America has become an ever-lasting symbol of freedom, equality, hard work, prosperity, and open-mindedness, which shines brightly and glamorously towards many of the underprivileged and lesser-developed countries of the world. However, as some foreign peoples look to our nation in awe, some view it with disgust and anger, as do many Americans themselves. It seems that our country has lost some of its respectability and some of its values. No longer do school children respect their parents or teachers and no longer does the concept of hard work reach all corners of society. Crime and terrorism continue to evoke fear, television becomes more and more offensive, and the concept of a unified American people is becoming hideously unrealistic. Americans are becoming harsh, hypocritical, lazy, and obsessive.
A particularly frightening crisis facing our country is the maliciousness or unkindness present in our actions and opinions, but more importantly, our entertainment. As stated in “They Want Their Mean TV” by Karal Ann Marling, Americans are cruising along a destructive path resulting in “cultural nastiness” and “unbridled meanness” (577). Today’s television has become one of the most controversial topics debated over in public and private arenas, and has even become an issue explored by the government and manufacturers. The current generation has witnessed the birth of “a scintillating balance of sex and verbal violence” caressing the airwaves and, in turn, our eyes and minds (577). With cut-throat “reality” TV, talk shows, and various other heinous programs, Americans have shifted their attention to watch people “sweat, fret, scream, scheme, eat bugs, and diss one another in nastily amazing ways” (577). An unprecedented amount of violence and vulgarity is entirely noticeable on prime-time television and in the latest flicks at the box office. Numerous studies relate the overly-aggressive and violent members of society to television and other projected media; “nasty television produces nasty audiences” (578). By watching such violent and gory shows, Americans are becoming numb to the effects of death and pain, as well as compassion. “[H]umiliation—other people’s discomfort—is pleasurable stuff…Those are somebody else’s troubles on the screen, and, as such, [are] of no real consequence to [us]” (577-578). Sitting on our couches, watching the rampant guests of talk shows and the arguing members of the latest “reality” series, we simply watch, with mild interest, the drama unfolding before our eyes. We have become an unkind people because we love to watch others in their times of despair.
Harshness also relates to the attitudes Americans have towards other people, or even their own people. This country was founded on ideals of freedom, equality, and autonomy, but many of these liberties cease to apply to all members of society--particularly minorities. There exists a “sense of…measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (DuBois 563). We tend to determine a man’s worth by the color of his skin or by the beliefs he holds. This fact is also evident in an illustration entitled Cream of Wheat by Edward V. Brewer. A child is shown sitting in a wheel barrow with a whip in mid-air about to strike an old African American man who has stopped to light his pipe or a cigarette (565). This image represents how Africans were once treated as cattle pulling a young nation down a rough and rocky road that eventually would lead to ultimate success. America was carried along by slaves who harvested and fed our country, but we harshly treated them as sub-level humans. We are not a nation of total open-mindedness or acceptance; everything has become an issue of race or creed and hate crimes are becoming ever more popular. Even today, laws must be enforced to ensure that minorities receive equal benefits and positions in society. This harsh inequality eludes to yet another dilemma: American culture is hypocritical.
Equality is something that has never existed in this country and will never exist because of our history with slavery. Sure, we like to boast about how we have risen through the decades to become a tolerant and unbiased people, but we still have deep-rooted prejudices. Our nation is hypocritical in the sense that it forces people to lead double-lives, each of which are important, but defined and dictated by the other. W.E.B. DuBois defined this “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” as double-consciousness (563). He believed that African Americans have two identities: the American and the Negro (563). They fall under the definition of American and should receive the same freedoms as the majority whites, but, under some invisible clause, are deprived of many of the privileges owed to them. Again, Brewer’s image points to a people that were the backbone of a struggling nation, but were simply treated as a means to an end. We esteem African Americans for their triumphs, but still do not esteem them equally with whites.
One aspect of culture that is not so deeply-rooted in the past is sloth, which has become one of the most destructive factors eating away at American society. Because our nation has become one of shortcuts, we go to great lengths to lessen our work loads or to invent some sort of gadget that will perform the most meaningless task in hopes that our lives will be made a little bit easier. Fast food, video games, televisions, and microwaves all contribute to this attempt, but they also contribute to our problem with a lack of exercise and movement. Marling points out that “life is…viewed in one’s living room, where mindless activity…rather than quiet attention seems to be the norm” (578). Because we tend to sit and stare at a television for hours on end, we are becoming an overweight and lethargic people. Such obesity and laziness is depicted in Richard Billingham’s Untitled, 1995. Although the photographer was British, his image clearly depicts how people “let themselves go” and turn into dirty, fat slobs. The photograph shows a woman sitting at her coffee table, putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Although this is a common activity, what makes this image genuinely crude is the sloth and physical appearance of the woman who is overweight, tattooed, greasy, and in an environment surrounded by cigarettes and clutter (553). Sloppy, soiled, and unkempt, digging through a box of puzzle pieces while trash piles rise from the floor, this woman represents one hideous, extreme way of thinking existing not only in America. This attitude is the result of subliminal messages flowing throughout our society, claiming that “to be unconcerned with the body or its needs…is much wiser than to care” (Bordo 560). Sloth and obesity are becoming cultural norms as they continue to ascend the charts documenting the leading killers of Americans. However, they are representative of an extreme viewpoint, the opposite of which involves obsession with the body rather than carelessness.
In this era marked by pictures, magazines, TV shows, and advertisements, we are fascinated with ourselves, our bodies, and images. Our nation has become obsessed with beauty and image because “it’s easier to wish ill to an un-pretty, un-famous face with missing teeth and acne scars” (Marling 577). As a result, we idolize the “beautiful” people shown on television or in movies theaters and turn to surgeons, dieticians, or personal trainers to give us the faces or bodies that we want. Despite the fact that professionals are available to help us reach our body-altering goals, many people turn to less conventional methods to get the results they want. Anorexia, bulimia, and numerous other eating disorders are incredibly common, as well as other forms of bodily harm. Such extreme and dangerous illnesses characterize “our increasing fascination with the possibilities of reshaping our bodies and selves in radical ways, creating new bodies according to our mind’s design” (Bordo 559). Such disorders stem directly from societal pressure and the constant reminding that “fat is one of the worst things [we] can be” (558). While some Americans let their bodies become cellulite-ridden sacks, others go to extreme measures that ensure physical “perfection.”
America faces many challenges as it steam-roles ahead into the 21st century. Many various and complicated problems are found deeply rooted in our short but complex history, while many others have only recently come to our attention. In a society so diverse and so intricate, we cannot help but have contradicting influences from every walk of life constantly nipping at our heels, and with entertainment and social issues still engrained in our memories, a numbing meanness has infested our minds and characters. Also, our bodies have become our demise. Americans are either obsessed or completely careless about their health or actions, and will either ignore their desires to farthest extent possible or will succumb to every impulse. Indeed our country does suffer from many internal conflicts that become more and more catastrophic each day, but are we, the Americans, at fault?