Suburbs: A Cliché from Hell

The Toronto Star, Jan. 8, 2006.

There are certain landscapes that have been described so often they exist as much in the imagination as in reality. A first-time visitor to New York will find it difficult to see the city with fresh eyes as she walks down the familiar streets of Woody Allen movies. Parts of London will always belong to Dickens, and to this day Casablanca remains more a romantic symbol than an actual city.

In 1987, the Mississippi-born novelist Richard Ford spoke about how difficult it was to write about the South after Faulkner had described it so vividly. “When the whole earth is a literary landscape to start with — every tree has been described, every rise has been intuited — you’ll do well to go someplace where you’ll see it anew,” Ford said. “So that’s what I did.”

Where he went was Princeton, N.J., the model for the fictional Haddam in which his award-winning novels The Sportswriter and Independence Day are set.

Ford moved to the suburbs. But the world he found there was hardly a blank slate.

Despite its relative youth, suburbia is already a thoroughly mythologized landscape with its own set of clichés and conventions. The word brings to mind a number of images and associations, many of them negative. The suburb is a land of white-picket fences and well-trimmed lawns, of teenage angst and mindless materialism.

As historian Margaret Marsh has written, “The idea of suburbia transcends space and civic boundaries and becomes a means to conceptualize a way of life.”

You don’t have to look far to find depictions of suburbia as well worn as the most clichéd images of the South. In Fun with Dick and Jane — the recent remake of a 1977 comedy — Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni enjoy an ideal life in a fully loaded suburban house complete with barbecue, swimming pool, and white-picket fence. When Carrey loses his job, the couple begins a life of crime in order to hang on to their version of the “American dream.”

The latest single from pop-punk band Green Day is a nine-minute rock opera called “Jesus of Suburbia” that tells the story of a kid brought up on a “steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin,” who just doesn’t fit into the conformist “land of make believe.”
The publicity blurb for Weeds, last fall’s television series about a suburban mother who deals drugs, promised to expose the “dirty little secrets that lie behind the pristine lawns and shiny closed doors” of suburbia.

The point is, there’s nothing new about attacking the suburbs. A quick look at their history shows us that their image as a conformist prison is as old as the suburbs themselves. Perhaps the only dirty little secret left to tell about life in suburbia is that, despite what you’ve heard from books, movies and television, it isn’t really all that bad.

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In popular depictions, it seems you either love the suburbs or you hate them. In his book SuburbanNation, literary critic Robert Beuka argues that suburbia has given us utopias and dystopias, but very few artists have offered a more nuanced approach.

In consumer advertising, lifestyle magazines, and television shows like Leave it To Beaver and Father Knows Best, suburbia is the place where the promise of a happy family life, secure employment, and material comfort has been realized — the physical embodiment of the American dream. Perhaps the most literal example of this came in the famous 1959 Khrushchev-Nixon “kitchen debate.” Arguing with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibit in Moscow, Richard Nixon could point to the American suburban model house on display, with its all-electric kitchen, multiple small appliances, and pantry full of canned food as physical proof of the superiority of the American way of life.

For many North Americans, however, suburbia is seen as exactly the opposite.

Filmmakers and authors, punk bands and folk singers have all attacked suburbia as a centre of mindless consumption and stifling social conformity. The suburbs may represent the “American dream,” they argue, but that dream is perverted and corrupt.

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt is one of the first novels set in suburbia and arguably the father of the entire anti-suburban genre. Published in 1922 in the midst of the 1920s suburban building boom, the novel lays out some of the basic characterizations of the suburbs that we find over and over in subsequent depictions.

The novel tells the story of George F. Babbitt, a real estate agent, prominent member of the local men’s club, and head of a nuclear family living a rather comfortable life in the suburban community of Floral Heights.

At first, Babbitt loves the advantages of the homogenous suburbs. “The extraordinary, growing, and sane standardization of stores, offices, streets, hotels, clothes, and newspapers throughout the United States shows how strong and enduring a type is ours,” he happily tells a real estate board.

As the novel progresses, however, Babbitt comes to associate the standardization of his environment with the standardization of his life. His conventional marriage is loveless, his conventional job is unfulfilling, and the expensive things he consumes are “at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.”

Babbitt rebels against his suburban existence, beginning an affair and refusing to join a local business organization. However, when his wife suddenly gets ill, his shaky determination to revolt crumbles and he returns to his suburban existence.

Although Babbitt’s rebellion fails, Lewis’s novel sparked a similar revolt, if only in the world of literature. Lewis may not be the first writer to take the sad, alienated businessman as his subject, but he is arguably the first to intimately link these feelings of alienation with the comfortable environment of the suburbs, and he is certainly the most influential. Indeed, the novel mocked what Lewis saw as the narrow life of the typical suburb-dweller so effectively that the noun “Babbitt” is defined in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary as “a materialistic, complacent business person.”

Since Babbitt, the same themes of alienation, conformity, and materialism in the suburbs have been played out time and again in American novels. From Lewis’s tired businessmen to John Updike’s listless wife-swappers, from John Cheever’s cocktail-sippers to the more contemporary suburb-dwellers of Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), the literature of the suburbs has given us a seemingly endless supply of sad, privileged suburbanites.

