Perpetuating the American Dream through Investment Television

Curator's Note

To determine whether the American Dream is alive and well, one could turn on the television and watch an investment television shows such as Shark Tank, Restaurant Start-up, and Food Fortunes, among others. I argue that these shows greatly exaggerate how attainable the American Dream is and perpetuate the rags to riches mentality that can cloud deeper socioeconomic problems. On Shark Tank, successful entrepreneurs, the sharks, vet potential investment opportunities. The “About Shark Tank” page describes the show as providing “people from all walks of life the chance to chase the American dream.” Shark Tank has an intense vetting process which means only a select few can appear on the show based on unknown criteria. Oftentimes, it is only established businesses that have profit history that receive investment deals while people without the initial capital to start their business are turned away. Participants only have a “chance to chase” success because the decision-making power is ultimately not held by the everyday American, but by the already successful elites. In an interview with Robert Herjavec, one of the sharks, he is introduced as “a living rags to riches story.” Herjavec argues that if the sharks can make it, anyone can. The sharks represent the Horatio Alger myth as the token few able to start from nothing and achieve success in “the land of opportunity.” Communication scholar Dana Cloud (1996) argued that token success stories, such as Oprah Winfrey, are harmful to the understanding of how power structures work and existing barriers to equality. I agree with Cloud that when society lauds the token successes of Winfrey or the sharks, we perpetuate that the American Dream is within everyone’s grasp. The American Dream contributes to a mentality that blames individual agents for their financial positions and ignores the larger social, cultural, and political environment. Shark Tank is an entertaining show, but along with its entertainment value comes potentially detrimental social myths. Herjavec notes that he worries that people will turn against the rich and self-made millionaires and consider success a “dirty word.” Shows like Shark Tank reignite the spirit of capitalism and encourage the 99% to work within the given system instead of addressing structural inequalities.


This makes me think of the Powerball lottery happening now. How many people who really have no money to spare have bought power ball tickets with a beyond microscopic chance of winning. Also, I know there is some research that shows that the rags to riches story is ideologically most powerful for minority communities and many who live in poverty. With that in mind, it would be interesting to study the demographic and socioeconomic make up of the audiences of these programs. Interesting post.

Jenny, I completely agree! I think that myths of "making it" disproportionately affect minority communities who are more likely to be in lower socioeconomic classes. Those who have the least amount of money seem willing to risk it at the "chance" of great riches and success in the lottery. That's a great idea to think about who is watching these shows and if the audience reception internalizes these ideologies. Thanks!

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