Lívia Szélpál is a PhD Student in the doctoral program in comparative history of Central, Southeastern, and Eastern Europe, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Her research interest includes urban history and American studies. Email:
During postwar period the United States became a suburban nation. Between 1950 and 1980, the number of people living in the suburbia almost tripled and by the 1990s, half of all Americans called suburbia their home. After the 1990s a radical change took place in the socio-political status of the suburbia: while in the 1950s, typical commuter suburbs were almost totally residential, today they look like independent cities with high-tech industries and shopping malls (Sharpe and Wallock 3). Contemporary suburbia has become increasingly heterogeneous, commercial and transnational, a new city with shopping malls and entertainment facilities, in contrast with the old stereotypical suburbs of residence and uniformity. This paper aims to highlight the cultural and social criteria of the changing suburbia by confronting the image of the real suburbia with its representation in American movies, and by investigating the impact commercial reality has on its image in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956, dir. Nunnally Johnson), The Graduate (1967, dir. Mike Nichols), Ice Storm (1997, dir. Ang Lee), The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir), American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes) and Stepford Wives (2004, dir. Frank Oz), all seen as referential points in a historical perspective.
Earlier researches concerning the field focused mostly on how the growth of the suburbia affected its representation in fiction (especially novels) and film. This research takes a different route and aims to shed new light on the suburban landscape by focusing on the comparative investigation of the following key notions: the setting and the historical setting, the plot and the mis-en-scène, and characterization, all in the light of their response to historical events. Besides these key-points, the representation of the family life and the recurrent symbols of the suburbia will be investigated as markers of a new image of the suburbia.
The traditional suburban values and attitudes associated with the classic urban suburb were highly promoted in Hollywood films especially in the 1950s by advancing the stereotyped gender roles and socio-political structures of the early post-war period. According to some earlier studies on the topic, the nostalgia for the old clichés and stereotypes of the suburban imagery still dominated the Hollywood film industry and television sitcoms. Muzzio and Halper’s study, for example, highlights the increasing tendency for representing the imperfect sides of the suburbia. Moreover, suburban-centered movies in the 1960s and early 1970s became increasingly critical to the public discourse of the suburbia as reflected through such films as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Graduate. Then, during the Civil Rights movements a more radical critical change occurred in the representation of the suburbia, which focused mainly on its negative sides, similar to the movies of the 1990s that presented a similarly dark and ironic anti-suburban tendency (Muzzio and Halper 566). For instance, The Truman Show subverts the commercial reality of contemporary suburbia by creating a seemingly authentic show in an artificial city, while the American Beauty (1999) reflects a more ironic representation of contemporary suburban imagery behind the intradiegetic window curtains.
Consequently, the assumption is that the suburban settings of these films function as dynamic elements defining the narrative. The focus on the suburbs in filmic discourse sheds light on specific drives and tendencies in American culture apparent from the postwar years onward such as the massive expansion of the middle class, the valorization of the nuclear family and a consequent reification of gender identities in tandem with the collapse of the distinction between the public and the private spaces (Beuka 2-3). Reading suburban film narratives thus serves to expose and outline the image of the suburbia as a symbolic manifestation of the cultural practices and contradictions that helped shaping US society after the Second World War.
The American Suburb: The Image of a Bourgeois Utopia and Its Discontents
The growth and evolution of the suburbia lies at the heart of American urban history. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the population of the great American cities was still compact; one could walk through all the neighborhoods in a day. With the advent of several technological advancements in urban transportation services, the working place and the residential districts became separated: thus, the walking city ceased to exist and was replaced by a modern city with railroads, horse-car railways, and later, cable cars. This new urban way of life entailed the appearance of the downtown, which became the financial and commercial district to which people came from some distance to work or to shop (Glaab and Brown 147). Between 1860 and 1890, the cityscape of most American cities changed with the images of the factories, railroads, skyscrapers. Slums also appeared. The population was absorbed in a concentrated residential space near the workplaces and this caused a significant increase in population density (ibid). Old European patterns, embodied in the colonial ports, changed – with the invention of the horse cars or steam railroads – the pedestrian towns into different types of cities with clearly distinguished commercial and industrial districts. Additionally, the successive waves of immigrants with their need for cohesive settlements further segmented larger cities into distinct ethnic neighborhoods (Glaab and Brown 59). The alternative to escape from a condensed city became the main aim of expanded suburbanization.