In films, the tendency to use “suburbia” as convenient shorthand for “bourgeois,” “conservative,” “conformist,” and “repressive” has been even more apparent. Time after time, even the most imaginative filmmakers have delivered the expected clichés about the suburbs in hyperbolic allegories. In Tim Burton’s excellent Edward Scissorhands (1990), the cookie-cutter world of the suburbs is depicted in grotesque exaggeration. The stereotypical suburbanite’s tendency to punish aberrant behaviour — illustrated in Babbitt or Cheever short stories by a pointed non-invitation to a garden party or a snubbing at the grocery store — here takes the form of the cruel ostracism of the monstrous Edward Scissorhands. They literally run him out of their conformist suburb.

In Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998), two teenagers enter a 1950s sitcom set in the idyllic community of Pleasantville where, in a heavy-handed metaphor, the conservative elder statesmen of the suburb literally see things in black and white.

Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show takes the idea of suburb-as-conformist-prison as its central conceit: Truman’s ideal suburban home and friendly neighbours are in fact all part of an elaborate reality television show from which he cannot escape. Like the average suburbanite, Truman believes he is a self-determined individual happy in his comfortable life, when in reality he is trapped in an artificial prison.

In Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty, a middle-aged man played by Kevin Spacey falls in love with a teenage girl. This suddenly opens his eyes to the stifling conformity of his suburban life and he begins a rebellion against the world of repressed propriety, mocking his neighbours, insulting his wife, and generally acting up. The film hits all the familiar points about life in the suburbs: a loveless marriage, a culture of materialism, repressed sexuality. It also follows the plot of a Cheever short story remarkably closely. Yes, years before the plastic bag was even invented, let alone floated down the subdivision as a symbol of beauty, Francis Weed was lusting after his babysitter and disturbing the neighbourhood in The Country Husband.

The point isn’t that Hollywood may have been borrowing from Cheever, but that, more than 50 years after his first collection was published, we have nothing new to say about life in the suburbs.

The North American suburbs of 2006 are a world away from the imagined suburbs of Cheever or Lewis. Traditional suburbs have grown and aged. Many of the once identical houses of Levittown and other subdivisions have now been customized and renovated. As developments on the urban fringe have become increasingly independent from their urban centres, the very existence of “suburbia” in the traditional sense has been questioned.

Immigration has also made suburbia a far more diverse landscape. The population of Glendale, the town chosen by novelist James M. Cain as the setting for his 1941 novel Mildred Pierce because of its suburban blandness, is now over 50 per cent foreign-born. According to the American non-profit research organization The Brookings Institution, in the year 2000 more immigrants in metropolitan areas lived in suburbs than in cities.

Most importantly, the suburbs have become the dominant way of living. Today, more than half of America lives in suburbia, the number of Canadians living in suburbs has doubled since the 1960s, and, as supporters of the suburbs such as urban historian Tom Martinson have argued, most of them like it.

Yet while academics have taken a more nuanced approach toward suburbia to fit this changing reality, artists insist on selling the same shop-worn clichés.

These clichés aren’t just unfairly hard on suburbanites; they also ignore the real problems of suburban development. Aesthetically, modern subdivisions and strip malls are often hideous constructions built on an inhuman scale. And although suburbia as a whole is no longer entirely homogenous, individual suburbs remain relatively segregated.

Most important, the current car-dependent suburban model of low-density residential areas connected by multi-lane highways simply isn’t sustainable. James Howard Kunstler, the author of Geography of Nowhere and one of suburbia’s most outspoken critics, has called suburban sprawl “the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen, and perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known.”

Suburban depictions, however, largely ignore these issues and concentrate instead on feelings of alienation and suburban malaise. The only question that films like American Beauty and Pleasantville seem to ask is a self-pitying rhetorical one: “Is there anything worse than growing up in the upper-middle-class suburbs?”

The answer, of course, is, Obviously. Living in poor urban or rural communities are two that immediately come to mind. However, as Catherine Jurca writes in her excellent analysis of suburban fiction, White Diaspora, narratives about the suburbs tend to “convert the rights and privileges of living there into spiritual, cultural, and political problems of displacement, in which being white and middle class is imagined to have as much or more to do with subjugation as with social dominance.” Babbitt’s Dutch Colonial house isn’t a comfortable home, it’s a prison. Kevin Spacey isn’t lucky to have a high-paying job, he’s repressed by it.

By showing the suburbs as the place where the American Dream has soured, where the need to keep up with the Joneses has become oppressive, these movies and books deny the very real economic and political privileges that exist in the comfortable, middle-class enclaves. There are plenty of things to dislike about suburbia, but wealth and comfort probably shouldn’t be at the top of the list.

The result of all this has been a picture of suburbia that ignores both the genuine benefits and the legitimate criticisms of life on the urban fringe.

Instead, depictions of the suburbs offer predictable images of conformity and alienation. In its short existence, suburbia has become more a bundle of clichés and conventions than a real place. Today, a young writer looking to describe a new landscape would do well to stay clear of the subdivision and head for somewhere fresher. New York, London, Casablanca — almost anywhere has less literary baggage than the North American suburb.