Pop Rocks

The psychology behind the media bombast

The Pains of the American Dream

Why success stories like Lana Del Rey and Lena Dunham might make you irate

Lana Del Rey achieving a few dreams.
If the Internet is a hotbed of opinions, Lana Del Rey and Lena Dunham were kindling for arson this past year. It seemed even the briefest browsing of news cycles required a sidestep past a heated opinion about either Del Rey's singing on her debut Born to Die or Dunham's writing talents on HBO's Girls

As a former comments-section addict, I kept my distance from the sneers and instead tried figuring out why there was so much contempt toward two women I had recently grown to admire.

There had never been so much ire about Jenny Lewis, an indie-music darling, and she had a childhood-star past. And no one seemed to take to Facebook to complain when Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar for her directorial work on The Hurt Locker.

Why was everyone fussing over two particular women? Mediocre-but-successful pop or movie stars are everywhere, so holding gender dynamics and opinions regarding their skill sets constant, why did Lana and Lena set wildfires, but Jenny and Katherine sidestep the grapevine flames?

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A lot can be summed up with a simple concept: choice.

In The Art of Choosing, psychology researcher Sheena Iyengar describes how prized the concept of choice is in American culture. Choice gives us the opportunity to imagine a better self, and it contains the bottomless pit of possibilities that we can use to shape ourselves through our own volition.

"But if others have choice when we don't, or if a choice we currently have is threatened with elimination," she writes, "our hackles are sure to rise." A threat against choice is a threat against possibility, and in a way, our futures.

Nostrils flared most about an aspect both Del Rey and Dunham share: a comfortable economic background. Since Google has rendered most of our pasts transparent, a simple search can show you Del Rey, raised as Lizzy Grant, has a real estate-mogul father, and Dunham's parents have had success in creative fields.

In short, both women's apparent fiscal advantages were a choice not all of us have. Cue the witch hunt!

Oh good, more people got engaged.
With the dissolution of distinct school reunions and the emergence of frequent reminders of where every classmate is on their life trajectories via social media, we find ourselves weighing ourselves against a barrage of others' milestones every day, not every decade.

Status isn't just social script—it's evolutionary. The desire to succeed, if not supersede, is natural, so if the cultural goal of a reunion is to show up with a hot wife (or husband), a solid job and notoriety, we race against everyone all the time.

And not just a solid job, either. The American Dream is to do what you love and be paid for it. As one saying goes: Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you'll land in a bed of stars, which is an encouraging thought if you're not an astronaut.

The peers who weighed in most heavily against Lana all mentioned that she had "bought" her career. She wasn't "real" because she had a drastic change to her appearance. She hadn't "lived," meaning she hadn't chipped any teeth trudging through years of failure and grimy venues prior to being booked as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live.

Much like a broomstick in a hurricane, factors that don't emerge around pop stars—depth of lyrics, past stage attempts, a makeover—went from function to ammunition.

Lena Dunham being successful.
Those discontent with Lena wrote it was unfair that she got a multimillion-dollar book deal. Her show was about "white girl" problems, and her ability to hire famous offspring to populate her projects was also funded by nepotism, or at least easier primordial access to resources.

Suddenly I found myself Googling "leave Lena Dunham alone" in a crazed fit, even breaching my self-contract to never comment to post in the crux of commentary hells: Gawker. 

Examining the things that make us bristle isn't easy. Why does a recent slew of engagement photos—or a TV show—turn us into a grumpy bridge trolls unwilling to let anyone pass?

Is it because it makes us insecure about the paths we've chosen, thereby putting all the heft of our shortcomings on, well, us?

The American promise of self betterment through trial and error is a thread that runs throughout Del Rey’s music and Dunham’s writing, examining youth and their unabashed hurtling toward socially primed ideals. Their guest star: an ever-looming little black cumulus that happily thunders with reminders that we might, in fact, fail.

Work hard and maybe you'll succeed!
As Jenny Lewis puts it in a song, "We live in a house of mirrors / We see our fears in everything." Again, holding sexism and preference of art intake constant, is it really fair to dismantle another human for fulfilling the social scripts that have been pummeled into our brains throughout 16 (or more!) years of schooling?

Most importantly: If you had the option to pursue what makes you happy, wouldn't you take it, too?

Del Rey and Dunham had the illusion of appearing as overnight successes, thereby making our own possibilities feel limited and oppressive, when in fact them writing music and scripts has no direct impact on our own ambitions.

In terms of choice, Lana and Lena imagined better selves and doggedly worked toward achieving those possibilities. Instead of focusing where others are in the slow race toward the final equalizer, tracing internal fires backwards may point to your personal discontent—and where to begin.

Kasia Galazka is a New York-based freelance writer and psychology junkie who goes to as many concerts as she can afford.

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