The very notion of the suburb as a residential place outside the city is as old as civilization itself. The process of suburbanization – which involves the systematic evolution of fringe areas, and as a life-style, includes the daily commuting – first took place in the United States and Great Britain at the beginning of the 19th century (Jackson 13). Robert Fishman defined “the collective creation” of the suburbia as the bricolage of the old and new paradigm of living environment (39-40). The process of suburbanization came as the reaction of the bourgeois elite against the metropolis as a proper setting for family life. London’s bourgeois elite, for example, reconsidered the relation between their weekend villas and their urban townhouses, and, as a result, the suburban milieu became the main setting of the bourgeoisie “to create their own world of family centered values” where “they would build the bourgeois utopia” (Fishman 50-51). Hence, as Fishman writes, suburbia became both a culture and a commodity of a family centered environment (57). According to Herbert J. Gans, the postwar suburb itself creates few changes in the inhabitants’ way of life since the suburb is only a residential place and urban residents who move out to the suburbs do not undergo any significant changes in behavior. Gans’s definition of the suburb lies only in the physical and demographic differences between the city and the suburb, thus, in terms of sociological parameters, one cannot speak about a suburban way of life (178, 186). Nevertheless, Gans enlists six characteristic features of the suburban image:
- Suburbs are more like dormitories.
- They are away from the work and play facilities of the central business districts.
- They are newer and more modern than city residential districts and are designed for the automobile rather than for pedestrian and mass-transit forms of movement.
- They are built up with single-family rather than multifamily structures and are therefore less dense.
- Their populations are more homogeneous.
- Their populations differ demographically: they are younger; most of them are married; they have higher incomes; and they hold proportionally more white-collar jobs. (179)
The images of the suburbia underwent crucial transformations as the character and pace of American urbanization changed; on the one hand, some of the previous images persisted while on the other hand, there was an ongoing process of shifts in its model (Strauss 231). To describe the suburbia only as a residential landscape proves anachronistic since suburbia is also a site of promises, dreams and fantasies. Dolores Hayden defines it as “a landscape of the imagination where Americans situate ambitions for upward mobility and economic security, ideals about freedom and private property, and longings for social harmony and spiritual uplift” (3). Hayden describes the history of suburban construction in the evolution of seven vernacular patterns:
- building in borderlands started around 1820s;
- picturesque enclaves began around 1850;
- and streetcar suburbs around 1870;
- the self-built suburbs appeared at the turn of the century;
- the mass-produced, urban-scale “sitcom” suburbs appeared after the World War II;
- edge nodes turned up in the 1960s;
- the rural fringes intensified around 1980.
According to Hayden, all these patterns survived in the contemporary era together with the American Dream inherent in these developments. The image of the traditional American Dream included gender stereotyped family values and the ideology of female domesticity which was challenged during the World War II when many women started to work outside their homes and took men’s jobs at working places. Thus, the result was a dream-model of a single family house, land and community intensified by the developers and boosters of growth (Hayden 4-9). In her study, Hayden contests Kenneth T. Jackson’s statement from the Crabgrass Frontier about the US turning away from suburbia and going back to urban centers by emphasizing that the suburban trend still persists and the US has become a predominantly suburban nation (Hayden 10).
