Today, it seems that everyday tasks are informed by dominant narratives of gender and sexuality. As a result, mundane activities can be understood as either succumbing to, or deviating from heteronormative expectations. The films Thirteen and American Beauty are not devoid these realities. I understand gendered expectations, here, through the scope of identity and difference. I posit that these films challenge normative understandings of gender and sexuality. Additionally, they raise important questions about identity in crisis and personal autonomy. Moreover, I aim to critically assess how both films—through the use of colour and light—make manifest a powerful narrative about the fluidity of gender. Finally, I argue that characters who do not succumb to gendered roles and normative concepts of sexuality in films are transformed into instruments of tragedy.
The process of gendering begins at birth and is nurtured throughout the adolescent years by factors such as family, the education system, and peers (Bradley 2007:8). Children learn at a very young age what their culture’s social definition of gender and what behaviours are expected of them. (Devor 1993: 47). Within the context of American Beauty and Thirteen, these gendered expectations are retained. This is evident in the portrayals of the film’s protagonists—Lester Burham and Tracy Freeland—defined largely by their simultaneous adherence and rejection of these ideals.
A mere construct, how we perceive womanhood and manhood is not universal. Gender identity has no ontological status (Butler 1990:270). Indeed, what we many know to be natural are in fact reactions to years of coercion, “by social sanction and taboo" (Butler 1990:271). These constructs are performed every day through components such as stance, gesture, vocal pitch, accessories, and coiffure—to the point that they become naturalized (Senelick 1993:2) Yet, there are also non-physical traits associated with gender. Women, for instance, are seen and act as caregivers, whereas men are perceived to be primary breadwinners in the home (Senelick 1993:2).
Often, in media and film portrayals, the dominant narrative is that of hyper-gender performance (McGarry 2005:9). Hyper-masculine men are idealized, whereas those who one may associate with female characteristics are shunned(McGarry 2005:9). Similarly, women who exude characteristics commonly associated with the male gender are seen as unbecoming. Within the context of the films, both Lester and Tracy are introduced as normative and therefore palpable to audiences.
However, as the films progress, both characters begin to deviate from gendered idealisms. Lester, a family man, breadwinner, and all-around “good” American becomes perceived as unable to care for his family after losing his job. As recompense, he blackmails the company he’d been working and leaves with sixty thousand dollars (Mendez 1999). Barren a job, he decides to buy his dream car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird (Mendez...