How Jordan Peele’s Us Deconstructs the American Dream & Capitalist Consumption [Spoilers]

Ashley Walton —  March 26, 2019 — Leave a comment

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We first hear the catchy tune “I Got 5 on It” on the radio as the Wilsons drive to their vacation home. From the backseat Jason asks, “What does ‘I got five on it’ mean?” and his sister Zora replies, “It’s about drugs.” Their father chimes in, “It’s not about drugs. It’s a dope song. Don’t do drugs.”

At first, the song seems to serve as an excuse for a humorous exchange. But variations of “I Got 5 on It” play several times throughout Us, often taking on a haunting sound. While the song is indeed about weed, more importantly, it’s about not sharing it for free.

The lyrics by Luniz say,

No, he ain’t my homie to begin with,
It’s too many heads to be proper to let my friend hit it
Unless you pull out the fat, crispy
5 dollar bill on the real before it’s history
‘Cause fools be having them vacuum lungs
An if you let em hit it for free you hella dum-da-dum-dumb

In other words, the song is about getting paid. It suggests you shouldn’t let your friends hit a joint for free. If you do, you’re being taken advantage of because you’re all in the same “low budget” lifestyle trying to get by, so you can’t afford to be charitable. It’s a micro-exchange that creates “haves” and “have-nots.”

Us illustrates the horror we participate in: the shallow notion that greed can be good and the self-centered idea that you can buy happiness. This message is the true horror of Us: that we’re all so busy trying to take care of ourselves, to show our status of wealth, and to keep up with the Joneses that we neglect others. We’re so caught up in the shiny promise of the American Dream and trying to get ahead, that we forget to be grateful for what we have.

In our pursuit of happiness through consumerism, we forget about those who are left in the lower-class prison of the capitalist class system. Us illustrates this message in how the characters discuss wealth and conspicuous consumption, as well as its references to popular culture. From its prominent focus on “Hands Across America” to its references of OJ Simpson and N.W.A., the film shows how the audience participates in creating the unsettling “others” who come from underground.

The American Dream & Conspicuous Consumption 

If we look at Us as a deconstruction of the American Dream, a bizarre line of dialogue makes sense. When the doppelgangers invade the Wilson’s vacation home, they explain their identity by saying, “We’re Americans.” It’s a jarring line without further explanation. However, there’s an unspoken implication that they’re Americans, too. The forgotten clones from underground want a chance to be happy, to live in the sun, and to be part of society. They want to pursue the American Dream.

The American Dream was first mentioned in 1931 in The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams. He defined it as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (374). It’s the idea that anyone can come to the U.S., pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and be successful. However, in the contemporary United States, this dream seems ever-further out of reach.

Study after study shows that socioeconomic mobility in the United States has become  more difficult over the years. In fact, one study says you’re twice as likely to live the American Dream in Canada than in the U.S. The American disparity between the wealthy and the middle class keeps growing, and those in the lower-class typically don’t move up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s becoming much more common for people to be worse off than their parents with 40% of Americans just one missed paycheck away from poverty.

Social immobility coupled with severe inequality makes it difficult to swallow the idea that anyone can be judged on merit alone, regardless of circumstances of birth or position. We live in a reality where the wealthy pass on their status, connections, estates, businesses, and money to their heirs. It’s a reality where you can gain a really great education or a poor one, depending on where you grow up and how much money you have. Yet, the American Dream is part of our identity as a country and persists as a fairy tale, urging us to work harder so we can be rewarded.

To explore how Us deconstructs the American Dream, we need to dive into the topic of consumerism and conspicuous consumption. According to Daily Life in 1950s America, the term “keeping up with the Joneses” wasn’t invented in the 1950s but that’s when it was perfected at scale. The phrase means trying to outdo others through accumulating “material goods to compete with friends and neighbors as a benchmark of social class.” Middle-class families bought more material goods than ever, “wondering if they were falling behind the mythical Joneses, never realizing that the real-life Joneses were wondering the same thing” (52).

Conspicuous consumption became more prominent in the 1950s with the rise of the credit card and the increase in convincing advertising that made people “fear being left behind with outmoded products” (51). What’s more, the government convinced citizens that their consumerism helped win the Cold War by stimulating a strong economy (51–52). Popular opinion shifted away from frugality and toward the sentiment that purchasing something not only ensured you wouldn’t be left behind current trends but that you were working toward the greater good of society.

The Deconstruction of Consumerism in Us

In Us, we see glimpses of upper-middle class wealth that many aspire to: status and self-identity through conspicuous consumption. The Wilsons and their friends the Tylers both own vacation homes near the beach, a luxury few families can afford. They even both have boats. However, all the characters above ground seem unhappy with their possessions—goods that seem extravagant when contrasted with the squalor of those living below ground.

When the Wilsons arrive at their vacation home, Gabe is thrilled to show his family his newest purchase: a boat—yet another symbol of American wealth. But Gabe’s family is unimpressed and jokes about his purchase. Later in the film, we learn that Gabe was trying to keep up with their friends the Tylers, who own a bigger, nicer boat. In fact, they own a bigger, more modern vacation home and a nicer car, which the Wilsons excitedly take as their own after the Tylers are brutally murdered. (You don’t feel too bad because the Tylers seem like they might actually be the worst.)