Today, suburbanization is leading to decreasing residential segregation and the new immigrant communities have already started to challenge this previous suburban image. Though some elite suburban enclaves remain almost entirely white and Protestant; there are also Irish-American, African-American suburbs and Chinese-American suburbs (Hayden 12-13). A recent survey shows that 71% of all white Americans live in suburbs; also, Whites and Asians have stronger preference for neighborhoods of their own race and ethnicity than Hispanics and Blacks do (Clark and Blues 670). Nevertheless, the diversity of the suburbia is both the evidence of integration and a source of conflict. One of the counter-tendencies to earlier forms of suburbia is the gated community built for affluent middle-class and upper-middle-classes who intend to separate themselves not really from the new suburban image but from its alleged problems. Besides the gated community, another private option is the fantasy theme park village, which dissociates itself from society’s perils, as well (Baxandal and Ewen 252-253).
The shopping malls, the highways of suburbia, the high-tech industrial parks, office complexes and schools are significant indicators of an intense cultural and economic transformation; residents can turn to their immediate surroundings for jobs and all other facilities. Though the image of the suburbia is shifting, recent urban theorists doubt that it can function in itself as a real city because of its (old) infrastructure, dependence on the city or lack of mass transit and transportation.
Sitcom Suburbs: Commercial Reality and the Suburban Image
Culture, and especially mass culture, is a powerful means of controlling cities and its citizens since it is a source of images and memories that symbolizes a sense of belonging to a place or a community. The growth of cultural consumption in diverse forms (art, movies, fashion, music or tourism) and the affiliated industries contribute largely to a city’s symbolic economy, which is the visible ability of the city to produce both symbols and living space. According to Sharon Zukin, those who create images – media corporations like the Disney Company, Hollywood film industry, and politicians – they work with the collective memory of people and develop a collective identity through the constructed images (1-3). This symbolic economy recycles real estate and so it does with the images it aims to represent. Visual display matters and has a great impact on the American cities today (Zukin 9). The symbiosis of image and product affects the scope and scale of selling images on a national and even a global level today; it is not surprising that the role of symbolic economy in the representation of a city is a new phenomenon emerging since the 1970s. The seemingly invisible symbolic economy that interferes with finance, media and entertainment increases the development of towns and creates a totally new display changing the way consumers and employees think.
The Disney Company, for instance, makes films and distributes them through television channels; it also sells commercial products (toys, books and videos) from a national network of stores. Disney is also a real estate owner in Orlando, France or Japan, and has theme parks and hotels, as well. Obviously here, too, the prominence of culture industry inspires a new language dealing with difference because it offers “a coded means of discrimination, an undertone to the dominant discourse of democratization” (Zukin 8-9). Consequently, as cities and societies place greater emphasis on visualization, the film industry, (in this case the Disney Company) and art museums play more prominent roles in defining public culture as a process of negotiating images that are accepted by the majority of people (Zukin 10). Visual representation thus becomes a means of financially re-presenting a city.
The postwar suburbs were mass-produced model houses built on suburban streets that “held families similar in age, race, and income and whose lifestyles were reflected in the nationally popular sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, including Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best” (Hayden 128). The image of these sitcom suburbs was represented by television, film and advertisements as the symbol of the (typical) American family life in a convenient, technologically-advanced suburban houses, a real image of the consumer utopia. As Hayden argues, the synonyms for the “suburb” in the 1970s were “land of mediocrity,” “middle America” or simply just outskirts, outposts, borderlands and periphery (15). Postwar suburbs met the demand for housing the veterans of the war and were, accordingly, constructed by means of mass-production (128) and as such, reinforced further racial and gender discrimination. The traditional image of the suburbia gained a safe place in the American consciousness and collective memory through advertising and media as early as the late nineteenth century. Interestingly, today suburbia continues to be imagined as an iconic environment and is still perceived as the repository of the American dream (Hayden 140-141).
Television plays a crucial role in making the suburban image of the American dream. Cecilia Tichi uses the notion of “electric hearth” to suggest the ways in which television as an object of everyday use became ideologically identified with the concept of the home and therefore sold as an essential element of utopian suburbia in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, one of the key elements in films representing the suburban image is the ritual of watching TV at home. The notion of the electric hearth corresponds to the intimate image of the traditional fireplace, though this is an artificial, electronic means of societal progress. As Campbell and Kean write, television became a mythic and ideologized unifier of the fragmented post-war family, an emblem of “togetherness,” of technology’s domestication and also as a sign of suburban achievement. Television replaced the family icon of blazing fire around which the family grouped to interact as in some nostalgic scene from the past. In the post-war world, all this intimate significance had been transferred to the television (and then the movies). Television sitcoms were among the most important ones that provided models for appropriate domesticity, for gender and class roles, consumption and other aspects of life-style by masking social problems and presenting instead a portrait of life set in established roles and expectations (Campbell and Kean 273-276).
