If the Oscar nominations express the political subconscious of the Hollywood Democrats who pick them, then John McCain could be their man. How does Culturebox know this? Easy: Because the message of American Beauty, the film that got the most Oscar nominations yesterday, is also the message of the McCain candidacy. The point of both is masculine protest.
Consider Lester Burnham, the ad guy played by Kevin Spacey. (He's an advertising journalist, not an advertising executive, but otherwise he might as well be Darren in Bewitched or a character in half a dozen other suburban comedies.) Burnham has to fall in love with a blonde cheerleader, become a hardbody, regress to his untamed teen-age years, tell his consultant-speak-spouting baby-faced boss to shove it, and humiliate his sexually uptight and materialistic wife, all in order to become a man. Culturebox is not the first to observe the parallels between Burnham and the emasculated wusses who were the antiheroes of the 1942 pop-sociology hit Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie. The link is "momism," or as Wylie put it, "megaloid momworship," which he thought was turning American men into saps.
Wylie also advanced what would quickly become America's most powerful cliché: the idea that the domestication of the American landscape equaled the triumph of the feminine principle. "Our land, subjectively mapped, would have more silver cords and apron strings crisscrossing it than railroads and telephone wires," wrote Wylie. "Mom is everywhere and everything and damned near everybody, and from her depends all the rest of the U.S." Social critic John Keats picked up the theme in his 1957 Crack in the Picture Window, in which he attacked suburbs as both "doll houses" and "vast, communistic female barracks" which were turning out "mass-produced human beings."
One of the ironies of American Beauty's suburban clichés is that they come at a moment when the nation's intellectuals are waking up to the fact that the stereotypical feminized suburb no longer exists, if it ever really did. With more Americans living in suburbs (138, 231,000 of them) than not, the suburbs are no longer warehouses for women and children. Suburbs have become fully formed communities, with jobs for men as well as women, to say nothing of hospitals, universities, cultural centers, bachelors, divorcees, old people, apartments, houses, retirement homes, and at least as much civic engagement as can be found in the typical city, if not more. As American-studies professors Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen admit in their new book Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, when they first set out to write the history of the suburbs, "we didn't understand that suburbia even had a history, we imagined it as an anesthetized state of mind, a no place dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption." They soon realized their mistake.
When clichés linger after their accuracy has been questioned, it's because they're useful in some way. Whatever its objective truth-value, American Beauty says something about the way the men who were moved by it feel. And the way men in Hollywood feel, apparently, is that jargon-wielding mama's boys lord it over them at work, spiritually hollow wives undermine them at home, and lunatic right-wingers who happen to be closet homosexuals are beating up members of their family next door (Culturebox is referring here to American Beauty's mad Col. Fitts, the U.S. marine who turned his wife into a zombie and routinely knocks his son Ricky to the floor.)
The best thing a political candidate could do for these guys is talk back for them. And that's what John McCain is all about. John McCain's biggest selling point in Hollywood has got to be that he's telling the Republican establishment to go fuck itself--especially after all the crap Hollywood has had to take from people they clearly see as the moral equivalents of Col. Fitts. McCain's second biggest selling point is that, with his war-hero background, he's more of a man than George W. Bush or Al Gore, both of whom could be stand-ins for Burnham's mealy-mouthed boss. Is McCain's policy discussion a little abbreviated? So much the better--at least he's not spewing bullshit jargon. Does he lack a certain awe for the sanctity of marriage, having divorced his first wife and married the then-24-year-old Cindy? Well, that plus his gender-gap problem show he's not pussy-whipped, a quality that must be gaining in importance to male Hollywood executives as more women join their ranks. What could possibly be as gratifying to the Lester Burnhams of the movie industry as watching McCain whip the Republican elders in line, wipe that smirk off Bush's face, and stand up to that girly establishmentarian, Al Gore? Seeing American Beauty sweep the Oscars, presumably, which is why it probably will.