The American Dreamers: The Broke, Broken and Beautiful

'The American Dream' by Violette Bule

As I write this, my mind is processing a movie I watched last night called 'I Care A Lot'. Rosamund Pike recently won a Golden Globe award for her role as the ruthless and ambitious 'Marla Grayson' in the film. She described it as 'a satire of the American dream' that reveals various social issues, including the state of elder care in the United States, are intertwined with the pursuit of the American dream. 

In the film, Pike's character justifies scamming the elderly in a monologue: “Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor.” Interestingly, there was another film that made headlines after its historic win as Best Foreign Film at the Globe Globes Awards in 2020, which (indirectly) critiqued the American dream as well. 

That film was 'Parasite'; it was intended for a Korean audience yet it gain substantial success in the United States. I have a theory or two about why the story was well-received in America and what we can learn from movies like it, in regards to the adverse effects of the 'American dream', capitalism, poverty, and systemic inequities on the American psyche.

The Broke, Broken and Beautiful 
'Parasite' is a film about the class divide in Korea, therefore it's situated in a very different cultural context than that of America but it resonated with the American audience nonetheless, as it deals with the issue of wealth disparity. In 2019, 40% of Americans were one paycheck away from poverty and the poverty rate has been rising since the pandemic began in early 2020. 

Firstly, 'Parasite' shows the less glamorous side of what Americans would refer to as the 'American dream', which is portrayed in movies like 'I Care A Lot' as the relentless pursuit of material wealth and social status. 'Parasite' director Bong Joon Ho equated the American dream to "standing on very thin ice"; it has a shiny and solid facade but often times the pursuit is accompanied with insecurity and the fear that at any moment you can lose your standing, which leads to stress, neglect, greed, and a feeling of inadequacy. 

The film brings our attention to the issue of social class and the social stigma associated with poverty and a lower socio-economic class, which Americans prefer to avoid discussing just like the way we're hesitant to talk about money as it invokes a variety of emotions. Some of us may feel shame and anxiety while others feel guilt and fear. 

Sometimes it's the combination and culmination of many emotions, which becomes "'a justification for silence' that prevents people from having to confront the unpleasant fact of their own wealth in an unequal society." It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge our privileges because we fear what it might mean for us. Could we lose our privileges or be expected to be more responsible for how we use them? So, here's a movie that's not about Americans but relatable enough for us to see ourselves in them. 

"We [Korea] became a wealthy country very fast. And people who weren't able to board that fast train towards wealth, they feel lost. And they feel a sense of inferiority... The economy is not just about numbers. It carries a lot of emotion as well." — Bong Joon Ho

Secondly, 'Parasite' addresses the fragilities of the American dream by showcasing the psychological and emotional frustrations of those struggling to make ends meet while the gap between the rich and poor continues to increase. Against the backdrop of the divide between the wealthy and poor in South Korea, 'Parasite' highlights the effects of capitalism and a country's rapid economic growth and modernization and what could happen to a person's psychological state when they're not able to "board the fast train towards wealth". 

However, there could be another reason for the film's popularity, particularly among the privileged  the film doesn't idealize the poor and some may find that refreshing, though not unproblematic, to say the least. Though the film distastefully took cheap shots at the poor, working class what I find useful about is Bong's desire to highlight the emotions and trauma responses resulting from wealth disparity and social inequities. 

The Evolution of the American Dream

When a concept becomes normalized we take it for granted. But as an immigrant in America, I have wondered, "Where did the notion of the American dream come from?". 

In her book, Behold America, Sarah Churchwell explored the origins of the well-known phrases 'American dream' and 'America First' and how they were appropriated by political parties and different groups. She wrote extensively on the meaning of 'the American dream' and how it evolved in the 1950s when it was used as a strategy for soft power.

"The original 'American Dream' was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy."  Sarah Churchwell, Behold America: The Entangled History of "America First" and "the American Dream"

Over time, the American dream has become overwhelmingly about financial status, consumerism, and material wealth; the dream is about what the 99% can do to support and benefit the 1%. In 'Parasite', the consumer capitalist version of democracy is portrayed as the cause of a sense of inferiority in Korea, or a more intense version of it, an inferiority complex. So, in what ways has the capitalist definition of the American dream affected the American psyche? 

Inferiority Complex as a Trauma Response

Wealth disparity, gender inequality, and systemic racism are some of most pressing issues, nationally and globally. However, there seems to be a lack of research on the impact of capitalism, inequality,  neoliberalism, and racism on the psychological and emotional health of a society, particularly on how they affect behavior and lead to trauma responses such as inferiority complex. 

Inferiority complex is an intense and fundamental feeling of inadequacy. A person who is diagnosed with inferiority complex struggles with low self-esteem, self-doubt, and believes they are inferior to or less than others.

Then, there's superiority complex; an exaggerated sense of self-worth that hides real feelings of mediocrity. On the surface, a superiority complex appears like high confidence but it masks an inferiority complex. The phrases 'superiority complex' and 'inferiority complex' are not interchangeable because they have different symptoms. However, both are driven by a feeling of lack and inadequacy, which creates low self-esteem.* 

At the same time, feeling inadequate or inferior is considered common by psychologist Alfred Adler who first coined the term 'inferiority complex' and made the following argument:

"Everyone (…) has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development." 

