A Tale of Two Americas: The American Dream in Cobra Kai

Ilias Ben Mna


Which different conceptions of the so-called “American Dream” are still alive or gaining ground in the increasingly polarized social climate of the United States during the Trump era? I intend to shed light on this question by analyzing the different types of success ethics presented in the highly popular Netflix series Cobra Kai (2018 - present). This will include an investigation into notions of merit and masculinity and how they are intertwined in the principal conflict between the two main characters: the blue-collar Johnny Lawrence and the affluent Daniel LaRusso – both of whom operate their own respective karate schools. I will embed this conflict within a theoretical framework undergirded by Michael Sandel’s observations on contemporary definitions of “meritocracy” and the associated “rhetoric of rising.” In addition, I will lean on George Lakoff’s linguistic concepts of the “strict vs nurturant parent,” and Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism.” In doing so, I hope to illuminate the deep-seated workings of competing philosophies on what “it takes to get ahead” in today’s United States. One of my main findings is that Lawrence’s brand of hard-bodied, Reagan-era masculinity is mutually reinforced with LaRusso’s incremental and cosmopolitan approach, thereby perpetuating polarization and antagonism. The fact that both karate teachers are keen to impart their vision on a younger generation is also indicative of how this enmity represents a battle for the “soul of America.” Given ongoing trends toward increasing social, economic, and cultural divides within the U.S., it is of great importance to examine how these developments are negotiated in popular culture. Cobra Kai offers fertile ground for addressing this question.


success, American Dream, merit, masculinity, popular culture, Netflix, polarization, meritocracy, bodies

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17951/nh.2021.6.219-235
Date of publication: 2021-10-10 16:24:58
Date of submission: 2021-04-25 22:37:24


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