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Essay: ‘One Day at a Time’ (Netflix show) and the American Dream

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In the popular imagination, the American Dream is the concept that if someone works hard enough, he or she can “make it” in the United States and achieve social mobility. Everyone has a different conception of success and the American Dream; teenagers might want to succeed by conforming to their friends’ expectations, and success for immigrants might be moving to the United States and having a better life there. One Day at a Time is a Netflix original show that is a remake of one of the same name from the 1970s, which is about a white single mother and her two children. This series is set in the present day and is about an intergenerational Hispanic family made up of a single mother named Penelope Alvarez, her two teenage children (Alex and Elena), and her mother (Lydia), as well as her white best friend (Schneider). In One Day at a Time, the major characters’ opinions about topics like work, the American identity, money, and education reflect that there are different conceptions of the American Dream. The characters cannot understand each other’s ambitions and insist on forcing their versions of the Dream on others, because their perspectives on how to achieve success come from their own personal histories, class struggles, and values.

Penelope’s judgment of Schneider’s career choices and his inability to help her study show that the contrast between them relates to their different social classes and lifestyles; they therefore choose to force their values on each other, showing that her pragmatism contrasts with his idealism. Penelope has a job in a hospital at the start of the series and studies to become a nurse practitioner. She is middle-class and her parents immigrated from Cuba; she represents the trope of the hardworking first-generation American. Schneider is the owner and manager of the apartment the Alvarez family lives in, and he inherited his wealth from his rich parents. He represents white privilege, the idea that white people have certain societal advantages that people of color do not. He says to her after announcing that he has attempted to fix the Alvarezes’ apartment’s lights, “See, I realized why I wasn’t happy at work. [Penelope:] Because you never push yourself and you have the soft, white hands of a geisha?… [Schneider:] But it’s really that I’m more of a manager than a ‘worker,’ per se. So I hired an assistant to handle all the basics around the building while I focus on the big-picture stuff” (“Work Hard, Play Hard”). Schneider believes that he is unhappy because his job does not reflect his true dreams. He does not want to be part of the proletariat and he instead wants to tell other people what to do. He does not work much as the owner of the building anyway, and by hiring an “assistant” as his handyman (who is Elena, which promotes the stereotype that Hispanic people do manual labor), he can work even less. Because he has more class-based advantages than she does, she believes that he is entitled to not have a job; Penelope does not comprehend that he does not want to do hard labor because she has had to work all her life for her education and career. She thinks that he is unhappy because he uses his white privilege to avoid pushing himself. His hands are described as “soft” and delicate like a “geisha”, a Japanese woman who entertains and serves men (dictionary.com); this description decreases his masculinity, and implies that he is not a real man because he does not have a job. She understands that a middle-class single parent like her, who needs to provide for her children, does not have the luxury to be unemployed, while he does not have children to support. Schneider’s methods of helping Penelope succeed in passing a test for medical school also fail: “Spinning! Stay with me. I have found that it actually helps me retain information a lot better. [Penelope:] No disrespect, but I don’t need to take advice from you” (“Schooled”). She says that she does not need to take advice from him because he is not exactly the most hardworking person and assumes that he knows nothing about educational success. He imposes his methods of studying on her, which involve spinning vigorously on a stationary bicycle while reciting facts about biology. She gets a mediocre test grade, showing that his preferred method of studying is not necessarily hers (“Schooled”). In general, these two conversations show that Penelope’s pragmatism conflicts with Schneider’s idealism. While she believes in hard work and actively tries to strive for excellence, he is more laid-back and treats the studying somewhat like a joke. These conversations show that there are both idealistic and pragmatic approaches to the American Dream, and further prove that there is no single conception of it.

Alex’s obsession with sneakers shows the contrast between his desire to conform and Penelope’s desire to not spend as much money; they are in conflict because they use different parts of the Freudian subconscious mind, showing that each conception of the American Dream has a psychological reason behind it. To justify buying five pairs of expensive sneakers to Penelope, Alex says, “Mom, I’m serious. I’m in middle school now. How I look kinda matters. [Penelope:] Okay, so you can buy one pair for under $40… That’ll get you perfectly good sneakers to last the whole year” (“This Is It”). Alex realizes that his appearance is important, and wearing fashionable shoes is the key to being cool. The sneakers have a high sign value, even though they have the same purpose as any other pair of shoes, which is to protect one’s feet. His superego controls his dreams of acting in a socially acceptable way, while his id drives him to impulsively buy the sneakers. A cause-and-effect relationship is established between those two parts of the subconscious mind; his superego causes him to use his id and impulsively buy the tools he needs to achieve the socially constructed moral superiority. He does not use his ego because he cannot find a balance between his id and superego. He is class-conscious because he has a vision of how to achieve social mobility, and he chooses to achieve his goal through conspicuous consumption (spending in ways similar to the upper class). Penelope only uses her ego in this conversation because spending money on many pairs of sneakers is not wise. She tries to find a balance between his instant gratification and his goal to belong in a community, but she only uses one part of her subconscious and does not empathize with him. She imposes her version of the American Dream on him, which is based on practicality and spending money on items with utilitarian value. Her promotion of her Dream comes from the low social class she was raised in; her parents did not have the money to spend on designer sneakers, so she does not think it is appropriate for him to spend money on something she was never able to afford.