(*Please avoid performing a self-diagnosis. Speak to a mental health specialist to receive professional advice or proper diagnosis.)

Low Self-Esteem Among Girls and Women

Women are among those who are most affected by inequality and capitalism. For example, low self-esteem is a risk factor for mental illness, particularly among girls and women. Researchers discovered that girls' confidence start to plummet when they reach puberty. They attributed girls and women's low self-esteem to rumination, people-pleasing or perfectionistic behavior, and feeling overwhelmed by constantly struggling with social validation due to social media use. 

However, gender inequality, systemic racism, poverty, and a lack of infrastructure must also be considered as significant contributors to low self-esteem and the further alienation and marginalization of girls and women.

In her book 'Empowerment and Community Practices',  Dr. Elisheva Sadan highlights how women are uniquely disadvantaged by the division of what is considered worthy of public discussion and is openly and publicly discussed from what is not such and belongs inside the private sphere. Men are more often connected to the public domain, hence their issues are regarded as more critical and worthy of public attention. 

Women aren't the only ones who are harmed by this division. When women's issues and affairs are overlooked, children bear the brunt of it. Children in poverty may have a higher tendency to underestimate their intelligence and capability. Without support and self-awareness, they might adopt a scarcity mindset and grow up as adults who live with the long-term consequences of it, such as an inability to make decisions for the long-term because they are focused on short-term needs. 

United States of Anxiety and Stress

Stress is a universal experience and poverty can affect anyone, regardless of race, belief, or gender, but both are experienced differently by different individuals and groups. Despite diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) initiatives, minority women in the United States have the lowest income and earnings due to a host of factors, such as racial discrimination, constrained social networks, labor market inequities, and social and economic policies. 

In a 2009 Gallup Report, American Muslim women were noted as one of the most highly educated female religious groups in America, second to American Jewish women. Yet, many visibly American Muslim women struggle with discrimination and unemployment like Muslim women in the United Kingdom and Europe, where several studies revealed that employers are less likely to employ Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf)

'Intersectionality in Organizations: Why 'Bringing Your Whole Self' to Work' is not Sufficient by Dalberg

Our minds and bodies carry stress and trauma related to poverty, oppression, discrimination, injustice, abuse, and shame. While studies reveal some stress can be good for us, various types of psychological stress responses, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression release stress hormones such as cortisol that affect our health. Trauma survivors are three times more likely to deal with irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers also argue poverty effects the development of children's brains, which may lead to mood disorders such as depression and substance abuse in adulthood.

There's also evidence that chronic stress may rewire the adult brain: it builds up the part of the brain designed to handle threats and the part of the brain tasked with more complex thought becomes weaker.

Poverty is by no means the only cause of stress and inferiority complex, especially now that we're dealing with COVID-19-related stress, but money, work, and the economy are frequently cited as stressors in the United States, and they're now exacerbated by the pandemic. 

The Personal is Political 

On the path to personal and collective healing and resilience, we must acknowledge that individual change is not independent of systemic change, particularly within communities of color and marginalized groups. Many of us live in cultures and systems that were designed to disparage us, be it intentionally or not. 

For that reason, it's important to acknowledge individual empowerment and societal progress is both an internal and external process, so we can balance personal responsibility while holding external parties accountable for their part. 

Dr. Elisheva Sadan unpacks what individual empowerment means in relation to one's socio-political and geo-political environment in her book 'Empowerment and Community Practices'. (Her digital book is available for free here.) 

"The personality structure, as we know, is significantly influenced by environmental conditions. A person is not formed only by heredity and conditions of growth and care, but also by opportunities and experiences in the world around him.... The human condition is complex, fluid, and constantly changing. The individual does not live for or by himself. He is part of a context and is defined by his situation... Empowerment is based on the belief that people have skills and abilities, but need circumstances and opportunities in order to express them."  Dr. Elisheva Sadan

One way to end systemic inequality and empower communities is to not underestimate the importance of policies and systemic change, and to be intentional and strategic when uplifting and empowering marginalized individuals and groups. 

Healing from Trauma and Low Self-Esteem

Action comes from hope and optimism about the future of Americans and what I hope to see more is a balanced approach to success and happiness that's not entirely motivated by fear and scarcity, but by a mindset of abundance and the desire to love oneself as a whole person — mind, body and spirit. 

Understanding the impact of capitalism, gender inequality, wealth disparity, and systemic racism on our physical, mental, and emotional health is central to our growth, empowerment, and healing as Americans, especially among Black communities and communities of color. With this knowledge we can manage our agency and strategies to empower ourselves, heal from traumas, and work collectively and efficiently to create policies that will bring systemic change through the lens of intersectionality.

"... as deeply divided societies turn unstable and unhappy. We need a new American dream based on equality and sustainable growth. The cost of sharing opportunity and wealth may be high for today's elites, but the alternative is far worse." - Alberto Gallo, 'How the American Dream Turned Into Greed and Inequality'

Healing and resilience begins when we learn to face and understand our beliefs and fears without defensiveness and when we have the knowledge, tools, and resolve to address them. 

But first, let's de-stigmatize trauma. There's no shame in experiencing it and realizing how much it has affected us. Let's challenge and unlearn capitalistic definitions of self-worth, productivity, and means of expressing our identity and achieving success. Let's make space for healthy beliefs and habits that will pave the way for us to lead fulfilling and healthy lives.