The American Dream?

The American Dream?

Zoe Strauss, Daddy Tattoo (2004 image); Philadelphia

This image by Zoe Strauss depicts one of the locals of her hometown of West Philadelphia. What Zoe aimed to capture was “to create an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.” This Image caught my eye because it reminded me so much of what Kathleen Stewart is trying to portray in her book, Ordinary Affects. Here we see a middle aged woman most likely coming home from the grocery store. She has a teeny tiny top on that is clearly dirty, her hair is disheveled, very heavily drawn make-up, and her eyes are red. The most striking part of the image however is the two tattoos that are inked onto her arm. Obviously the photographer was interested in those tattoos as she names the image after it, Daddy Tattoo. So what are we supposed to get out of this image?

Kathleen Stewart’s book focuses on the everyday aspect of things.What we do in our everyday lives that makes us American and who we are as an individual. In this picture we see a heavily caked on face of make-up and the overly drawn lips. It gives us an idea of what she sees as beauty as well as maybe her community does. As juxtaposed to what the rest of America deems beautiful. Her face does not show pride in her appearance but more of embarrassment and shame. I remember one of Kathleen’s stories titled ‘PMS Powered'(where she describes walking down a nice neighborhood and noticing a “snazzy car with an in your face attitude” (23). At first there is the first brief impression, however once she looks more closely at the car she notices something different, more complicated. The nice looking car has been stripped of its wheels. This works the same in this image. At first we see just a women unkempt and doesn’t seem to care. Yet when we look closer we find more complexity. The women’s eyes are red. From exhaustion? from crying? Perhaps something is troubling her at home? We slowly become sucked into a story that we begin to feed and develop, but have no way of determining the actuality of her story. Kathleen also talks about this in ‘Scenes of Impact'(68). We as americans are drawn to what catches our senses. This woman seems troubled, but with what we don’t know. We are drawn to it as we are to the Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile. This picture gives us the same feel of melancholy and helplessness as did October Sky. In the film we watch as the family slowly cycles into the same patterns of abuse and depression. Both live in the poor parts of town where things are worn down. Style and clothes tell us she is from the urban ghetto. As with the Moher family we can only sit by and watch this brief moment of what looks like a tough and troubled life. From there we develop our own theories to her story. We are drawn to the mess we see before us until the next ‘Impact’ draws our attention.

I tracked down where this picture originated from and who was the subject. Her name was Monica. On the official blog website of Zoe Strauss she has a blog posting about Monica’s mother reaching out to Zoe and telling her that Monica had died. Yet while she was alive and had heard about her picture being put into Elle magazine she was bursting with excitement. I believe this relates to the Idea of the American Dream is a Private Dream as described in Habits of the Heart as what Andy Warhol explained “in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes”(285). The American Dream is about the individual, how far we can succeed against the public rather than as a collective. In this sense Monica achieved the American Dream. Her photo is in magazines such as Elle and Art in America. Her image is on websites. In this future there is no such thing as 15 minute fame, because her image is on the internet where it will be preserved for generations to come.

-Jessa Ripley


1. A New Kind of Neighborhood,, January 17th, 2012

2. Kathleen Weston, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2007)

3. October Country. Dir. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. Wishbone Films, 2009. DVD.

4. If You Break the Skin, You Must Come In,, Sunday March 27th, 2007

5. Bellah, Robert, and Neelly. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1985. Print.


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by | March 18, 2013 · 11:53 PM

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