Most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably heard someone say, “America is a classless society.” When we think about class and social hierarchy, America is the last country that comes to mind, with others such as India and Japan, popping into our heads first. The idea that the United States is a classless society goes hand-in-hand with the ultimate promise of our free country: the American Dream.
I have briefly touched on the idea of the American Dream in a previous post, but here I’d like to dive a little deeper into this “promise” and analyze the ideas, stereotypes, and images it implies and creates. Further, I’d like to apply the notions of the American Dream, societal myths, and hegemony to the television show Malcolm in the Middle.
The American Dream: Reality or Myth?
In their book, Media Messages, Linda Holtzman and Leon Sharpe quote Jennifer Hochschild, a professor at Harvard University, on the key components of the classical American Dream.
“The four elements of the traditional, classic understanding of the American Dream are as follows:
- The belief that everyone can participate equally and can always start over.
- The belief that it is reasonable to anticipate success.
- The belief that success is a result of individual characteristics and actions that are under one’s control.
- The belief that success is associated with virtue and merit.” (Holtzman and Sharpe, 2014).
These core beliefs set the stage for other assumptions that have inevitably developed as a result of this idealistic view of success in our country. Often, there is an idea that the poor deserve the way they live because they lack virtue, merit, and are naturally lazy. This is why there is so much pushback to cut publicly funded safety nets from traditionally conservative lawmakers and higher ups (food stamps, welfare, and the like).
It is easy to blame ourselves for the shortcomings in our lives when this is the mentality of our culture. Even when we put hard work into moving up the social and economic ladder, we often condemn our efforts because our society reads the iconic American Dream as the ultimate truth and way to success.
However, when we begin to look closely at the system in which we live, it becomes obvious that the American Dream is far from the truth indeed. There are many societal, political, and cultural barriers to this notion of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Unequal distribution of wealth, higher costs for housing and health care in poverty-stricken regions, and institutional racism are just a few of these many barriers. As well, there are many policies that perpetuate these issues based on political and economic ideologies.
Next, I’ll take a look at the television comedy Malcolm in the Middle to decipher the messages it presents about social class. In this process, I will specifically analyze how the myth of the American Dream plays out in Malcolm’s life and the lives of his family. I will also comment on how hegemony, the idea that people consent to dominant cultural ideologies through the proliferation of its values in society.
Malcolm in the Middle‘s American Dream
If you have never seen the show, Malcolm in the Middle is a television comedy that ran from 2000 to 2006 about a lower-middle-class family struggling to find their place in society. The family lives in a typical suburban neighborhood in an ambiguous location, the children attend public school, and the typical marks of lower-middle-class family life are evident in every episode.
The main character, Malcolm, played by Frankie Muniz, is the third of four boys who constantly feels he does not belong in the family he was born into. The show follows Hal and Lois, Malcolm’s parents, as they battle to raise well-behaved boys. The family is dysfunctional by every meaning of the word and the show chronicles their daily struggles, maladjusted family bonds, and their desire to become financially stable. Below is a brief description of each character:
Lois: strict mother of four boys who doesn’t mess around. Over the years she’s learned how to effectively punish the boys, who seem to destroy everything they come in contact with.
Hal: the typical buffoon working-class dad (a stereotypical portrayal of working-class breadwinners Holtzman and Sharpe discuss in Media Messages). He works at a “scandal-ridden” corporation in a low-level position that scantly provides for his family. He is more relaxed in his parenting but constantly second-guesses his decisions.
Francis: the oldest of the four original boys (in season 4 little Jamie is born, making five boys in total). Steadfast and stubborn, Francis lives at a military boarding school and never misses a chance to defy his strong-willed mother.
Reese: the second oldest son, Reese is somewhat of a buffoon like his father. However, he is portrayed as the dumb, impulsive brute, using his strength to beat up on his younger brothers and bully kids at school but lacking the intellect of most of his family members.
Malcolm: the show’s main focus, Malcolm outwardly tells his feelings to the audience in a strange variation of what you might consider an inner monologue. Malcolm is by far the smartest of his siblings, but he struggles to fit in socially because of his egotistical, selfish nature and the inability to recognize his own arrogance.
Dewey: the youngest (until Jamie comes along), Dewey is constantly suffering the wrath of Reese and the intellectual cunning of Malcolm. Although Dewey’s values are very stereotypical of children his age, he quickly learns from his brother’s and becomes a devious, conniving conman to achieve his personal goals.
