I started researching the American identity back in January when I began my University Studies class at Portland State University. Our focus in the class was popular culture and one of the big questions that we were tackling had to do with the connection between popular culture and its effect on identities. We started the discussion by making a list of different labels that we associated our identity with. One of the main labels on my list was “American,” and I began to ponder what exactly it meant to be an American–especially in the current political and social situation of the United States. From there, I began questioning how the image of an American was perceived in popular culture. Even just perusing the internet for memes about Americans and the United States, a general consensus of fat, flag-bearing, obnoxious, and overindulgent people dominated the screen. I felt like my identity of being an American was somehow lost in all these images, and I worried that people from other countries would not even know that there were Americans that weren’t like this. I decided that the American identity was not made up of just one type of person, even though that’s how it appears. Instead, there needs to be a shift in how Americans are shown in the media because there is too much of a beautiful diversity of personalities, races, and beliefs that make up the American identity to be boiled down to only a few “types” or labels.
One of the first artifacts of popular culture that I decided to analyze how Americans were portrayed was the television show, The Secret Life of an American Teenager. In this show, the main character, Amy Juergens (played by Shailene Woodley) discovers that she is pregnant at only fifteen years old. The biggest thing I notice about The Secret Life of the American Teenager is that it is a show with relatable characters and relatable settings—especially for teenagers, which are the primary audience. At a first glance, the characters and types of people that are represented in the show appear to be fairly diverse. However, the types of people are slightly stereotypical when it comes to high school-aged characters in the high school setting. There’s the cool heartthrob, the gorgeous cheerleader, the band geek, the best friends, the love interest…the list goes on and on. However, these stereotypical characters have one thing that separates them from others: they all have a secret side that you originally wouldn’t have thought of.
A reoccurring theme in the show is the desire that the teenagers have for sex. At first, I wanted to accept this message that the show was giving off—that all American teenagers are thirsty for sex and some of them will do whatever it takes to have it. However, as I thought about it more, I started to ask myself if this show had truth to it, or if it was distorting and lumping all types of teens into one category, and what I decided was that even though a show may be proclaiming a message, it doesn’t mean that Is the total truth for every “type” of person it represents. Often, this happens in American culture, where many people do things just because it is popular and everyone else is doing them. However, just because our society deems something as “normal” or “popular” doesn’t mean that those qualities are part of our identity. My identity, according to Preston King, “consists of an articulation of who and what I am, as perceived by myself and by others, and it most relevantly relates to some species of organization in which I am caught up, involuntarily and otherwise” (King 595). With so many individuals identifying themselves, it would be impossible to lump them all into one identity or group of identities. Thus, the American identity is, in fact, made up of many identities—it is far too diverse to be just one identity.
The second artifact that I studied was the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This film is a spin on the classic Western, at the end of the Western era, with a play on nostalgia. The most obvious thing to notice about the film is the push and pull between the two types of men that are represented: John Wayne who plays the iconic, burly, masculine cowboy, and James Stewart who plays the educated, civilized lawyer. There is a tug between the way things used to be and the way things must become. The American identity that is represented in this film is incredibly old-fashioned and archaic. Despite this, we still see many of these ideas American identity in the media today. Women in distress, emotionally-absent men, and only the main characters are white people. Even when films and television try to be diverse, they are often criticized as not being so. The problem with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that it tries to say that men are either one way or another, and women are one way or another—it is too black and white. An American is not just one way or another. There are far too many personalities, races, beliefs, and appearances for the American identity to be boiled down to one thing.
Our identities often feel like they are wrapped up in our gender and our beliefs about gender. I experienced this even when I attended my first hall meeting in the PSU housing. We all went around introducing ourselves, and part of what we told others about ourselves was our pronouns. She, he, him her, etc. It is quite interesting that we find a need to explain these types of things about ourselves to people, and it is all wrapped up in our identity. It matters to us that we present ourselves correctly to the rest of the world. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, both the John Wayne character and the James Stewart character loudly show who they are not only through their actions, but also in the things they say. Their identities are wrapped up in how the people around them perceive them, and they must fight to showcase who they are.
This goes right along with what Schildkraut determines as American “ideals.” She writes that some of the main American ideals that we associate with the American identity are “individualism, the notion and promise of hard work, freedom, equality, and the rule of law” (Schildkraut 442). All of these are present in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I believe these are still present in our society today—these are even things that we are taught in school growing up.
The third artifact that I studied was the song, “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen. The song talks about the pointlessness of the Vietnam war effort, and this is something that seems to have stuck with all the wars following. People have not had the same reaction towards war since then. The feeling that the general public had in the United States towards the First and Second World Wars was quite different than the Vietnam War. There was a major shift in how veterans and war were viewed from that moment on. This song also has an interesting contrast between the chorus and the verses. The chorus seems to boast pride in the country we are born in—a sense of nationalism—while the verses seem to lament what has become of the Americans who had gone off to war. I think this contrast is very relevant to our situation today where many people are not proud to be American due to the political and social unrest that is going on.
If our country is divided about almost everything, and people do not agree with how the country is being run—the president as a figurehead for example—it is hard to be behind our country when we don’t know where it stands. However, I think that we should be upholding the ideals of our country—which would mean we would have to revisit what America is all about—and be proud to be an American. What holds our nation together, Starr writes, “is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (Starr 21). Being an American shouldn’t be divisive, it should be inclusive. It should be a united movement. It should be people coming together with the dream of being who they are and lifting up and encouraging everyone to be who they are. Thus, there should be many “American identities” because there are many different people, but each and every one of those identities should hold the same amount of validity, honor, and strength as another.
What I have decided is that my identity as American is almost whatever I want it to be. That is the beautiful thing about being an American—I hopefully have a choice to be who I want, do what I want, and fight for what I believe in. King also writes that many “identities, at the ethnic or national level, are ‘American’, not one of them can confirm or supply any universal or abstract instantiation of Americanness” (King 619). Therefore, my American identity cannot be another person’s American identity. I want to live my life being mindful of that—to view every person I encounter with as much grace and empathy as I would want to receive. I don’t know circumstances of people’s lives that have made them who they are. All I know is that we are all important and valuable and unique—and even though it doesn’t seem like it most of the time, our country is a pretty good place to live out those ideals.
King, Preston. “Being American (Politics of Identity – XI ). (Author Abstract)(Report).” Government and Opposition 42.4 (2007): 593. Web.
Schildkraut, Deborah J. “Boundaries of American Identity: Evolving Understandings of ‘Us.’” Annual Review of Political Science 17: 441-460 (2014). Web.
Starr, Paul. “Who Are We Americans Now? And Who Will We Become Under Trump?” American Prospect 28.1 (2017): 18-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.