Suburbanophilia: The Revival of Suburban Stereotypes
Since the emergence of the mainstream American suburb in the early twentieth century, consumers of popular culture have been obsessed with representations of suburbia and suburbanites; one might say, we are suffering from a case of suburbanophilia, a tern coined by William Sharpe and Leonard Wallock in their study of American suburbs. For decades, our attention has been captivated by representations of suburbia in mainstream TV and film. But why? Initially, interest was sparked by a desire to partake in the new American Dream, which was characterised by wealth, health and happiness, predominantly in the suburbs. In the 1950s, TV series offered viewers a glimpse of an all-American way of life, centred on the nuclear family and a strong sense of community.
Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) is an ideal example of the ways in which popular culture was used to advertise suburbia, presenting a family sitcom in which the mother is characterised by domesticity whilst the father is depicted as a professional figure, and the children return home to tell stories of their days at school; this patriarchal set-up would have given viewers of the 1950s a lifestyle to aspire to, particularly in the context of post-war America. Suburbia offered America’s returning servicemen a desirable place to live and start a family, in a secure environment that escaped the crime and diversity of the city. Thus, American suburbia came to represent a new American dream, encapsulated by safety, stability, and a sting sense of community.
However, following criticisms of suburbia’s exclusivity, particularly in terms of race and class, TV and film representations became suspicious of the suburbs, and began depicting a less-than-perfect portrait of suburbia. This shift in attitude towards the suburbs is reflected in films such as Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which use the genre of science fiction to emphasise the threat that the outside world posed to suburbia’s elite community. The uniformity and tranquility of America’s suburbs provided an ideal setting for disruption, hence the frequent use of invasion terminology in such films’ titles; these suggest a strong notion of insider/outsider values, which highlight the elitism that existed in America’s suburbia.
Similar ideas are also explored in the popular TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), in which a young, female suburbanite is trusted with the responsibility of protecting suburban ‘Sunnydale’ from various monsters and demons that flock towards the town’s Hellmouth. The series is particularly interesting as it focuses on the defence of the suburbs, offering a counter-force to the threat of invasion. Additionally, the ignorance of the majority of Sunnydale’s resident is frequently mocked throughout the show, allowing for an interaction with suburban stereotypes alongside the reinforcement of suburban lifestyles, which are worth defending.
Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) deals with the same threat of invasion from an entirely different perspective, representing the sensibility of the outsider in an effort to critique the narrow-mindedness of suburbanites, amidst an array of pastel coloured houses and carefully mown lawns. The unnamed suburban town is constructed through various cliches, such as a aesthetically pleasing homes and the frequently visiting, and often intrusive, neighbours. However, Edward Scissorhands’ gothic castle over-looks the town from a nearby hill, looming in the distance in a threatening manner, continually reminding the town’s residents of the potential threat of the outsider. When Edward crosses the boundaries into the town he is initially received with curiosity and a slightly unwelcome reception, though the townspeople eventually begin to treat him fondly, as a kind of spectacle. Edward’s deviance from the norm is both intriguing and threatening, although the end of the film sees the residents turn against him during a rapid series of unfortunate events. In his construction of this dark fairytale, Burton highlights the elitism of suburbia, which proves to be a hostile environment for the outsider. Thus, the film reverses the notions expressed in earlier science fiction examples, suggesting that suburbia itself is the threat, particularly to those who do not conform to suburban standards.
What’s striking about these various representations of the suburbs is that they all perpetuate the same aesthetic, despite their tendencies towards critique or subversion. The stereotypical uniformity of houses, often with picture windows, and always with impeccably maintained gardens, infiltrates almost every representation of suburbia in popular culture; this maintenance of the suburban portrait is especially evident in contemporary representations of suburbia. Recent TV shows such as Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) and Suburgatory (2011) aim to satirise stereotypical conceptions of suburbia, but arguably continue to sell the same idealized notions of suburban life. Wisteria Lane, the notoriously charming setting of Desperate Housewives, offers the viewer a portrait of suburbia consisting of white-picket fences and large, attractive houses. In its efforts to satirise suburbia for its dated ideals and exclusivity, Desperate Housewives ultimately presents the viewer with an idealised vision of life, which mainly conveys wealth, health and happiness, despite a few blips here and there. Similarly, the recently broadcast Suburgatory depicts a young girl’s anguish at being forced to live in a suburban town with her father, amidst an array of stereotypically shallow and gossiping neighbours. However, the aesthetics are again largely appealing, with glossy painted houses and frequent exhibitions of wealth.
My point, is that these representations not only satirise suburbia, but also aim to keep the notion of suburban living alive. Why is this relevant? Because the idealized suburbs of the 1950s and 60s no longer exist. The inner-ring suburbs, which birthed the all-American way of life, suffered immensely from the effects of economic struggle and the New Urbanist Movement of the 1980s and 90s, as many suburban dwellers flocked back to the cities in search of a more accessible consumerist lifestyle; many of the most popular suburbs have transformed into outer-city slums, as the wealthy middle-classes priced the lower-classes out of the city, forcing them to take residence in the less desirable ex-suburbs. Thus, contemporary representations of suburbia in popular culture that rely heavily on suburban ideals can be perceived as an attempt to hold on to a reality that once existed, but has since been lost. Amongst other examples, Wisteria Lane offers a vision of suburbia that is fondly remembered by most of Desperate Housewives‘ viewers, many of which would have spent their childhood in a suburb. The desperation to keep the suburbs alive, if only through representation, is encapsulated in our tendency towards suburbanophilia, which is rapidly spreading throughout the United States and the UK.
Suburbanophilia can be further understood in relation to Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which explains that ‘we comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection.’ Protection, for most Americans, is a concept entwined with the traditional values of suburbia, established following the Second World War, and during the later threats of communism, in which suburbia became a kind of haven from potential disaster. The isolation of many suburbs emphasises a comforting notion of enclosure and security, which many American’s would associate with their childhood; it is therefore unsurprising that during a period of social disruption, nostalgic images of an American ideal would begin to reemerge in popular culture.
In maintaining the same suburban aesthetic throughout half a century of popular culture, we have established a stereotype that reminds us of a simpler way of life, offering a comforting glance into the past. Removed from the social and economic instability of the city, the isolated suburb provides a sense of escapism through nostalgia. As a society, we are charmed by the triviality of suburban life, and we enjoy following the hopeless dramas of fictional lives. Despite having moved on from dated 1950s ideals, we still find it hard to resist the white picket fences and long winding streets of suburbia.
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