The American Dream is rooted in American idealism, the notion that the United States of America is the “ideal” country. U.S. imperialism capitalized on the popularization of mass media to propagate its cultural influence. The inter-relationship of the American Dream narrative and media aggravates the dangers of cultural imperialism since film representations now define what should be the American experience.
Sana Maulit Muli (1995) by Olivia Lamasan
Starring Lea Salonga and Aga Mulach, this romantic drama portrays Filipino immigrant struggles and the issue of cultural assimilation. Agnes is invited by her mother to live with her in America. Jerry, Agnes’ partner, pushes Agnes to go since he intends to focus and build his own career in the Philippines. Despite her constant objection, Agnes eventually flies to the U.S. Struggling to survive there, she repeatedly tries to convince Jerry to allow her to return to the Philippines. Jerry insists that he should be the one supporting her. The gender dynamic in the Philippines and the legacy of traditional patriarchy is represented by Jerry’s assertion of being the “man of the relationship”. His long-distance relationship with Agnes falls apart due to the pressure of pursuing the American Dream and their constant miscommunications.
Years later, still in the U.S., Agnes is portrayed as an independent career woman and real estate agent. Agnes’ character transformation from a timid caregiver to a successful woman is an example of cultural assimilation as she “changes” herself to achieve the American dream. She successfully adapts to American culture which was evident in her fluent English, even speaking the imperialist language during informal conversations.
The American Dream is a recurring theme in the film as indicated in the conversations between Agnes and her mother. Agnes’ mother frequently mentions that Filipinos would do everything just to reach America since it has all the opportunities to make it big. Jerry’s cousin even participated in a green card marriage while his sister was scolded for not doing the same. Yet the film is also consistent in crushing this fantasy as it reveals the challenges of Filipino immigrants from labor exploitation. What lies beyond the economic and labor situation of our overseas workers are the consequences of this ideology in terms of creating a hierarchical mindset amongst Filipinos. The scene where a Filipino employer degrades a Filipino worker touches the issue of individualism as it pits non-American individuals against their fellow countrymen — only to be both exploited by U.S. capitalism.
The portrayal of Agnes’ success story in this film, however, falls short as it fails to discuss America’s social hurdles such as systemic anti-Asian racism, a difficult barrier to overcome by sheer hard work alone.
On The Wings of Love (2015) by Antoinette Jadaone
This Filipino romantic-comedy series features a girl, Leah, who wishes to work in America to fulfill her late mother’s American Dream and a boy, Clark, who has already been living his “American” life. Leah is forced to marry Clark out of convenience in hopes of getting her visa to legally stay in the U.S.
Despite being a romantic story, the series also has several socio-political references as it represents the Filipino diaspora community and the post-colonial promise of the American Dream. This dream has socialized Filipinos to believe that America could save their family’s economic status. Since this dream is even passed down from a mother to a child, it is ingrained onto Leah’s mind that everything is achievable once she lands in America. The whole “fake marriage” scenario is also driven out of Leah’s desperation to achieve this illusory dream as well as Clark’s economic conditions since he needs to financially support his siblings in the Philippines. It realistically reflects Philippine society, where working conditions are harsh and the labor force exploited seeing that the characters are forced to work in the U.S. to escape poverty.
On The Wings of Love tackles all the nameless Filipinos who have become victims of U.S. imperialism — both in terms of Philippine labor export policies and the cultural impact of the American Dream narrative.
Minari (2020) by Lee Isaac Chung
The American Dream is neither unique nor exclusive to Filipinos. Portraying the Korean diaspora narrative of the American Dream, Minari features an immigrant family struggling to grow a farm in rural Arkansas after moving from California. Emigrating from South Korea in the 1980s, Jacob and Monica decide to pursue a better life in the west. The pursuit of their long-standing American Dream, indicated by the establishment of their new livelihood, is limited again within the bounds of America. Moving from state to state within the U.S., the extent of their financial and familial ambitions is restricted inside a single setting.
The Korean diaspora in the U.S. reached its peak in the 1980s during the third wave of Korean migration. The influx of Korean immigrants during this era was a direct result of the unstable political and economic climate in Korea, the unsurprising root cause of which was the growing involvement of the U.S. in Korea’s political and economic restructuring.
In the couple’s decision to migrate to the “land of opportunity”, it is already indicated that the couple has this rose-colored vision of the American Dream. Jacob’s dream then leads to the near-separation of the Yi family, as he grows more obsessed with making his farm thrive at the expense of jeopardizing his family’s security. Minari, despite being a heartwarming family story, depicts how even our own families can fall victims to this harmful illusory dream.
The clash between different cultures is one of the central themes of Minari and it particularly characterizes the result of U.S. cultural hegemony. The film unveils the consequences of this dream as the Yi family struggles with their Korean-American identities. It conveys how the affected communities of U.S. cultural imperialism do not only patronize American culture, it also extends to forgetting their own identities.
What exactly does the U.S. gain from the American Dream narrative?
The American Dream narrative generates socio-economic demands as it socializes non-American groups to accept U.S. imperialism as it is. While an economic system revolves around the processes of reciprocity, redistribution and market exchange, it later creates societal values that glorify patterns of consumption. This is the consumer culture; it causes people to consume goods and services that are excessive to basic human needs. Consumerism promotes a materialistic lifestyle which gives way to consumer exploitation. It binds the ties between the consumers and the market since pleasure and personal identities become dependent on material possessions.
“The illusion of the American Dream endorses a successful life in a new land, but in reality, only selected privileged groups could surpass all socio-economic challenges and achieve this dream.”
The U.S. sells this consumption culture as the ideal life to dominate other countries for it standardizes the consumer’s product choices. Since the concept of consumerism helps in the expansion of the market society, western products and services are being offered to their non-western counterparts. This leads to western cultural assimilation, homogenization, and ultimately, global monoculturalism. This makes the affected countries economically and politically dependent on the west. This only benefits the U.S. as these countries become a market for surplus finished products while being sources of raw materials, cheap labor, and international market opportunities. Assembly lines and agricultural mono-culture are also adopted in the American industry for mass production and mass consumption, giving way for the U.S. to become a global market empire.
The American Dream has always been political — it is a weapon and a feature of U.S. cultural imperialism as they “Americanize’’ everyone’s lives. It forces groups outside America to see America and its citizens as “desirable”, which leads them to alter their identities and accept American norms. The U.S. utilizes mass media to spread western culture and homogenize people’s way of thinking and consuming. Non-western individuals subconsciously participate in this consumer culture and it extends to their cultural identities and behavior. While the mass media propagandize, the colonial lie of the American Dream continues to imperialize.
The illusion of the American Dream endorses a successful life in a new land, but in reality, only selected privileged groups could surpass all socio-economic challenges and achieve this dream. Therefore, we should change this dream into a “We succeeded” narrative and not only as “I succeeded”. It should be inclusive and accessible to every marginalized community. As long as it has inequality and opportunism in its nature, it will always be only a dream to achieve the American Dream. In fact, it is within these words we decode the truth: the dream of the American Dream is no one’s but the American’s dream. And what other way to disrupt the white man from dreaming than tearing down his bed built from the resources, labor, identities — the lives of other nations?
Down with US Imperialism.