Hustle. Beauty. Pie. Idol. Gangster. Dreamz. Gigolo. Virgin. Violet. Outlaws. Idiot. Girl. Boy.
They’re a collection of words (or, in the case of “dreamz,” almost-words) that seem to have little in common, until you put the word “American” in front of them. Then each becomes a title, and not just any title – an evocative, slightly ironic title which promises a story that could only happen in these United States, one offering commentary on our shared national experience and way of life. It’s audacious, patriotic, grandiose – sort of like America itself, or at least the idea of “America.”
Either that… or the work’s creators couldn’t think of a good title, so they picked out a random noun and slapped “American” in front of it.
That’s my main gripe with “American” movies, and TV shows, and songs: As a title convention, it’s about as lazy as you can get. (Though it might not be as bad as Gerund Proper Noun, another titular subgenre that drives me bananas.) Anything set within U.S. borders – and arguably, in places like Guam and the Virgin Islands as well! – is, by default, an American story. There’s nothing particularly interesting about pointing that out in a title, especially at a time when literally hundreds of other works have already done the same thing. (Reality shows are particularly bad offenders; flip through your TV listings, and you’ll find American Hoggers, American Pickers, American Restoration, American Treasures, American Digger… and that’s not even counting all of the “American” series that came before them.) What’s worse, this sort of title sets a lofty expectation that most works just can’t live up to; if your “American” movie doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about what it means to be American, it’s bound to feel like a letdown.
I understand that sometimes “American” titles are appropriate, or even clever. American Beauty, for example, is both thematically resonant and a specific reference to a type of rose that appears throughout that film. American Psycho is a graphic critique of American culture and capitalism in the 1980s; besides, Psycho was already taken. The Americans are not actually American at all, which is the whole point – the title nicely encapsulates the show’s premise. An American Tail tells a quintessential American immigrant story through the lens of adorable singing mice; it’s also a pretty ace pun.
But like… considering the utter insanity of Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series, isn’t it a shame that he couldn’t think of anything better to call it than American Horror Story? Did the pulpy 2000 TV movie Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal really need that gratuitous subtitle? (It did not; that’s what “gratuitous” means.) Who gave the go-ahead to call an ABC Family soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which has to be one of the most cumbersome and least appealing names in recent TV memory? (Also: Only American teenagers are having sex?) And has there ever been a more generic title than 2007’s An American Crime?
Formulas become formulas for a reason. Clearly, the American thing works; if it didn’t, Hollywood wouldn’t default to it so often. Still, I’d like to ask writers and producers to resist taking the easy way out when trying to title their Stateside stories. Pick yourselves up by your bootstraps, go the extra mile, and try a little harder; after all, isn’t that the American way?