Friday, October 7, 2016
October 7, 2016: AmericanStudying The Americans: Immigrant Generations
[Earlier this year, I belatedly but excitedly got into The Americans, the FX drama about two KGB agents (the great Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in deep cover as a married couple in Reagan’s 1980s America. It’s a wonderful and very AmericanStudies show, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five issues and themes to which the show connects. Leading up to my latest Guest Post on another set of pop culture texts and questions!]
[FYI: SPOILERS for the show’s most recent couple seasons in this post’s premise and specifics!]
On how a recent plot twist can help us analyze a still-vital American issue.
Scholars who study, analyze, and teach about immigration have long considered the question of distinct generational experiences of movement and place, cultures and societies, assimilation and resistance, and other related issues to be one of central importance. To note one longstanding and influential example: in 1938, pioneering immigration historian Marcus Lee Hansen published his essay “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant,” in which he developed what came to be known as Hansen’s Law—that while 2nd-generation immigrants tend to move away from their family’s old culture and toward that of their new setting, members of the third generation often display a greater interest in and pull toward that prior culture and heritage. While scholars have taken such analyses in many different directions over the subsequent eighty years (including doing away with the overt preference for assimilation that Hansen’s term “problem” indicates), this question of generational experience and perspective has remained a key one for those studying and analyzing issues of immigration and identity (individual, familial, and communal).
Whether we see Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are immigrants or not (and I’ve made the case in other posts in this series that we can and should see them that way), the fact that their prior culture and heritage had been kept secret even from those Americans closest to them (such as their two children) would seem to render these generational questions irrelevant for any characters other than the couple themselves. Yet in the third and (especially) fourth seasons, the show’s writers have found a clever way to bring those questions into play: by gradually introducing the possibility and then the reality of the Jennings’ teenage daughter Paige (played wonderfully by Holly Taylor) finding out about their secret identities and Russian heritage, and then by using that new knowledge and perspective to drive a new and ongoing (as of the end of season four—the penultimate season five will premiere in spring 2017) plot thread of Elizabeth and Philip’s debate over whether and how to recruit Paige to join their spying on behalf of the Soviet Union (and thus against the United States that has comprised her homeland and heritage since birth).
Just as the Jennings’ particular version of “immigration” differs widely from that of most immigrant Americans, this question of Paige’s potential allegiance is clearly distinct from other such debates for the children and descendents of immigrants. Or is it? Far too often, immigrant Americans and their descendents have had to face accusations of (at best) divided loyalties that position them quite directly as potential “spies” or agents for a foreign nation (see: World War I, World War II, contemporary debates about Muslim Americans…). One answer to such narratives, and a good one, is to note the vital roles immigrant Americans have instead played in protecting and defending America throughout these periods and every other one. But to my mind an even better answer is to note how many Americans—really all of us, since Native Americans face their own parallel version of these multiple allegiances—have dealt and continue to deal with heritages that encompass distinct cultures and nations, including but not at all limited to that of the United States. In this way, as in so many others, The Americans offers a unique and compelling lens on central American ideas and issues.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other AmericanStudies shows you’d highlight?