The Tylers are the Joneses that the Wilsons try to keep up with (certainly at least for Gabe), but they’re far from fulfilled. Kitty and Josh bicker constantly while drinking in every scene they’re in. Kitty casually mentions that she got plastic surgery, and their daughters seem perpetually bored or annoyed. “Happy” isn’t a word that describes the Tylers, but they certainly have all the outward, idealized signifiers of American success.

While the Tyler’s and Wilson’s display consumerist attitudes, it’s a stark contrast from Adelaide’s sentiment at the beginning of the film. As a little girl at the fair with her parents, she rejects the notion of always striving for bigger and better. Her father plays a game to win a prize for her. In typical carnival fanfare, the person running the game tells her father that he can pick a second-tier prize or risk it to play again and possibly get a better prize from the third tier. With anticipation, he bends down and tells Adelaid it’s up to her. It’s her birthday. She replies she wants a t-shirt from the second-tier prizes.

As Adelaide tells her father her wishes, he seems disappointed. And I would bet the audience is surprised. Why set up the possibility to win something bigger and better and then have her say no? Why have that exchange at all?

As Americans raised on gameshows where contestants constantly decide to “risk it all” at the behest of audiences chanting at them, we get a thrill from the monetary risk. Hell, we invented Las Vegas as a gambling oasis in the desert. “Go big or go home” is the mantra we live by. Yet, Adelaide recognizes what’s good enough and that she doesn’t need something more expensive or showy in order to be happy. She just wants a Thriller shirt, thanks.

The Imprisoned and Silenced ‘Other’

Before the Tyler family is brutally murdered by their doubles, they emphasize their fear of the ‘other’ and of the status quo being challenged. At their vacation home, Kitty hears a sound outside and urges Josh to take a look. After an argument, Josh takes his whiskey in hand, looks out the window, and makes a joke about seeing O.J. Simpson lurking around the house.

Out of all the famous serial killers he could have joked about, it’s strange that he chose O.J. Simpson. According to The Atlantic, “[O.J. Simpson’s] great accomplishment was to be indicted for a crime and then receive the kind of treatment typically reserved for rich white guys.” If Us sheds light on the class system in America, the conversation wouldn’t be complete without referencing the unjust prison industrial complex—the ultimate commodification of humans in America, culminating in a multi-billion dollar privatized prison industry.

When the Wilsons desperately ask a smarthome device to call the police, it mistakenly plays “Fuck tha Police” by N.W.A. instead. Ironically, it doesn’t matter that the smarthome device mishears the Wilsons because when they’re actually able to call 9-1-1, no one answers. The lyrics from the protest song describe prolific racism in law enforcement, leading to disproportionate numbers of incarcerated people of color.  It’s a song that N.W.A was arrested for performing after their show in Detroit, illustrating that “free speech” isn’t reserved for everyone equally. especially when it’s questioning power structures that ultimately exploit humans for money.

As the film unfolds, you realize the doubles living underground aren’t the boogeymen but prisoners. Originally created by individuals seeking power, the clones are deprived of freedom and their literal voices. They wear prison-like jumpsuits, and the Adelaide who lived underground for most her life comments that those above ground take for granted being able to see the sun, while those underground are forgotten. Her words echo the attitudes of wealthy classes who turn a blind eye to the suffering of the lower-class, just as the people in the film repeatedly ignore the haggard-looking man with the Biblical sign at Santa Cruz Beach.

When the underground clones invade the Wilson’s vacation home, the Adelaide from below ground explains that she had no free will throughout her life. Rather than experiencing the “fullest stature of which [she is] innately capable,” she was forced to follow the actions of the Adelaide clone above ground, even giving birth to children she didn’t want. Just like impoverished citizens in the US, she’s not afforded the freedom to choose.

Once the clones emerge above ground, you might expect them to replace their counterparts or incite further chaos. Instead, the clones meet together to replicate the “Hands Across America” stunt from 1986. At the original event, over 5 million people held hands in a human chain to raise money for hungry and homeless Americans. The song that accompanied advertisements for the stunt say,

The heart of a stranger beats the same as a friend
So we must learn to love each other
See those people over there, they’re my sister and brother
[…]
And when they need me
I’ll be right there by their side

The song asks for empathy. If “I Got 5 On It” preaches taking care of yourself, “Hands Across America” encourages you to help others because we’re all human and we’re in this world together. You’re urged to look at who might initially seem like the ‘other’ and embrace them as a sibling, whether that’s a clone from underground, the person begging for money on the corner, or those who have been incarcerated.

In this act of unity, the underground doubles may not be as monstrous as they first appear. They didn’t ask to be created, and they’ve been horribly mistreated and forgotten, deprived of basic human rights. Though they’re violently taking power, they’re fighting for the right to live and a message of hope.

Ashley Walton

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Tarantino fanatic. Grammar snob. Tetris Master.

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