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Social Commentary – “The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald), “American Beauty”, “Betty Bowers”

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A successful piece of social commentary selects an issue (or feature) of a society and identifies a series of aspects that contribute to that society. By doing this, the author raises the awareness amongst readers and makes them reconsider the accepted state of affairs and challenges a position held on those certain issues. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a severe indictment on American society in the 1920s, with particular emphasis on the disintegration of the American dream corrupted by materialism of the upper class, the moral decay and carelessness of the wealthy. The Great Gatsby is successful in that his comments are a readily accessible feature of his book, through the use of contrast and symbolism. The web article “Miss Betty Bowers” criticizes modern day celebrities and the Catholic Church through the use of exaggeration, puns, language and tone. The movie American Beauty is a strong criticism on the family structure and values of society in the 1990s. . Both “Miss Betty Bowers” and American Beauty are both extremely successful in making social comments by using satire to deliver their messages.

“The Great Gatsby” reflects the social attitudes of the time and positions its characters as symbols of the 1920s social trends. It includes comments on the underlying motives of the American dream, the excesses enjoyed purely for the sake of hedonistic fulfillment and the acceptance of corruption in society. The American Dream, in this novel is presented throughout as a materialistic dream focused only on acquiring wealth and possession. Fitzgerald successfully uses contrast between East Egg and West Egg to represent these values. The West Egg represents the “new money”, portrayed as being vulgar and lacking in social taste. On the other hand, the East egg represents the old money and possesses grace, taste and elegance. The lives of the Buchanan’s, in East Egg, are filled with material comforts and luxuries, yet are empty of purpose. Even though Tom and Daisy are so wealthy, they always seem bored and miserable because they are ‘spiritually bankrupt’, thinking money can ease their minds.

They struggle to see beyond the physical and material. Gatsby’s beliefs are also extremely materialistic, believing that material possessions will win Daisy’s heart. “He opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed shirts and dressing gown, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks in a dozen high.” This quote represents the materialism of a society living in excess, using descriptive language such as “hulking patent cabinets”, “massed suits” and uses the simile ‘piled like bricks in stacks…” The shirts are described like bricks and this portrays the beliefs of Gatsby and the 1920s society in that bricks are the foundations of homes, a necessity and requirement to achieve any goal to all. Bricks are also known to come in large amounts, i.e. bricks that make up a house, and this emphasizes the excessiveness of the situation. To Gatsby, the excess of shirts is completely necessary in achieving his dream of Daisy.

Gatsby’s dream is also doomed to fall from the beginning by the fact that his ideal was Daisy and that it was her wealth and social status that drew him to her in the first place. Daisy, like most others, is consumed by the materialistic values associated with her ‘social class’. The difference between Gatsby and the others is that he has a higher purpose to all his spending, giving his spiritual values, whereas the lives of the Buchanan’s and Jordan are empty, devoid of any direction and purpose. We can see this from the fact that Gatsby’s room, the only room he ever uses, is empty compared to the rest of the house.

Fitzgerald also comments on the moral decadence and carelessness of the upper class, effectively using symbolism. The first symbol is the Valley of the Ashes, an industrial wasteland, representing spiritual desolation. “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York-every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.” The wild extravagance of Gatsby’s parties are symbolic of the shallowness and aimlessness of society during the 1920s. The ‘guests’, symbolized by the oranges and lemons, would just turn up, regardless if they had received an invitation, eat and drink, without even meeting Gatsby. The moral decay is further shown when only one guest from the parties attend Gatsby’s funeral.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness…let other people clean up their mess they had made.” They were neglectful of their moral responsibilities and always retreated back to their money. The deaths of Myrtle and Gatsby are the most careless and immoral actions in this novel. Daisy does not claim responsibility of Myrtle’s death, instead, lets Gatsby take the blame and runs away with Tom.

The Web Article “Miss Betty Bowers” successfully criticizes modern day celebrities and the Catholic Church through the use of humour, sarcasm and incongruity.

