Nomadland starring Frances McDormand, about the modern day nomadic culture in America, just won best picture. The movie was a hard but breathtaking watch about community, culture, and capitalism. McDormand plays Fern, who chooses to live out of a van and follow the nomad lifestyle after the closing of her small town's major industrialized plant and death of her husband. Without ties to a centered and dependable community, Fern and the other Nomads learn to adapt to uncertainty. The goal becomes about wandering and surviving all in the name of adventure. The risk of long term commitment, connection, and belonging is passed over for the unpredictable and immediate moments of joy and gratitude. The "community" of nomads finds an imperfect balance between "go it alone" and connection with their fellow houseless citizens. As the movie concluded and the credits began to role, I was left with this question, "Can 21st century America still offer belonging when it no longer values stability and dependability?"
Nomadland explores what many American's are experiencing in real life at this moment: independent survivalism and its cost. The audience watches as Fern travels between seasonal jobs that takes her from South Dakota to Washington and California. She fosters kindness with her fellow nomads and offers sandwiches, ad hoc spa days, and even a hospital visit when a member of the community undergoes emergency surgery. But while Fern's inherent kindness is infectious, it is also safely guarded. The scars of loss are deeply felt and the willingness to be present, trusting, and vulnerable are all bridges that carry too much risk to cross, for Fern. All of Fran's connections come with strong and visceral boundaries, keeping her safe but distant from others.
When we first learn of the circumstances around Fern's lifestyle, it is easy to process the information as if reading it in a New York Times article. But as the movie shows us Fern's story, the gut wrenching impact of the death of a spouse, the loss of a home, the closing of a plant, and the abandonment of a company town is heavily felt. Fern's unwavering resilience is beyond impressive but it is also frustrating due to how unnecessary and preventable her (and many American's) circumstances are.
Throughout the 1990's and early 2000's, corporate America was congratulating itself on profits earned through downsizing. Massive layoffs, consolidations, and benefit reductions were all tactics used to boost the appearance of greater profits and generate more enticing stock prices. This began the era of prioritizing shareholders over stakeholders. As a result, thousands of Americans lost their jobs, small towns across America were gutted, and fewer Americans had access to healthcare and retirement benefits. The trust between corporations and their workers was shattered, and Americans could no longer look to their corporate employers for dependable stability or a secure lifestyle. The social contract between capitalism and the worker was broken and that left a major cultural gap. So what has stepped in to fill this void? Well, let's look at America today.
The gig economy r