it all. This film attempts not to tell the story of one family. It is too ambitious for that. It strives to tell the story of The American Family. In an aesthetic sense, the stereotypes flow very smoothly. The film is very slick, and if one were to pay no attention to the stereotypes, American Beauty is a very enjoyable, darkly humorous, deeply involving tale. The stereotypes serve as the backbone for the story, and there is not much of a clash between the sociological and aesthetic functions of the stereotypes, in this case.
Another question Dyer raises considers whether the stereotypes are projected onto a character for the purposes of building the character, or using the
character as a symbol for all those who could be included in that stereotype. To clarify, the character of Lester Burnham could fit the stereotype of bored, detached American father in order to define who he as a character is, or to stand for something bigger: to symbolize all American husbands and fathers. It is to the film’s credit that the stereotypes serve as both.
Using the voice over technique for Lester Burnham, we are given unlimited access to his thoughts throughout the whole proceedings of the plot. Thus the film is a very personal story of this man experiencing a mid-life crisis. However, the film delves deeper into the subject by not so subtly suggesting that all American families are the same. It does not imply that in every facet of the plot, but it does suggest, not unreasonably, that despite the fact that many families appear to others as completely normal and “all-American,” behind their homes’ bright red doors and immaculate exteriors, they have their own problems, quite possibly larger than your own.
So is “American Beauty” attempting to satirize these stereotypes? Or does the film simply use them to enhance the conventions of its plot? One could argue both sides, and not be wrong. A large and heavily marketed facet of the plot concerns Lester’s fascination and lust for his daughter’s uninhibited Lolita of a friend, Angela. There are bizarre sequences throughout the film that are Lester’s fantasies of Angela, and she is the motor that propels Lester through his revitalization. He begins to work out and smoke dope, so that he can be physically attractive and more “in touch” with the younger generation, specifically Angela.
In a film so determined to be shocking, it comes as no shock that his fantasies are eventually realized, in a less than convincing scene where the opportunity to fulfill his desires is presented to him. Up to this point in the film, almost every sequence involving Angela is bizarre and fantastical, and this scene does not break that mold. Has Alan Ball, the screenwriter, chosen to ride this stereotype of the Lolita-esque temptress to its absolute breaking point? Does the film use this scene to try to push the envelope even more than it already has and throw another shock on the audience? Or does the screenwriter believe that this is how this character would actually act? Any of these three possibilities could be correct, but this writer is guessing that the third option is not what Ball had in mind.
Then there is the issue of the Fitts family. The first scene of the film is Jane Burnham telling an anonymous home video cameraman that she wants him to kill her father. The next line of the film is Lester’s voice over, announcing that he will be dead in a year. Then the plot thread is thrown in that Lester’s wife Carolyn is having an affair with her real estate rival, who has a fixation with guns. Naturally, Lester finds out, leaving Carolyn with few options. As you can see, the script has set up several different characters that may be the one who eventually murders Lester. Life for the Burnham family was moving pretty slowly until the Fitts’ moved next door. This is because the Fitts family’s primary function in the plot is to serve as a catalyst for the downfall of the Burnhams. It is established early that Col.
Fitts is a homophobe. Of course, Ricky Fitts is one of the stranger characters to emerge in some time, a detached youth who sees beauty in homeless corpses and plastic bags. His weirdness drives a wedge between Jane and status-obsessed Angela, driving Angela to ultimately make a pass at Lester. But the revelation of Col. Fitts as a latent homosexual towards the end of the film is nothing but a plot device. We have been misled to believe that either Lester’s wife or daughter was going to eventually murder him. Through barely plausible complications in the plot, Col. Fitts is led to believe that his son is having a homosexual relationship with Lester. Of course, since Col. Fitts is a latent homosexual, as soon as he witnesses this, his first reaction is to beat the tar out of his son, and then plant a kiss squarely on Lester’s lips. Once Lester reveals that this was all a big misunderstanding, Col. Fitts retreats in embarrassment, picks up a firearm from his house, and murder Lester.
This would be considered cheating as far as the plot is concerned, having the murder be committed by Fitts, whose reason came out of thin air. However the plot has justified this by having Fitts make a few homophobic remarks at the beginning of the picture. The stereotype of the latently homosexual military man is used for no other reason than to provide an unexpected ending to the story.
The question still remains of whether or not the film uses these stereotypes out of lack of originality, or for a greater purpose. This writer, for one, believes that the film is a satire of these stereotypes. The stereotypes serve a societal purpose. To demonstrate that the Burnhams represent The Ultimate American Family, the film has made them into stereotypes to paint a broader picture, and surrounded them by stereotypes to paint a broader picture of their surroundings. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the film, the extent of these stereotypes and their purpose was not made fully clear until I analyzed the film based solely on the stereotypes it contains. This speaks volumes for simplicity and the complexity of the film.
Dyer, Richard. “The Role of Stereotypes.”