Hayden points out that the US “developed competing commercial stations with advertising poundings,” in contrast to Britain, where television was introduced with public educational and cultural programming. The impact of commercials was increased and shifted to the sitcoms and films (148). As it is presented at the beginning of Stepford Wives – which is a collage of domestic TV advertisements – housewives are dressed like chorus girls dancing around cars; they are elegant mothers in their Sunday bests putting ready-made meals into the newest type of microwave oven. In Muzzio’s and Halper’s scrutiny of The Truman Show, of the remake of Stepford Wives and of American Beauty, they argue that these films satirize and criticize postwar suburbs as overly controlled places with racial exclusion and families with psychological imbalances. The writers ask why a “continuing negativity toward suburbia in films, while American society becomes ever more suburban demographically and culturally?” is still present (Muzzio and Halper 568). In the following, I will attempt to answer their question.
Filmic Images of Suburbia
The films I have chosen as referential points to illustrate the image of the suburbia are also present in Muzzio and Halper’s project on “The Suburb and Its Representation in American Movies.” Muzzio and Halper built a historical outline about the development of the suburban image from the classical moving images like in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to the critical ones like The Truman Show, American Beauty, or the remake of the Stepford Wives. The authors define these movies as suburban centered vis-à-vis the suburban set because suburbia is essential to the nature of each film. Moreover, in these suburban-centered movies many of the presented Hollywood suburbs tend to be interchangeable and stereotypical, which means that they have no unique features. Besides, these movies have little to do with the “real” suburbs because they are almost always shot on the back lots of the given studios (Muzzio and Halper 547) and rather serve as a kind of parable to mainstream American culture.
The recurrent images reinforce the national symbols of American suburbia: for example, in all of them, the suburban architectural landscape with streets, houses, edges, nodes, and districts is a common visual feature; commuting from the suburb to jobs by car and train is also a well-known pattern; the Grand Central Terminal of New York is almost always the goal of traveling like in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or the Ice storm; while the setting in Connecticut is common in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Ice Storm and in Stepford Wives. It seems that the physical layout of the suburbia did not change too much since The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, though technological advancement has made its imprint on the domestic environment quite a good deal. What really changed in time is the representation of the human psyche and the traumas the inhabitants of the suburbia have experienced. Behind the curtains of the filmic windows and the seemingly perfect suburban landscape there are personal traumas and deeply rooted psychological problems within the families: dysfunctional marriages and families, adultery, mendacity, and false parent-child relationships. This idea is best summarized by Paul’s thoughts when he is philosophizing about a cartoon while travelling home on the train. He describes the role of the family in Ice Storm in the following way: “Your family is like your personal antimatter. Your family is the void you emerge from and the place you return when you die and that’s the paradox. The closer you’re drawn back in, the deeper into the void you go.” (Lee 00:04)
Troubled family life is present in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), too. The plot is about Tom Rath, a man working from 9.00 till 5.00 with a family and a home, who has to choose between making a real career and being honest with his life. He was a soldier and killed seventeen people in the war, including accidentally his best friend; the post-traumatic stress is still present in his life through the recurrent images featuring the horrors of the war presented with flashbacks. Ten years after World War II, the trauma of the war has still its imprint on him. While he is working on a national health campaign he is still on the cautious side by stating things as if in a continuous warfare: “I am in that race. I think I’d be an idiot not to play it the way everybody else plays it” (Johnson 1:46). The image of the suburbia is described by the protagonist as “a graveyard of everything we used to talk about: happiness, fun, ambition and I want to get out of it,” and also as “a nice house in a nice neighborhood.”
Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate is afraid of his future. He has just won a scholarship but he does not really know what to do with his life after graduation. Mrs Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, seduces him in her daughter’s room and ‘initiates’ him into manhood. His rites de passage includes Ben’s fight with the cross to Elaine (Mrs Robinson’s daughter) and abducting her from a marriage by securing the door of the church full of the wedding guests. At the end of the movie Ben and Elaine symbolically leave behind the mendacity of the suburban society and escape by public transportation. A film about a ‘son of suburbia,’ who is getting aware of his embattled place within a confining, alienating suburban milieu, The Graduate exposes the fraudulence of the perfect characters in a perfect environment. Ben is transgressing social and sexual taboos and exposes his vulnerability by solving the dynamics of masculinity in the age of suburbia (Beuka 114-115), as an elite suburban landscape with swimming pools and luxurious villas in Berkeley, Santa Barbara during the late 1960s. The recurrent images of the American suburbia are swimming pools, airplanes, garden parties, traveling only by car. The film’s mis-en-scène includes the enigmatic swimming pool and Ben’s aquarium that indicates dependence, uncertainty as well as repressed desires and unleashed sexual drives.
Ice Storm is about the life and personal dilemmas of two neighbor families who are confined together by an ice storm at a frustrating key-party. The historical setting of the film is 1973, the year of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. The images from the news on TV make their imprints upon the children’s behavior, who mime their parents in many ways; for instance, both Wendy and her mother are notorious shoplifters. The miscommunication between spouses and the social boredom between them result in the catastrophic death of Mickey, a sacrifice that paradoxically gets the family closer. The suburban image in Ice Storm is a small town with the houses placed outside the town, almost in the forest. The setting is in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973 and the recurrent images of the suburbia are the Grand Central Terminal, New York, trains, commuting business men, and frozen railroads.
The plot of The Truman Show is a complete simulacra; it is set in Seahaven Island, which is an artificial city within the city of the Seahaven Studio, which is in the artificial city of Hollywood, within the (real) city of Los Angeles. The story is about the Live Show of Truman Burbank who was ‘adopted’ by a TV company. The characters are all actors and tell advertisement slogans to make profit for the show. In this film, the impact of the suburban image on the commercial reality is explicit: the film is a film within a film. As Christof, the “creator” of “The Truman Show” says at the beginning, “The Truman Show is authentic, real life without scripts, it is only controlled” (Weir 00:02). However, Truman Show looks back in time in a self-reflexive way “to invoke the 1950s’-style suburban situation comedy as a metaphor for exploring the repressions and assorted neuroses of contemporary American suburbia” (Beuka 228). The movie – a metatextual commentary on neotraditionalism – was filmed ironically, in Seaside, Florida, the very image of the contemporary “New Urbanism” architectural movement, “a postsuburban, neotraditional urban design philosophy centered on planned communities and described by its leading practitioners as an antidote to suburban sprawl (Beuka 229). In The Truman Show, the setting is a seemingly perfect small town, in Seahaven Island, where the slogan, “a nice place to live,” excludes, for instance, all non-fitting figures such as homeless people.
American Beauty presents the last year of Lester Burnham, who narrates his life and his awakening from the twenty-year long “coma” of being an average suburbia inhabitant. His marriage and family life are all failures, and he tries to escape by practicing body building, by smoking marihuana and changing his workplace for Mr Smiley’s fast food restaurant. He is, in the meantime, seduced by his daughter’s friend, Angela. Mendacity and masking are connected to this suburban image where the King of the Real Estate business says to Carolyn: “For the sake of success you have to have an aura of being successful” (Mendes 00:51). Overall, the film is a caricature of suburban life and criticizes particular social woes by representing all negative aspects of modern American suburban culture, such as superficiality, violence, aggressive and unreflective professional striving, together with the complete absence of abiding familial ties (Beuka 242). The recurrent images of the suburbia are: driving cars, the neighbors greeting each other, and jogging on the street. Lester, the protagonist, acts as an omniscient narrator who knows that his wife is unhappy and who is aware that his daughter is a problematic teenager for whom her father is not perfect at all, because he is an “idiot, fake” old lecher.
