Selling the American Dream

Posted by in Articles, Home Affordability | 27 comments

This post was originally published on October 21, 2009. However, some of my best posts were written within the first few months of blogging when I had only a handful of readers. Enjoy a blast from the past… (can you tell I’m swamped this week!)

My husband and I love watching movies at night, thanks in part to Netflix, it’s really easy for us to download a new or older flick. However, we have noticed a disturbing trend in movies, even those that are 20 years old or more. The characters in films, whether they are broke, middle-class, or wealthy, have beautiful homes. It doesn’t matter if the character in the film has a high paying job, or a minimum-wage salary, or is out of work, they somehow own a substantially-sized home. How can this be? Basically, as my husband so eloquently put it, the film industry is selling us the lie of the American Dream.

Let me begin by saying that I know a few years ago, with the whole mortgage fiasco, many people were able to purchase a home well above their financial means. So, perhaps 20 years ago, it was a similar situation, which is why we also see this trend in older films as well as newer ones. I know films also exaggerate life, and films only want to show us what we want to see. According to tinsel-town, the American public wants to see all families living in large, beautiful houses. So, the lie perpetuates because we want it to.

Yet, it got me thinking, is this American Dream something that is a reality for most people? Does the film industry take the majority of the population’s living situation and just expand it for all it’s characters? I did a little homework on BestPlaces.net to check the percentages of home ownership across the nation in a few different cities and this is what I found:

  • First, I took a look at Los Angeles, CA, since this is the county I live in. The home ownership rate here is 37%, compared to the national average in the United States of 64%. Okay, so this makes sense considering the high cost of property. What doesn’t make sense is the recently released movie, Smother, (a really bad movie, by the way) showing a young couple owning a beautiful Craftsman-Style home in Los Angeles on a beautiful tree-lined street. In this movie, the character’s include a wife, that is a teacher (we all know that teacher’s aren’t wealthy by most standards), and a recently laid-off husband, who goes back to selling carpet. My take: Selling the American Dream by Lying. (Two other movies off the top of my head with similar scenarios that take place in LA: I Love You, Man and Big Trouble : outrageous homes on a small income).
  • I then compared Fargo, ND, whose home ownership rate is 45%, to the national average of 64%. One of my favorite, slightly older, movies is Fargo. According to BestPlaces.net, less than half of the people in this city are homeowners, so again the reality of all the movie’s character’s living in a terrific home is off. My take: Selling the American Dream, though the freezing cold winter’s may keep some people from settling down permanently.
  • A more realistic view from a film that I like would be Singles, a movie about single people living in Seattle (again a film from the early 1990′s). The characters in this film all rent apartments and struggle to meet a life partner and pay the rent. According to Bestplaces.net, this is a more realistic view with the home ownership percentage at 45%. My take: A realistic perspective of young 20-somethings and early 30-somethings trying to keep their heads above water and get their life figured out.
  • Another city I compared is Albuquerque, NM, with a home ownership rate of 56%. You could almost call it Americas Home Place since more than half the residents own homes. I recently watched Sunshine Cleaning, set in Albuquerque, NM. The film stars the lovely Amy Adams (from Enchanted). The house the main character owned was quite a fixer upper, but it made sense considering she was a single mom who cleaned houses for a living. My Take: a much more realistic version of life, which is refreshing in a film.
Sunshine Cleaning -  a more realistic life view coming from the film industry.

Sunshine Cleaning – a more realistic life view coming from the film industry.

Of course, I’m not quite sure where Bestplaces.net came up with the national average figure of 64%. Each city I researched, and there were quite a few others that I didn’t list, kept coming up around the 50% range. There must be one state in which the majority of the population owns homes, but I didn’t find it.

Do any of you notice this in films you like? Do you ever find yourself sneering at the characters saying, “How did you afford that lifestyle and that house on your meager income?” Do you think the film industry is purposely selling the American Dream or just trying to lift our spirits and give hope to those that haven’t achieved it yet? I’m I being too cynical, or obessing over this topic?

27 Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Susan Tiner

    Think of the gorgeous Pacific Heights, San Francisco home in Mrs. Doubtfire. Also, the huge, stunning Manhattan flat in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters.

  2. FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com

    You’ve totally hit it on the head!!!!

    Sex and the City is the biggest culprit for this. Carrie is a starving journalist with barely enough money for heat, yet she lives in a NICE, large apartment that is rent-controlled in a great location, and has $1000 a pop to spent on a pair of shoes

    Hello!?

    And in other movies, I am seeing the same thing. Nothing is “real” anymore, and while the houses here are (in general) larger than they were in the past, or in other places of the world, it isn’t the norm.

    I can tell you from personal experience that the American Dream is not affordable. Even on a close-to-half-a-million-dollar salary, my brother is barely affording to save for retirement, pay for kids’ private tuitions, drive 2 cars (Toyota and Honda), with maid service once a week, and a house of around 2500 square feet in a great neighbourhood.

    He is considered “normal” for all intents and purposes, but his salary is not!

