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A House Is Not a Home: Dreaming about Property in America

When asked what her dreams are, Star (Sasha Lane), the displaced, teenage protagonist of Andrea Arnold’s 2016 feature, American Honey, tells a sympathetic trucker that she wants to get her own place—a trailer where she can raise a family. Always just out of reach, the imagined home propels her forward as she travels between towns selling magazine subscriptions, at one point accepting cash in exchange for a sexual encounter with an oil worker. Set on the open road, the film repeatedly depicts the homes of Star’s potential customers—lavish mansions whose inhabitants thoughtlessly discard jewelry amongst piles of presents or happily offer cash to watch the spunky teenager drink tequila. Honey is Arnold’s inaugural portrait of American culture, a bold, dreamy declaration that, regardless of race or class, the goal of homeownership inspires us all.

In identifying a home of one’s own as the deeply held fantasy of Star and her mentor-cum-boyfriend Jake (Shia LaBouf), Arnold taps into longstanding perceptions of the home as a foundational component of the “American Dream,” a mutable term that promises the reward of upward mobility in exchange for individualism and drive. The home has occupied a central position in visions of American prosperity for centuries, suggesting an abundance of material and moral riches. It is depicted as a method for building and bestowing equity, and as a space that is both conducive to familial bonding and rife with potential to signify personal success.[1]

Its mythology is strikingly resilient and bolstered by a longstanding association with family values. Continually remerging as the par excellence emblem of the good life, it has endured corruption, market downturns, and public suspicion. In the wake of the Great Recession, restoring homeownership for “responsible middle-class families” was amongst Barack Obama’s top priorities.

But it is worthwhile to consider how the home’s longstanding hold on American hearts and minds has often served to further stratify wealth, and to separate people based on race, class, and criminality.

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