A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The American Meme is a 2018 documentary that looks into the lives of internet celebrities and the lengths to which they go to maintain their celebrity status. The documentary is almost a "greatest hits" of bad internet behavior that went viral -- including teens swallowing Tide Pods, setting themselves on fire, and deliberately breaking their noses on opened doors (and that's just the beginning). As such, it's best for older viewers who can understand the broader point the documentary is making about our social media consumption, the over-the-top lengths people go to in order to attain millions of "likes," and the darker sides of being "famous for being famous." One of the subjects is known for producing viral content featuring binge-drinking, crass humor, and pouring bottles of champagne on topless women in nightclubs. This man is later shown hung over or still drunk from the night before, talking of coughing up blood and short-term memory lapses. There's nudity throughout, mostly of topless women, occasionally images of male and female buttocks. Frequent profanity includes "f--k" and variations. A man snorts a line of what appears to be cocaine off of a moving treadmill. Paris Hilton compares herself to Jesus and Mother Teresa; there are images of Hilton Photoshopped in assorted religious paintings like DaVinci's "The Last Supper." While some in the documentary use their internet fame to champion causes bigger than their own egos -- feminism, for instance -- mostly those profiled come off as shallow, self-involved, and narcissistic, even at their most vulnerable. For parents of teens who are capable of seeing that those profiled in the documentary aren't the best role models, this documentary should provoke discussion about how we use and abuse social media, the perils of relying on social media "likes" and validation to fill the voids better filled by real-life friends and loved ones, why people pursue fame for its own sake rather than fame as an extension of talent and hard work, and conversely, whether or not it requires hard work and talent to create a larger-than-life internet persona with millions of followers.
What's the story?
THE AMERICAN MEME takes a look at the rise of the "internet celebrity." As the medium evolved from the early days of Friendster and MySpace to the more recent Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, the documentary profiles those who learned how to use these social media platforms to create viral content that led to them having millions of followers. It explores the rise of the "internet persona," and the people behind the selfie. It shows how "influencers" are now getting paid six and seven figures by companies to take pictures of themselves using their products. While fame is pursued for its own sake, internet fame is also shown as a way to spread political activism, to bypass the traditional channels employed to "make it" in Hollywood, and to provide a direct link between a performer and her audience. The extremes that people go to in order to produce outrageous content that stands out from everything else are shown and discussed. The interviewees, celebs like Paris Hilton, DJ Khaled, Brittany Furlan, and others, reflect on the "dark side" of internet fame: the sex tapes, the loneliness, the disconnect, and the chasm between the persona and the day-to-day reality.
Is it any good?
While well-done and comprehensive, this documentary also feels like kicking down an open door. For anyone, famous or not, who has spent enough time on social media, The American Meme isn't going to tell you anything you haven't already started to figure out yourself. Extreme content and provocative speech and action tend to go viral. There's often a large gap between a person's social media persona and who that person is in real life. The validation people seek on social media is often an attempt to fill the void of loneliness in the real world. The pursuit of fame for its own sake and the cult of celebrity have grown to monstrous proportions. We're only just beginning to understand the long-term impact, good and bad, of social media on individuals and society, and while it does address these issues, The American Meme doesn't really move the discussion forward.
Nonetheless, it's worth watching, especially with those whose screen time eats up a large chunk of their waking hours. The American Meme is a fine place to start the discussion about the good and bad of social media and how we use and consume it. However, it doesn't go deep enough or fully explore all the sides and facets of the arguments, pro and con. It tries to present all the points of view, and as a result, it becomes, much like social media, an endless series of clashing images and voices. Emily Ratajkowski's social media activism, for instance, has to compete with DJ Khaled stuck in a canoe, and with Kirill Bichutsky (aka @slutwhisperer) holding a drunk woman by the ankles and dunking her into a nightclub toilet. But it does raise questions worth asking, even if they're questions we've been asking ourselves for years.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how The American Meme shows what it's like to be "internet famous." Does it glorify the behavior of those featured in the documentary? How does it show the ways in which social media can be positive and the ways in which it has a "dark side"?
What do you notice about your own social media use and how others use social media? Does social media tend to "reward" extreme behavior and provocative speech? How has it influenced our behavior, our relationships, our politics, or how we interact?
How is drinking shown in the documentary? Does the film glamorize drinking? Does it show the negative consequences of drinking?
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