    Yet people who earn $60k a year total, think they can afford what he has. Total disconnect.

    Awesome post.

  3. Mrs. Accountability

    LOL. I actually have never noticed this, but now that you mention it, I probably will. What I do notice is how nearly every single movie, including children’s movies, is overly sexualized, full of sexual innuendo that I can only imagine Hollywood assumes must be there in order to keep the parents entertained.

  4. Little House

    Thanks for the comments everyone!
    @Susan – you’re right, I forgot about Mrs. Doubtfire, again a terrific home. However, I think Sally Field’s character lived in the house and the dad was renting a crappy apartment. But, thanks for that addition.

    @FB – Thanks for the kudos! I think in the future the American Dream definition will have to be revised. Too many of us can’t afford that vision anymore.

    @Mrs. Accountability – Sorry for pointing this out, it will now drive you crazy! The adult humor in children’s films must be for the adults, I’m sure the kids don’t have a clue.

  5. 101 Centavos

    Nice observations, LH.
    We shake our heads sometimes at the irrationality of regular American life depicted in popular entertainment. Even alleged reality shows like House Hunters on HGTV are staged to some extent.

  6. Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer

    I always thought the apartments in Friends were unrealistic. There was no way they could afford them on the salaries they seemed to have even with roommates.

    You’re right this was a great article!

  7. Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter

    I think this image of the American Dream just puts extra pressure on people because it is so unrealistic. I saw the movie “keeping up with the Jones’s” last year and it really drove home how much pressure and unrealistic the American dream is. It was quite a serious movie actually. It showed how some people even go to the point of suicide because they can’t take the pressure. This is so sad. Can the dream be to be as happy as you can be, regardless of what you own and have?

    • Little House

      @Miss T – I skipped that movie, but maybe I’ll check it out. It is really sad that there’s this pressure to buy more stuff, buy bigger homes and new cars. Never is it mentioned how people can afford it (debt).

  8. Hunter @ Financially Consumed

    Yes, it’s all a bit misleading. Along the same lines as Kay Lynn mentioned, the kids on iCarly live in an unrealistic apartment. My kids want to live like them…no pressure!

    • Little House

      @Hunter – I’m sure that your kids will have a more realistic view of young adult living with your financial knowledge. Of course, any image of a great big apartment will burst when they finally apartment shop for themselves many years from now. ;)

  9. krantcents

    Films are entertainment! They are not documentaries. Unfortunately, most people believe the fiction in the films and it becomes real. The craftsman home you mentioned in your article is probably a $1 million plus home. Definitely out of the range of most people.

  10. Christa

    I can’t think of any houses/apartments that really stand out other than the ones mentioned above — the Friends apartment, though, is definitely the most unreal. Although, I think they explained that it was a gift from Monica’s grandmother or a rent-controlled…Anyway, I agree that Hollywood glamorizes everything, including housing!

  11. Don@MoneyReasons

    My “how can they afford it” was the TV show “Married with Children”. Al is suppose to be a minimum wage shoe saleman, yet he lives in what I would consider a pretty nice split level house.

    Movies are much worse! I always thought that the Hollywood types didn’t have a clue…

    Great article! A few months ago, I went back and looked at some of my earlier stuff. I thought I would find garbage, but I was surprised by what I wrote back then too. I wonder if I can get back to that level (without the typos…)

    • Little House

      @Don – I think I had more time to write a year or so ago. Lately, I’ve just been writing school papers! But, I have over 550 articles to choose from over the years, so I might be drudging up some more soon. ;) As for the homes in movies, they just are so exaggerated. However, the last couple of recent films I’ve watched seem a bit more realistic.

  12. Invest It Wisely

    I think it’s a mistake to try and boost home ownership at the cost of making loans to those who can’t afford it, driving up the prices, and so on. Renting has its upsides, too, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both styles of living. If you can’t afford a home just yet, nothing wrong in renting. It may be the best thing for you in the meantime. ;)

    • Little House

      @Invest it Wisely -I’m fine with renting for now, especially since we’re talking about moving in the next year or so. If we had bought a home a couple of years ago, we’d be stuck.

  13. gilbert

    I think that people are starting to get used to a new normal. They are realizing that owning a big house isn’t necessarily going to happen for everyone anymore. I had a larger home and had to downsize. Even though its just me and my wife right now I still want the feeling back of having the big beautiful house. I think we have been conditioned to want it.

    • Little House

      @Gilbert – Everyone wants to own beautiful things, but to what expense? Small can be beautiful too. Sometimes, if you spend less on a smaller home, you have more money to make it just the way you want; gorgeous. Less can be more!

  14. MoneyCone

    “Do any of you notice this in films you like? Do you ever find yourself sneering at the characters saying, “How did you afford that lifestyle and that house on your meager income?””

    Hehe! All the time! Movies don’t mimic life!

  15. Marquis

    Well, I believe most people believe the fiction in the films and it becomes real. The craftsman home you mentioned in your article is probably a $1 million plus home.

  16. Crissa

    Thanks for this very informative post! Keep posting some more!

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