American Beauty through Merton’s eyes

Is anyone deviant who refuses to believe in the American dream? This would also make a good title. The American Beauty is the satire of the American dream, which means in this context that success is equal to financial success. When I first saw the movie I was studying social psychology and Robert Merton. And it is interesting to watch this movie through his eyes and think about it from his perspective. Those who has not seen the movie, watch it, it is really worth it.

Robert Merton is a well-known American sociologist and he wrote about deviancy among many other topics. He defined deviancy in terms of the goals which are accepted by society and the methods which lead to these goals. These goals and methods are balanced till the members of society who adapt to both of them are satisfied. Behavior which differs from normal is the result of discrepancy between the goals and methods. Increase of social deviancy is the indication of social anomie, which means the status when society is running out of its norms.

Effectuation of the American dream is an unequivocal goal for American and western-European societies. The life of American Beauty’s main character (Lester) changes radically when he starts to refuse this goal. To use Merton’s theoretical frame, firstly his adaptation type is ritualism, then he turns towards the rebellion adaptation mode. Ritualism means the mode of adaptation when one rejects the socially accepted goal, but accepts the methods in a ritual way. The starting character of Lester is just like that, the loser, burnt-out office employee caring about nothing. Rebellion is the exact opposite of ritualism, the rebel accepts and refuses the goals and methods at the same time. This might sound confusing but if we think of Lester it all make sense. Lester blackmails his boss with a fake story then he spends half of the amount gained on a car which is an obvious part of the American dream.

The conformists accept both the goals and the methods. Conformism is not a negative term though. Generally members of society are conformists as they are being socialized to comply with the rules of society from their childhood. Freud says that social structure is mainly a tool for controlling the individuals’ impulses. We are just adapting to this structure. Society would not be sustainable if we were not conformists. The ultimate conformist in the movie is Carolyn, who has a fabulous relationship with her gay neighbors, every day she prepares “a nutritious yet savory meal”. Even the gardening scissors match the color of her shoes and she even cheats on her husband in a way it is conform. The total opposite of conformism is retreatism,. In this adaptation type the individual rejects both the goals and methods accepted by the society. In the movie this is represented by Ricky Fitts who is considered as crazy, however he seems to be the most normal character in my opinion.

Within the frames of Merton’s theory the conform Carolyn and the ritualizing Lester are normal while the retreating Ricky and the rebellious Lester are deviant. So the answer to the original question “Is anyone deviant who rejects the American dream?” is yes. However if more and more people question the validity of this conclusion that means the originally accepted social goals are becoming less accepted eventually. If that is so, are we then on the way towards social anomie? Are we becoming more our own satire?

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