Elena’s and Lydia’s contrasting attitudes toward voting and protesting express their conceptions of the American identity, showing that their imposition of their Dreams on each other relate to the values they and the surrounding society consider the most important. Elena is a second-generation American, while Lydia fled Cuba when Fidel Castro took over in the revolution in 1959. Lydia’s belief is that the United States is perfect as is because it is many times freer than the Castro regime, while Elena thinks that there is more to change about the country. These two characters’ personal values allow them to force each other to either live by their conceptions of the Dream or judge each other’s Dreams. Lydia justifies her choice of not voting by saying, “Vote, don’t vote, it doesn’t matter. We always end up with the same comebolas [the Spanish word for suckers]. [Elena:] But you’re always talking about how this country saved you from a communist dictatorship and how democracy is a gift” (“Roots”). The real reason Lydia does not vote is that she cannot, because she is not a citizen. Her justification is that the election winners are all ineffective, so there is no point in voting at all. Voting is one of the most important duties Americans have because it allows them to choose the leaders they want. According to Elena, Lydia should vote because she lives in a democratic country that has real elections, and women and people of color like her have the right to vote after centuries of fighting for it. Elena imposes her version of the Dream on Lydia because she expects that everyone can; she has the privileges of being a native-born citizen and being automatically registered to vote in this country. Besides voting, Lydia also has a negative impression of the protests that have come into existence after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. When Elena asks to march with a fictional environmentalist group called Lesbians Against Fracking, Lydia says, “This is march madness! You know, I did like the Women’s March. I looked very nice in that pink pussycat hat. [Elena:] That’s right. And we really showed the patriarchy that men can no longer strut around with zero self-awareness, and shove their masculinity in our faces” (“Schooled”). Lydia opposes most protests because there are so many of them and niche groups, like lesbians against fracking, often lead them. Because of this, the activist movements during the Trump presidency are “march madness” (the name of the NCAA basketball tournament, which is equally as overexposed as the marches); her comment implies that the insanity that the mass protests created has bored her. Her favorite part of the Women’s March was that she looked attractive in the pussycat hats it popularized, not that the march was based on feminism and other liberal ideas. Lydia does not impose her own Dream on Elena, but she judges her granddaughter’s ways of achieving a better United States. Throughout Lydia’s lifetime, there have been protests for racial and sexual minorities and women. Because these groups got their basic civil rights, she thinks that there needs to be an end as to how many rights they should earn.

These two characters’ different opinions about the United States’ future are also reflected through Lydia’s judgment of Elena’s Dream to create a better life for LGBT students, as well as her imposition of the idea that gay rights have already been achieved. When Elena, an out lesbian, says she wants to form a gay-straight alliance at her school, Lydia says, “I don’t understand why do you need a gay club. We get it. You’re here, you’re queer, we’re used to it. Move on! [Elena:] Abuelita, what if someone told you not to talk about being Cuban?” (“Schooled”). The main purpose of a gay-straight alliance is to provide a place for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students to express themselves safely. Lydia says that if the family accepts Elena’s sexual orientation, these affinity groups are irrelevant because everyone else in society should accept it and stop making it an issue. Calling the gay-straight alliance a “gay club” trivializes its purpose because she implies that it only relates to homosexuality. She imposes her ideals on Elena (but not her conception of the Dream), because she assumes that everyone accepts LGBT Americans and they already have equal rights to cisgender, heterosexual people. Sadly, these optimistic statements are not true to this day, which is why Elena needs to start this club. She says that her sexuality is as important as Lydia’s Hispanic identity is; both characters are part of marginalized groups that have not received much acceptance throughout history, and they need to find some type of public forum to express themselves. Lydia can safely express her heritage around her Cuban-American family because they all share her cultural background, but Elena wants to create a safe space for those who have her sexuality in common.


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