The Finale of American Exceptionalism?
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Five years ago, American pop culture experienced a series of events that prompted a major cultural reset. “Fifty Shades of Gray” had just been released, fulfilling Wattpad fantasies across the internet; “Hamilton” took center stage, stirring a sudden interest in the personal history of the Founding Fathers; Adele said “Hello,” and 12.3 million people found that interesting.
Yet the defining moment of the year—and perhaps of the decade—was June 16, 2015, when President Donald J. Trump officially announced his presidential bid with a campaign rally and speech at Trump Tower. At the conclusion of the speech, Trump famously declared, “The American dream is dead.”
And that is one promise fulfilled. Fast forward to 2020, amidst an out-of-control pandemic, today’s America is in a state of economic decline, racial animosity, and rampant inequality. The most memorable moments of 2020 won’t be coming from a film, song, or play—it’ll be from the very leaders that run the show.
The current administration’s shoddy handling of the coronavirus can be seen as the last nail in the coffin of the ever decreasing state of America’s perceived cultural dominance. It has essentially, in other words, reduced the illusion of American exceptionalism to shreds.
The ideology of American exceptionalism doesn’t just mean that the U.S. is “unique.” Countries, just like people, could all be classified as “unique,” regardless of underlying similarities; exceptionalism requires something more. Exceptionalism is the belief that America is predestined to follow a path that is fundamentally different from that of other countries. If two roads diverged in a yellow wood, America wouldn’t just take the one less traveled by—it would step outside the very road itself and into a seemingly superior moral and cultural state, free from the ails of another world’s problems. It is the exception.
This idea of America’s cultural exceptionalism comes primarily from the mid-20th century. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Americans sought to build a peaceful and prosperous image following the instability and deprivation of World War II and the Great Depression. This came with the development of American soft power—the attractiveness of a country’s culture or domestic values—to strengthen its international moral and cultural appeal as a superior alternative to Soviet authoritarianism.
America’s determination to redefine its culture led to the emergence of its film and music industries on an international scale. Film and television presented an idealized image of American family life: happy housewives, hard-working fathers, and playfully mischievous children. Rock and roll music, with stars like Elvis and David Bowie, celebrated young love and freedom from the oppression of middle-class society. This combination of post-war media painted America as an ideal country—one that celebrated equality, justice, and democracy.
In recent years, however, American culture has been defined by works that directly critique it. From horror films like “Get Out” (2017) to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) to dystopian films like “Joker” (2019), genuine showcases of the American glory ages are far and few between.
This cultural shift is reflected on the international stage. In the faraway days of early 2020, “Parasite” (2019), directed by Bong Joon-ho, earned the Oscar for Best Picture—the first non-English film to do so. Even before “Parasite,” however, the Oscars have been dominated by international faces. Only one American director, Damien Chazelle for “La La Land” (2016), has won the Oscar for Best Director since 2010; the rest are Mexican, Taiwanese, and European.
American influence on the small screen is also slowly yet steadily dwindling. Had it been decades earlier, an American network might have bought the rights to repurpose hit TV shows like “Money Heist” (2017-present), which is in Spanish, or “Dark” (2017-2020), which is in German with English-speaking actors, but streaming sites have already provided a platform for the original version. Even American stories aren’t a retelling of its current climate—the majority of stories in film or TV nowadays are set in fantasy worlds like “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019) or are nostalgia trips like “Stranger Things” (2016-present).
In early September, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” opened in 41 countries, but America was not one of them—cinemas remain closed in most regions, including the key markets in New York and California. Even more humbling, perhaps, was that “Tenet” was not the highest-grossing movie of the weekend; it was “The Eight Hundred,” a lavish Chinese action-war film.
As the rest of the world reopens, America is faced with an out-of control pandemic and a polarized political climate. Gone are the days of desirable Americanization—even internally, American culture seems to protest against its status quo.
Our culture is a reflection of the current state of the world. It’s something interesting to think about the next time you watch, listen, or spectate; times are changing.