This time of year, several times a week (thank you, AQA Exam Board) I explain to my students why The Great Gatsby is the definitive critique of the American Dream: that great, persistent myth of equality that still shapes our narratives of opportunity and success and legacy, no matter how much, every year - as the gap between rich and poor widens and the rich just keep on getting richer and power stays put - it becomes a more obvious lie.
I explain to them how Jay Gatsby’s criminally procured wealth might buy him unimaginable excess and some really, really, really great parties, but it’s all meaningless - because in the end, he can’t buy the one thing he needs (Old Money status) to get the one thing he wants (Daisy Buchanan’s love). I tell them that he will forever be nouveau riche tat, and a criminal to boot, with a library of symbolically unopened books (because as we all know, if there’s one thing you can’t buy in this day and age, it’s education…) and Old Money will survive, untainted and unaccountable, as they always have. I tell them that this novel shows us that naked ambition - the byword of self-proclaimed Americanism - is not enough, will never be enough to dig up the established, sprawling roots of Power, no matter what Obama says. It tells us that equality is a lie.
And as I teach this lesson; as their faces turn from a confusion that patently yells what the F is the American dream to a perturbed that blows why can't you just make loads of money and be happy to a mutinous but this makes it way more confusing why did you have to go and make it so confusing, I get a little more depressed – and probably more morbid, wishing it were appropriate to teach with hard liquor – each time I rehash it.
Because the irony of explaining this truth – made ludicrously manifest this week with the news that 62 PEOPLE now own more than HALF THE WORLD’S POPULATION – through the medium of a great literary work, is that the myth of the American Dream is nowhere peddled more consistently than through the creative arts (regardless of nationhood), where dreamers seek a special kind of recognition that goes beyond a paycheck or a CEO corner office: the recognition of singular talent – singing, writing, acting, dancing – which, paired with unparalleled drive, will give them the world.
Hollywood – where millions of these dreamers flock every year to live in squalor and hope, and survives solely through their continued desire to do so – is the great industrialisation of this dreaming: a two-fold myth-machine, where the Buddy Richs of this world – who rivet live audiences and inspire generations – get swallowed up and masticated into a feature film (here, Whiplash (WATCH IT)) to rivet and chastise and whet the appetites of a million dreamers all over again. Hollywood depends on this hope for its predictably lucrative narrative arcs. For millions of dreamers, it is this hope. Either way, Hollywood wins.
What a rude shock, then, to discover, in this month’s whitewashed Oscar nominations, how little Hollywood is really doing to make the American Dream a reality. How unsavoury to have to notice how little has really changed in an industry where the main awarding body is reportedly 94% white and 77% men, and the studios which finance the films more or less the same.
And it isn’t just Hollywood. This week, the daily inequalities of Britain's small screen also made the headlines after a Channel 4 survey revealed that men appear on the main UK TV channels 50% more than women on any given evening; and also, happily, that women endure ‘low-level sexism’ – so, I guess, all questions directed exclusively to bosom and groin as opposed to the more high-level, cerebral sexism that really does the serious damage – about five times an hour. Or five times a minute if you’re anywhere near a comedy show or Jeremy Clarkson.
The point, for anyone working in the creative industries – Hollywood or not – is acute: inequality in this industry is rampant, and it is only getting worse; straitjacketed, in an environment that consistently refuses to pay young talent or take a gambit on the narratives that haven’t been told to death – we think of Kristen’s Wiig's Bridesmaids, now considered a Hollywood Unicorn in its ‘groundbreaking’ depiction of, just, funny women – controlled by an increasingly small pool of socioeconomic privilege that continues, year on year, to mostly look the same and sound the same and tell the same stories.
A recently rediscovered speech by Martin Luther King reminds us that "change has never come on the wheels of inevitability". The creative arts have always been our agents of change – and we are muzzling them, every time we opt for the comfort of familiarity rather than the discomfort of the new.
This isn’t a secret; it’s not like any of this is news. But it’s a cycle that needs breaking, and artists and audiences are the only ones who can do it.
Gatsby was published in 1925. In every way that matters, it still feels fresh. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait another 90 years until it starts to feel old.