Suburbia Outgrows Its Image in the Arts
The New York Times, Feb. 28, 1999
by Samuel G. Freedman

Early in the film "Pleasantville," a teen-age boy named David flops onto the couch of his suburban home, eyes fixed on the television for a rerun of a 1950's sitcom, all banter about Mom's meatloaf and the school science fair. Just behind David, meanwhile, his mother argues over the telephone with her ex-husband about who's stuck with custody of the boy this weekend. Before long, in the pivotal moment of "Pleasantville," he finds himself transported through the picture tube and into the show.

That scene conflates the two standard images of suburbia in American culture. It is either the scrubbed and cheerful utopia of such actual television series as "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver" or else it is the miserable, materialistic dystopia of novelists like John Cheever and Rick Moody. From either extreme, the chroniclers of suburbia agree on this much: it is white and upper middle class.

In the last generation, however, suburbia has evolved in startling ways, becoming ever more varied by race, class and ethnicity and eluding the grasp of all but a handful of perceptive artists and entertainers. As highbrow films like Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and popular-culture phenomena like "The Brady Bunch" revival peddle the same old cliches, reaping money and praise by pandering to audiences that share their smug presumptions, figures as disparate as the author Junot Diaz of "Drown," the filmmaker Tamara Jenkins of "Slums of Beverly Hills" and the comic D. L. Hughley of the television series "The Hughleys" are presenting the complex portrait of suburbia circa 2000.

"I always feel really alone in this conversation," says Mr. Diaz, a Dominican immigrant reared in central New Jersey. "The world I've created feels lonely." He could be speaking for the fellow artists who depict a suburbia of low-rent apartments beside gated developments, of strip malls and toxic-waste dumps, of the improbable commingling of ambitious immigrants, upwardly mobile minorities and working-class whites whose security is imperiled by downsizing and deindustrialization.

"The suburbs have changed, but our way of looking at them hasn't changed," says Rosalyn Baxandall, a professor of American studies at the State University of New York in Old Westbury and co-author of the forthcoming book "Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened." "The stereotype has always been that the suburbs are for rich people who ran away from the city, and there's alienation and conformity. But when I teach my classes, my students are mostly nonwhite. I've had 17 languages in a class. Some of these families are taking in boarders. It's a big, big revelation."

Demographic data lend authority to what Mr. Diaz and Ms. Baxandall describe. The percentage of blacks who live in suburbia rose from 23 percent in 1970 to 32 percent in 1990, the demographer William Frey of the State University of New York at Albany has found. Some 40 percent of all minorities are suburbanites, according to the 1990 census. The Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, which is 60 percent Chinese, has emerged as the archetype of the so-called "ethnoburb."

The counterbalance to the successful movement of immigrants and minorities into suburbia, though, is the deterioration of inner-ring suburbs. These communities, clinging to the borders of cities, have been growing poorer, more segregated and more troubled for decades, losing population nearly as rapidly in some cases as urban ghettoes. Several years ago, the Federal Government surrounded its own office complex in Suitland, Md., a suburb just outside Washington, with a chain-link fence topped by razor wire.

The seismic shifts that have engaged scholars, though, have escaped many of the makers and consumers of culture. "What's missed is the diversity of suburbia," says Greg Hise, a historian at the University of Southern California who specializes in urban planning. "At least with urban novels and films, you see cities as a place of freedom, autonomy, possibility. With the suburbs, the writers and producers and directors are working with a set of accepted wisdom. We see the same stories about suburbia because we expect them."

Early in this century, suburbia actually received a more nuanced portrayal. Academics like Graham Taylor and Chauncey Harris delineated a variety of suburbs -- commuter, industrial, working class. F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby," set in a fictional version of Great Neck, N.Y., memorably etched the tensions between old money and parvenus, treating Gatsby's social climbing as the stuff of tragedy.

With the suburban boom after World War II, however, the stereotype of nuclear families in split-level homes was born. If in truth suburbia was already more stratified than that, with white-collar Scarsdale virtually next door to blue-collar Mount Vernon, the myth nonetheless reflected a certain amount of fact about the fast growing middle-class and the extraordinary increase in home ownership. It was true, too, that Federal mortgage regulations and private covenants conspired to keep much of suburbia white.

Television mirrored this version of the suburbs to the nation and the world. "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show" and their ilk delivered what the historian Stephanie Coontz has termed "our most powerful visions of traditional families." Homogeneity was part of the package. Desi Arnaz of "I Love Lucy," perhaps the only Hispanic star on a network show in the 1950's, lived in the city. So did Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," television's first identifiably Jewish character.

