The American Midwest is a land of truck stops, oil fields, grain, and Donald Trump. At least, that’s how it appears in Andrea Arnold’s 2016 film American Honey, which paints the region as a wild-child utopia. In these flyover states, forgotten kids are free from the reins of parental control. They can go where they want, see whomever they want, and be whatever person they want to be. The film’s subjects, known as the “mag crew,” embody this freedom as they travel from town to town, selling strangers magazines and singing along to the radio. But despite the bliss and exhilarating independence that the open road advertises, American Honey is pretty dark.
By following this ragtag group of individuals, Arnold touches on the many sides of freedom. She asks: even with a nonconformist job like selling magazines, is true freedom possible for the mag crew? Especially under the watchful eye of a tyrannical boss, whose scornful expression and narrow eyes contrast with the freedom her bohemian business promises. She exploits these young adults, not only by preying on their vulnerability and instability, but also by teaching them to make money by exploiting others. “I want y’all to dress like dirty white trash. And then they’ll pity you,” she says when the van pulls up to a wealthy neighborhood. When they’re selling magazines in an impoverished neighborhood, the salespeople are similarly encouraged to play up their lower-class backgrounds to garner sympathy. It’s exploitation of the customer by the worker and of the worker by the boss.
But nobody in the mag crew is bothered by this. Their national anthem goes “I like to make money, get turnt,” after all. What’s not to like?
America in general is not to like, Arnold says. America is the racism that is so ingrained in our history that it goes unnoticed by the subjects of the film. America is the repeated dropping of the n-word and appropriation of Black culture seen when the mostly-white mag crew speaks in African American Vernacular English. America is the presence of the flag—which has, in recent years, become synonymous with militant patriotism—constantly in the background. In one scene, the protagonist’s pink bra, yellow tank top, and the blue sky behind her create a distorted American flag. “I feel like I’m fucking America,” she exclaims, standing in a convertible with her arms outstretched.
The most telling (and jarring) moment in the film occurs when the protagonist makes fun of another magazine salesman’s pants. They’re pinstriped, black, and almost comically out of place on a man with an eyebrow piercing and braided rattail. “What the fuck’s wrong with my pants?” he laughs. “Donald Trump-ish?” It’s so subtle and yet so ominous. In a movie filled with Rihanna references, why would this man mention Donald Trump?
Perhaps, like so many other poor Midwesterners, he sees Trump as a hero. Somebody to reintegrate him into a society that overlooks him.
The Midwest wasn’t always forgotten, but over the past 40 years, the economy that brought money to the Midwest has been deteriorating. As the industrial capital of the world moved from the Midwest to the Sun Belt to China, factories closed, bright college students fled to the coasts, and the opioid crisis spread like a virus. Trump and his anti-immigration, anti-China rhetoric appeared to ensure a return to the Midwest’s glory days. No longer would these people have to worry about immigrants “stealing” their jobs, or robots replacing them in factories.
While in 2016 Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform that advocated for equal rights, equal pay, and rational foreign policy, Trump pledged jobs and a return to the America of the past. He promised poor Midwesterners freedom from their shitty lives and shitty jobs, and his rolling-in-money businessman attitude embodied the American dream for so many. Like the rest of society, Hillary took them for granted. Trump saw them.
The stars of American Honey are representatives of this lost America. They are frequenters of gas stations, some with criminal records, some from broken homes, all transients without a distinct place in society. They are the America the East and West Coasts would like to forget. I’d go so far as to say that Trump’s 2016 victory was a symptom of the neglect and exploitation suffered by poor Americans in this broken region.
I don’t think American Honey was consciously written as a political film. I think it was merely intended to be an homage to the forgotten people of America, and to America herself, in all her trailer park glory. But because politics are everywhere and inescapable in 2020, it’s impossible to look back at American Honey without seeing it as Arnold’s pre-2016 warning. A warning, to us, about the power of poor, white, Midwestern America, and the tremendous weight of its exhaustion with our exclusive society.
And now, days before an election that has the potential to change our country forever, what can we take away from American Honey? I, for one, am hoping that Biden sees the Midwest, and that he sees it in the way that the titular song romanticizes it. She grew up on the side of the road, where the church bells ring and strong love grows. She grew up good, she grew up slow, like American honey. I can dream that these people eventually come to realize that Trump did not live up to his pledge to Make America Great Again. Trump is not their savior; he hasn’t restored their jobs and repaired their families, and he hasn’t stopped the opioid epidemic that rages through their towns. Perhaps Biden’s desire to restore America to its (boring) past will resonate with Midwesterners, who grew up good and slow like American honey. I hope it does.
Illustration by Grace Smith