The Media Has Ruined Success Now, more than ever, the media permeates all aspects of our lives. The impact and influence that the media has over us rivals the influence of our family and friends. Music, television, radio, books, and the internet surround us constantly and their effect is far greater now than in the past because of the ubiquity of computers and smartphones. The media also influences our culture. A large part of our cultural identity is the American Dream and part of the American Dream is the myth of the success.
In America, success is seen as the self made man (or oman) rising above even the most dire of circumstances to get an excellent job, a new car, and a house in the suburbs. But the current trends in the media no longer support the myth of success and are actively colluding to destroy it. The basic archetype of myth of success was shaped in the 1800s. Some of the most recognizable and enduring stories regarding success in America were those by Horatio Alger. His tale Ragged Dick follows the same formula as many of his other stories.
A young man works hard and with a stroke of luck becomes wildly successful. This is the quintessential American myth of success. But in the essay Horatio Alger Harlon Dalton has a different notion of Alger’s work calling it “socially destructive” (261). How can this be? Alger suggests that one need merely work hard and opportunity will eventually knock. He addresses the fact that many people are born behind the starting line, but asserts that no matter the obstacle it can be overcome. However Dalton’s “objection to the Alger myth is that it serves to maintain the racial pecking order.
It does so by mentally bypassing the role of race in American society” (364). This seems a bit harsh, but though Alger attempts to make the case that regardless of where one might start, where there is a will there is a way, this ignores the many aspects of life that one cannot change e. g. race, gender, disability. Even back in the 1800s media made promises regarding success that it could not hope to keep. The time after the second world war was one of social upheaval and instability. Beginning in the 1950s, however, things began to change.
As Coontz writes in What We Really Miss About the 1950s, it’s important to “understand the period as one of xperimentation with the possibilities of a new kind of family, not as the expression of a longstanding tradition” (31). People needed help navigating a new way of life that necessitated new rules and they looked to the media for guidance. “At the time, everyone knew that shows such as Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best were not the way families really were.
People didn’t watch those shows to see their own lives reflected back at them. They watched them to see how families were supposed to live” (33). Looking for Work by Gary Soto echoes this notion. In the story he talks about his childhood attempts to convince his family to mimic the people he watched on television. When his siblings press him for the reason why he says, “If we improved the way we looked we might get along better in life. White people would like us more” (25).
Interestingly, he cites many of the same shows as Coontz as influencing his behavior. Even a child could see the framework for living these shows provided and the belief they instilled that following their lead would lead to success. But this again flies in the face of reality. Minorities faced, both then and ow, difficulties that cannot be resolved by acting out the fantasy that the media holds up as the way to success. This is a continuing pattern of promises made by the media that fail to hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
At some point people stopped looking towards the media for guidance and began to believe that it reflected reality for other people. One contributing factor is a lack of visual cues. Just as “clothing disguises much of the poverty in the United States” (286) it also narrows the gap in people’s minds between themselves and the successful and wealthy. The media establishes how people are supposed to dress but in an effort to appeal to all, no matter the how poor or well off the character on screen might be there is little to visually distinguish status.
The problem is audiences see people on television and in movies, who look quite similar to themselves, enjoying nice things and it’s easy to make the cognitive leap that they should be too. “Research has found that people who extensively watch television have exaggerated views of how wealthy most Americans are and what material possessions they own” (317). When what people see on the screen fails to atch the reality of their own Ilives they often set out to correct that discrepancy usually at the cost of their financial stability.
Although fixed costs (such as housing, food, and gasoline) have gone up for most families over the past thirty years, these [increasing] debt-and-bankruptcy statistics in fact result from more people buying items that are beyond their means and cannot properly use anyway” (323). Modern media is a direct influence on this troubling phenomenon. The issue is compounded when one notices that television characters rarely seem to struggle with money. Any issues are addressed in passing and resolved without lasting consequences. The message that comes across is that successful people don’t worry about money and things work themselves out.
So it comes to no surprise that “studies have also found that extensive television viewing leads to higher rates of spending and to lower savings” (317). Audiences feel validated in stretching their finances to the breaking point to acquire all of the luxuries that they believe everyone else has. Today’s media still dictates to society how to achieve success but the plan they present is flawed. It makes people believe that spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need dictates success. But spending oneself into bankruptcy is the opposite of success.
The media has always played a crucial role in defining what success looks like to the American public. In the 1800s Horatio Alger’s writings laid a seemingly simple plan to achieve success. Fast forward to the 1950s and popular television laid out new guidelines for what success looked like and gave people another blueprint on how to live successfully. In modern America the media shows us how successful people live and what they have, but in the rocess of creating an escapist fantasy for audiences it has glossed over the how those people have achieved that success.
The media has equated the purchase of things with obtaining success. This has set people back in the long run as they spend every dime in a bid to keep up with the Joneses and show everyone just how successful they are, not realizing the precarious position they place themselves in. The shape the myth of success changes with the times as it bends to the will of the media that defines it, but trying to achieve these types of success is a losing proposition.