Stepford Wives satirizes the impact of the media on family life and subverts the real world with ‘the Stepford Reality.’ Stepford is a Connecticut family paradise, a gated community with security guards and security system in every new house (which tests even the urine for blood sugar, protein and body fat) and a Robo Rover 3000 puppy for each household. Stepford is described as the “American way of love,” where the so-called Stepford program rules. According to Mrs Claire Wellington, the ‘ruler’ of the place, “Stepford was founded by George Washington and Martha just loved it.” Stepford is a community of perfectly smiling housewives and absolutely happy husbands. The perfection of women is due to a secret: women who were previously “super girls and Amazon Queens” were transformed into women-robots practicing Clairobics. The white robot community celebrates July 4th without African Americans, Native Americans or Asian Americans. They seem to accept otherness but they want to transform it into perfection like in the case of the gay character, Roger, who is changed into a macho senator candidate. The head of the community is Mike, whose name turns out to be an abbreviation for Microsoft and the NASA, while other big companies (the Disney, AOL and even Mattel) take great part in the Stepford project of making perfect robots out of imperfect humans. The actual head of the community is a woman, Claire Wellington, who transformed her husband into a robot. When she is asked whether she is a machine or a man, she answers in the following manner:
I am a lady. All I wanted was a better world; a world where men were men and women were cherished and lovely; a world of romance and beauty of tuxedos and chiffon; a perfect world. I was like you over-stressed, over-booked, under-loved. I was the world’s foremost brain surgeon and genetic engineer. I had top secret contracts with the Pentagon, Apple and Mattel. (Oz 1:18)
Paradoxically, all Claire wants is to turn back time before women turn themselves into robots. Finally, the character Joanna concludes in the Larry King Live at the end of the film, that “[T]he perfect doesn’t work” (Oz 1: 27) and so does the suburbia as it is in the film. This is the most fitting response to the impact of the commercial reality on this suburban image, with the story set in the Stepford Reality of the 1950s.
There is a curiously interchangeable relationship between the suburban image and commercial reality as both have great impact upon each other in the films discussed above. The presence of the television screen under various guises (TV network, watching TC, videos, etc.) is a common feature in all of these films: Ricky in American Beauty makes secret videos and watches them, Truman is followed by 5000 secret video cameras, while Joanna Eberhart in Stepford Wives was the president of the EBS TV network and created two TV shows about the battle of sexes entitled The Balance of Power and the I Can Do Better. Joanna is finally shot during a live show by a reality show character. The suburbia in these filmic representations is far from the bourgeois utopia; these movies present rather a dystopian place that death often visits. Tom Rath killed 17 people in the war, Mrs Robinson symbolically kills the childhood of Ben, Mickey Carver dies accidentally in Ice Storm, Truman leaves the town which results in the death of the show, Lester is killed by his neighbor, Mike is beheaded and Claire commits suicide by kissing her husband’s electric head. It seems that the occurrence of death in this seemingly secure, safe and happy place shows rather the end of an idyllic image and points to what one might call the death of the suburbia.
In this article, I focused on the impact that commercial reality has on the suburban image in postwar US with a number of examples which show various representations of the suburban image in filmic discourse vis-à-vis the reality. In the past few decades, filmmakers created the strategy of the negative image of suburbia, which is a subversive mirror to whatever the ‘real’ one might be. The image of the traditional suburbia has undergone significant changes by the end of the twentieth century and the classical paradigm of the suburbia as par excellence residential place no longer seems to persist and if it does, it appears in an altered form due to the television and film industry, which both had a great impact on this transformed image. The stereotypes and myths of the suburbia did not change substantially with time in the movies. What has really changed is the attitude towards these stereotypes which criticize the clichés of classical suburbs. Suburban-centered movies, ironically, remind readers and viewers alike of what suburbia has become by now for most Americans: the home (Beuka 243).
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