Early in the series, Malcolm is placed in an advanced class for gifted children. He is humiliated because he doesn’t view himself in the same place as the Krelboynes, the “nerdy” kids in the advanced class. He is socially outcast because of this placement, but his parents revere it as a sign that they haven’t failed all of their children.
Throughout the series, Lois and Hal continually fight with Malcolm about his intelligence, saying that he should be grateful because no one else in the family will amount to anything remotely successful. This is the myth of the American Dream at work in the show. Lois and Hal can recognize that as they and their other children will always struggle to survive, Malcolm should capitalize on his intellectual strengths to further himself in society.
This is the typical blame that struggling people place on themselves based on the ingrained notion of personal responsibility for success – or failure. This plays into the role that hegemony has played in convincing these people that the American Dream is absolute and that they are to blame for their own shortcomings.
One of the main themes in the show relating to class is the family’s constant financial struggle. Lois and Hal repeatedly put restrictions on the boys in order to save money: hand-me-downs for Dewey, skipping field trips, reusing anything that can be salvaged, and the monthly “mystery casserole” in which every leftover meal they’ve had in the last 30 days is thrown together in one dish and cooked (sometimes last month’s casserole was included too!). One episode finds Lois and Hal arguing over a table covered in bills in the middle of the night, trying to figure out how they are going to afford to keep the house now that they have another baby on the way.
These cornerstones of lower-middle-class family life are portrayed in somewhat of a contradicting light. On one hand, the family always seems to be struggling to survive financially and it seems that hegemony has cemented the dominant cultural ideology of “We’re poor because we didn’t try hard enough” into the family’s rationale. On the other hand, there are occasions on which Lois and Hal seem almost hopeful in the midst of their financial downfall, saying things like, “We’re always found a way, so we’ll find a way now.”
These opposing notions make it difficult to see how the American Dream applies, but once we take into account all the efforts Lois and Hal make to make their lives better, we can see that it truly is a myth. Lois works part-time at a convenience store to help pay the bills; Hal buckles down and continues to work for a company that pays him very little; the family reuses their resources in sometimes revolting and unbelievable ways; and despite all their efforts, they cannot seem to climb out of the lower-class hole they have fallen into.
Societal barriers play a large role in the family’s inability to move up. Throughout the series, we see examples of prejudice and oppression of low-income life from the more affluent characters. This prejudice comes in the subtle form of comments made by neighbors, friends, or other family members, pointing out Lois’ shortcomings as a mother and Hal’s inability to provide adequately for his family. It comes in the form of pity from Malcolm’s wealthy friend and his parents when they invite Malcolm’s family on vacation on their houseboat during which Lois and Hal overhear a conversation beginning with, “They can’t afford to bring their children on vacation.” And it comes in the form of social isolation, disguised as pushback of the family’s dysfunctional tendencies, as the entire community seemingly rejects Malcolm’s family, discluding them from social events and community gatherings.
Hegemony’s Greatest Myth
The examples portrayed above paint a sobering picture of how class is portrayed through our popular media. Malcolm in the Middle is riddled with stereotypes, both of lower-class life and the attitudes of affluent people in response to the ideal of the American Dream. By the end of the series, the family is not any better or worse off than they were to begin with, reinforcing the idea that hegemony is largely responsible for conditioning us into believing our success is based solely on our will and virtue. It does not take into account the debilitating societal barriers that stand in the way of many poor communities improving their status.
So the American Dream can be compared to a false idol. We praise and arguably worship this cornerstone of American society, causing us to believe that we are the masters of our destinies and there is nothing standing in the way of success besides our own virtue, merit, and will-power. Although these factors play into success, in reality, there is an overwhelming denial of the systematic obstacles that are created largely by our acceptance and consent of our dominant cultural ideology, “If we truly work hard, we can accomplish anything.”
When we surrender our hearts and our minds to the power of hegemony, a force that is directly resultant from an intentional agenda of suppression and indoctrination of the idealistic American Dream, we surrender our right to equal opportunity and, ultimately, freedom. Until these systematic and institutional barriers deeply embedded in our culture are called out for what they truly are, hegemony has won.
Sources: Holtzman, L. & Sharpe, L. (2014). Media Messages: What film, television, and popular music tell us about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.