The author begins the article with “Dear Brothers and sisters in Righteous Fury” This use of propaganda portrays the article as patriotic when it is, in fact, the complete opposite as she is criticizing her own society. The author uses inclusive language and terms such as “Friends”, “Brothers and sisters” and “We…” directly including the reader. She uses the pun “Bed, Bath and Beyonce” taken off “Bed, Bath and Beyond”. This implies that celebrities are ubiquitous and are all fundamentally the same. She further criticizes them through the analysis of Tom Cruise, calling him a “laughing Scientology robot”, emphasizing the idea that they are all identical. Bowers uses formal language, which is incongruous to the tone being created, making the article more convincing and creating a very sarcastic image of modern-day celebrities. “…so that are more palatable confected approximation…” Even though the subject matter is not serious (she thinks they are mad), the formal language adds validity to the article, making it seem as if it is an educated and well thought-out opinion.

Bowers then moves on to discuss the fact that image seems to be more important than substance in today’s society. She comments on how actors are so caught up in their own protected image created by their publicists. “Mr Cruise began to confuse the Tom Cruise his publicist had created…” She speaks of the celebrities as if they are a completely different species. “…introduced to Mrs. Patsy Ramsey (clearly infested with demons hopped up on prescription diet pills)” She uses this technique throughout the article, managing to keep the reader by her side. She then goes on to comment on the thin line, which over the years has increasingly been blurred, between the role of celebrities and politicians. To support this argument, she uses Laura Bush’s recent ‘newsworthy’ spelling error of “‘commit’, with an exuberant, if illiterate, extra t?”

Bowers continues to use sarcasm and humour to criticize the Catholic Church and its recent scandals. “…find someone whose appearance would be so frightening to small children…able to consummate the oily seduction of even the neediest altar boys.” Her entire criticism is full of sarcasm. Her commentary throughout the entire article is also successful because her audience already shares the same opinions and beliefs, being left-winged citizens. They are critical and have an active interest in current affairs. Lastly, she further encourages readers with “Sign up for a free newsletter”

The film American Beauty successfully uses shot construction, symbolism and dialogue to comment on modern day issues. The film deals with the issues of materialism in today’s society that in turn leads to deteriorating family and societal values. The first impression to the audience of the Burnhams is that they are a typical middle class family, living in a perfect life in a beautiful home. They are then made to think different by the Dad, Lester – “We used to be happy”. This alerts the reader to pay close attention to the gradual deterioration of the Burnham family. The mother, Carolyn, is suffocating under the values of her society, where success and image made through money is the top priority. Her determination is seen through “I will sell this house!”, followed by strong, upbeat music. Shot construction such as the blinds behind Carolyn after failing to sell the house, shows the imprisoning effect on her by her value systems.

Materialistic values are shown later when a romantic moment is ruined by Carolyn, who is afraid of spilling win on her expensive Italian leather couch. “It’s just a couch…a couch!” is Lester’s reply. Here Carolyn realizes that she has placed her work and pride before her family, which should be her top priority. The dinner table scenes throughout the film present the Burnhams as a typical nuclear family, with the parents on the side and the teenager stuck in the middle, symbolic of family situations. Many parents would related this image to their own family. The atmosphere is empty and hollow, with Carolyn’s elevator-type music playing in the background and awkward conversations and arguments. The director, Sam Mendes, also uses symbolism through colour. The colour red appears whenever lust and desire is being portrayed. For example, red rose petals appear during Lester’s fantasies of Jane’s best friend, a vixen cheerleader. All the characters all want more than they already have, thus red appears.

The themes tackled in these texts differ dramatically as do the texts themselves but the underlying commonality is their ability to comment on aspects of their culture and society. The three texts have used a variety of techniques to express their commentary. F. Scott Fitzgerald using symbolism and contrast in The Great Gatsby, sarcasm, exaggeration and tone in “Miss Betty Bowers” and shot construction, dialogue and symbolism in American Beauty. Although there is a variation, they have all successfully managed to comment on issues such as materialism, hollowness and image/success because of their individual techniques. The texts that have been considered were generally effective at making social commentary on various issues relevant to their culture by production by raising awareness of certain issues or features of their society.

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