American Beauty and Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs
Abraham Maslow established the theory of a hierarchy of needs, believing that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and that certain lower needs must be satisfied before higher needs can be satisfied (Maslow’s pp).
Rather than studying the neurotic or mentally ill, Maslow studied exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglas to determine how they came to be successful (Maslow’s pp). Unlike Skinner and Freud, he believed that people are “basically trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing…and that humans tend toward growth and love” (Maslow’s pp).
Maslow felt that although there is a continuous cycle of negativity, such as wars, murder, and deceit, he believed that violence is not what human nature is meant to be like, and occurs only because of and when human needs are thwarted (Maslow’s pp). In other words, people defend themselves by violent means, only when they are feel deprived of safety (Maslow’s pp).
According to Maslow, there are general types of needs that must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly and reach self-actualization (Maslow’s pp). These deficiency needs are physiological, safety, love and esteem and as long as humans are motivated to satisfy these cravings, they are moving towards growth, and thus toward self-actualization. Maslow believed that satisfying needs is healthy, and that blocking gratification makes us either sick or evil (Maslow’s pp). He felt all humans were ‘needs junkies’ with cravings that must be satisfied and should be satisfied, otherwise disease occurs (Maslow’s pp).
A prepotent need is one that has the greatest influence over an individual’s actions, however, that need will vary among individuals (Maslow’s pp). For example, a teenager has the need to be accepted by a group, yet a heroin addict must satisfy the craving for heroin in order to function normally in society and will not worry about acceptance by other people (Maslow’s pp). According to Maslow, when the deficiency needs are met: “At once other (and higher) needs emerge, and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still higher) needs emerge, and so on” (Maslow’s pp). Just as one desire is satisfied, then another pops up to take its place (Maslow’s pp).
Physiological needs are at the bottom of Maslow’s chart, and include basic needs such as food, water, air, sleep, and sex (Maslow’s pp). When these needs are not met an individual feels pain and discomfort, yet when these needs are met, then a person begins to think about other things (Maslow’s pp). Safety needs, such as security of a home and family, must be met before an individual can move to the next level of love and the sense of belonging (Maslow’s pp). Humans have a natural need to be loved and accepted by groups, such as work groups, family or religious (Maslow’s pp). The next level of needs is esteem, of which Maslow names two types. The first is self-esteem that results from competence or mastery of a task, and the second is the attention and recognition that comes from others (Maslow’s pp). Although this may seem similar to love and belongingness, the need for admiration is the need for power, for example the person who drives an expensive car to make a statement of his success (Maslow’s pp). The need for self-actualization is “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow’s pp). In other words, people who have their other needs met are able to maximize their potential and are free to seek knowledge, peace, and esthetic experiences (Maslow’s pp).
The 1999 movie, “American Beauty,” directed by Sam Mendes, is a microscopic vignette of the American white middle-class. The doors of suburbia are peeled back and the audience is allowed to view inside the homes of two neighbors, the Burnhams, and the new neighbors, the Fitts. The movie is a statement about the values that the middle class, and how success and happiness is defined and measured by the inhabitants of the two-story houses on the tree lined streets. It is also about how each is striving for or striving to hold on to a feeling of completion and self-worth.
The protagonist, Lester Burnham, is a middle-aged writer for a magazine, with a dead-end job and a dead-end marriage. Lester narrates throughout the film, and begins with, “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already” (American pp). Lester is basically on the bottom of the Maslow’s chart, his physiological needs are met, however, he does not feel safe at home or at work, and therefore does not feel loved and is nearly void of self-esteem. As he explains, ” Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this sedated” (American pp).
Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is an ambitious real estate agent who has her safety needs met, and is now seeking to belong to a group, in this case the real estate world. She idolizes and is having an affair with a successful realtor, Buddy Kane, played by Peter Gallagher, who in turn is striving for self-actualization, hence the expensive car and lifestyle (American pp). She is obsessed with her career and the need for success. At an open-house she chants ritualistically, “I will sell this house today, I will sell this house today” (American pp). Carolyn feels she is being held back by her husband and child, and if only she could become a successful realtor she would then feel esteem and then self-actualization.
Their daughter, Jane, is probably closer to Lester’s position on Maslow’s chart. Lester says of her, “Janie’s a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her” (American pp). She does not feel particularly safe in her environment, and therefore does not feel love and accepted.
The entire Fitts family appears to be positioned on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, none are safe. The father, Frank, is a retired military man who feels threatened every minute of every day from what he perceives as threatening elements around him. He is homophobic and rules his family with emotional and physical abuse. Frank fears losing what he believes is his self-actualization, his respected military career. His wife, Barbara, is so filled with fear that at times she looks as if she is in a trance and unconnected to the world around her. She functions as a robot, too fearful to express even a thought, much less take action of any kind. Their son, Ricky, also lives in fear of his safety. However, he escapes and eases the pain through his photography and is therefore striving for the next level. He and Jane seek safety by making plans to move to New York.
Jane’s friend, Angela Hayes, becomes Lester’s object of affection, his goal of love and acceptance. Angela believes that her beauty has raised her to the top of the hierarchy, she uses her beauty to be accepted as Buddy Kane uses his real estate success. And just as Kane becomes the catalyst for Carolyn to strive for the next level, Angela becomes Lester’s catalyst. He gains a sense of security and expresses to his family, “I am sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist” (American pp). Thus, he achieves the next level of safety and begins to strive for love and acceptance.
In the end, Lester becomes the object of Frank’s fears. Ultimately Frank feels so threatened that he takes action to defend himself and his family. As Maslow believed, violence is rooted in fear of safety.
American Beauty.” Director: Sam Mendes. Dreamworks. 1999.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. http://web.utk.edu/~gwynne/maslow.HTM
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