What It Means to be a Man: Masculinity in American Beauty

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What It Means to be a Man: Masculinity in American Beauty
For many, American Beauty is a sober admonishment of the modern suburban society, a class of “bloodless, money grubbing freaks,” as Lester so eloquently describes Carolyn. Swirled amongst the various social commentaries is a particularly strong and thought provoking perspective in regards to how society constructs gender roles and expectations. This perspective takes on additional importance when viewing this notion of “what makes a man.” An analysis of the film’s male characters reveals the swirling gender identities at hand. While Lester spends much of the film attempting to regain his “lost” masculinity and consequently establish a more stable identity, Col. Fitts’ external identity is a charade, a cloak of lies meant to protect his shallow definition of acceptable masculinity.

In the opening scene, director Sam Mendes provides the essentials to understanding how trapped Lester is in his position in American middle class society. As he says, “In a way, I’m dead already,” a bleak outlook that represents a “lost” generation of individuals disillusioned with the false promise of the American Dream. Locked into a menial corporate job, Lester drifts through life with little hope of mobility. The distinction of his role as a secondary character in his own life is enhanced by his wife’s character. Carolyn’s depiction as the pair’s dominant force, both at home and as the economic breadwinner, shoves Lester into a subordinate role, emasculating him (in the sense of traditional gender roles) and threatening his sense of selfhood. Her palpable disinterest in him physically, and the singular control she has over their sex life, leads Lester on an unexpected regenerative journey to reestablish his masculinity. While watching his daughter’s cheerleading routine at a high school basketball game, a figurative spotlight is placed on Angela, marking her as the new focus of Lester’s existence. In Angela, Lester sees somebody whom he can dominate, a sort of status symbol to reassure his place in society as a man. After his starstruck first encounter with the new object of his most carnal desires, Lester remarks, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for about 20 years, and I’m just now waking up.”

Jolted from his brief undertakings into fantasy, Lester is thrust back into the unbearable farce of suburban life that, for the first time, he is beginning to understand as something purely constrictive. When introduced to Buddy, who does not seem to remember any previous encounters with him, Lester sardonically says, “It’s okay, I wouldn’t remember me either.” He has begun planting the seeds of escape, beginning with the harsh acceptance of his anonymity, his place of being ordinary. The fundamental shift in perspective comes soon after, while smoking a joint outside the club with Ricky. Seeing the confidence with which Ricky quits his catering job, while indulging in an activity deemed “wrong” by the society he so despises, opens Lester’s eyes to the possibilities that he has been ignoring for decades. This interaction, though brief, sets in motion the wheels for Lester’s redemption. It is a liberation compounded by him overhearing Angela’s comments that “if he built up his chest and arms I’d totally fuck him.” Bolstered by an awareness of the ability to transcend society’s oppressive standards, and encouraged by Angela’s apparent attainability, Lester embarks on a quest towards his holy grail, which he believes will cement his masculinity. He begins lifting weights and running, believing the obstacles to his self-fulfillment as a man are physical. During the early stages of this transformation, he soon realizes that there are a multitude of constraints limiting his freedom to assert a stable identity. Recognizing that his corporate job is part of the “dead already” Lester of the past (before Angela), he boldly quits his job and takes a position as a minimum...
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