A Sociological Movie Review
American Beauty, a film that was written by Allan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes in 1999 is a unique piece that demonstrates many sociological themes throughout the development of the plot. The characters strive to portray themselves as the All American Family. They live in a nice house, drive nice cars and seem perfectly normal to the general public, but the audience is allowed to view the deep set issues that plague the main characters; Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), and Jane's best friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). As the plot develops there are many obvious parallels relating the lives of the characters to Merton's Strain Theory. As the plot unfolds and we begin to understand the values and emotions of the characters, they can each be categorized into one of the five modes of adaptation discussed in this theory.
Robert Merton was a sociologist in the 1930's who reintroduced Emile Durkheim's ideas concerning anomie, but he applied these ideas to a larger scale rather than focusing on suicide the way the Durkheim had. Merton defined anomie as a "situation that occurs when there is a disjuncture between the goals promoted by society and the availability of legitimate means to achieve those goals" (McIntyre 247). His strain theory is based on this definition and it describes five Modes of Adaptation that people fulfill in relation to their goals. Merton felt that Western society possesses a disjunction between goals and legitimate means to reaching those goals, and under these circumstances "deviant behavior ensues on a large scale" (Merton from McIntyre 167). With these ideas it is easy to conclude that the idea of the American Dream, the belief that hard work leads to success, is in many cases, false.
When anomie occurs, people within society respond in many unique ways. Merton characterized the responses of the population into five Modes of Adaptation. The first is conformity. Conformists are the group of people who are accepting of the goals of achievement and the legitimate means of hard work even though they are not gaining from the completion of their goals. The second mode, innovation, differs from conformity. Innovators pursue societal goals but when they lack the means to legitimately complete their goals, they devise their own means which are not always culturally acceptable. Ritualism can be accurately depicted by the idea of just going through the motions and completing tasks without any effort or thought. Ritualists work within legitimate means but they are not goal oriented meaning that they care little about the tasks in front of them. Retreatists are described by their title. They do not accept goals or legitimate means, they retreat or seclude themselves from society. The fifth Mode of Adaptation in Merton's theory is the mode most feared by society, the mode of rebellion. People within this category rebel against goals and means and rather than conforming to the rest of society, they strive to change it to better suit their needs. All four of the main characters of American Beauty can be placed into one of Merton's Modes of Adaptation.
The Burnham family attempts to portray the image of the American Dream. Carolyn and Lester are successful with their jobs, they live in a normal suburban neighborhood in a beautiful house and they have a seemingly normal teenage daughter Jane. Although these three characters try to conceal their issues, with a slightly closer look it becomes apparent that the Burnham family is severely dysfunctional. This is also true of the Fitz family, but they do not portray a normal appearance as well as the Burnham's. Although we never get to see Angela's family, through her actions and conversations it becomes obvious that she is also dysfunctional. Through the actions of the characters and the events that take place throughout the movie...
Bibliography: 1. Sociology at Hewett, Merton 's Strain Theory, 1999
2. Crimetheory.com, Robert K. Merton 's "Dream Machine", 1985
3. Structural Strain Theories, 2003
4. American Beauty, 1999
5. Chicago Sun Times, American Beauty, 2004
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