Inevitably the counterattack came, replacing one cartoonish version of suburbia with another. Journalists and social scientists -- David Riesman in "The Lonely Crowd," William Whyte in "The Organization Man," Betty Friedan in "The Feminine Mystique" -- argued that beneath the contented exterior of the salaryman and his stay-at-home wife lurked an anomie that Ms. Friedan called "the problem that has no name." Only the rare contrarian like Herbert Gans in "The Levittowners" portrayed a nourishing sense of community among the tract

Novelists, in turn, transmuted the theme of suburban malaise in fiction. Sloan Wilson created both a character and a catch-phrase with the public relations man Tom Rath in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." (Gregory Peck starred in the film adaptation.) Robert Sheckley ("The Ticket to Trania") and Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth ("Gladiator-at-Law") made their critiques in the form of science fiction.

Still, it was three naturalistic writers who supplied literature's most indelible images of postwar suburbia as the American dream gone awry. John Updike's "Couples," set in a town dismissively dubbed Tarbox, put wife swapping into the cultural lexicon. In a vast body of short stories and novels, John Cheever painted the WASP elite in the moral emptiness of its country clubs and commuter trains; the places he created -- Bullet Park, Shady Hill, St. Botolphs -- defined a social geography that could be reduced to the shorthand "Cheever Country." Philip Roth, meanwhile, disposed of the ethnic arrivistes, typified by the gauche and acquisitive Patimkin family in his novella "Goodbye, Columbus."

The young radicals of the 1960's put the critique in overtly political terms. In their founding manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, the Students for a Democratic Society pointedly described themselves as having been "bred in at least modest comfort" in "the wealthiest and strongest country in the world" and yet "looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." Suburbia, in other words, was something to rebel against.

Folk music took up the cry. Malvina Reynolds's 1963 song "Little Boxes," later covered by Pete Seeger, reduced suburbia to the refrain "Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same." The contempt for suburbia became so nearly unanimous in the emerging youth culture that even the Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King and the made-for-television band the Monkees collaborated on "Pleasant Valley Sunday." "Another Pleasant Valley Sunday," went its chorus, "charcoal burning everywhere. Another Pleasant Valley Sunday here in status symbol land."

"If Dylan or the later Beatles had been singing that, being socil critics, it almost would have been expected," says Paul Levinson, a visiting professor of communications at Fordham University. "But the Monkees -- they're so suburban themselves, in effect. It's as if suburban people themselves were skewering the vacuity of their own lives."

Such perceptions continue to thrive in some of the most highly praised recent films. Even as affirmative action, mass immigration and growing income inequality have altered the shape of suburbia, these movies, whether satirical, realistic or fantastical in tone, trot out all the familiar indictments.

ANG LEE'S screen adaptation of "The Ice Storm," Rick Moody's novel about family discord in affluent New Canaan, Conn., had as its centerpiece that hoariest of cliches, a "key party" in which married couples trade partners. Peter Weir's "Truman Show" puts a patina of fantasy on its predictable attacks. Truman Burbank, an insurance agent whose life is the subject of a continuous sitcom, literally cannot escape the oppressive perfection of a made-for-television suburb called Sea Haven.

As written and directed by Gary Ross, "Pleasantville" carries a similar sensibility to even more overwrought ends. The visual conceit of the film -- that the eponymous suburb is shown in black and white -- merely hints at the didactic style. It takes David, the teen-ager deposited from the 1990's, to bring art, emotion and color to town, and when he does, such predictable villains as the local bowling league and the Chamber of Commerce respond by desecrating paintings and burning books in Nazi style. The World War II veterans who thronged to actual suburbs in the 1950's might quibble ever so slightly with Mr. Ross's choice of analogy.

Todd Solondz, a native of New Jersey who calls his production company Suburban Pictures, means to speak for the misfits in a monochromatic world. His debut film, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," centers on a girl gawkily teetering into puberty who is tormented by her classmates and ignored by her family. In tracing the lives of an extended family in his next feature, "Happiness," Mr. Solondz reserves his greatest affection for the outsiders among them -- a failed songwriter, a boy discovering his sexuality, a grandmother being divorced by her husband of 40 years.

Such compassion, though, relies on cheap shots against whatever or whomever represents the suburban status quo. The white-collar father in "Happiness," a Cheeveresque figure with his car phone and rep tie, cannot simply be unmasked as a hypocrite or a souse; no, he turns out to be a pederast who rapes his son's playmates. When Mr. Solondz's camera in "Dollhouse" surveys a suburban home, it lingers over a veritable catalogue of bad taste -- gaudy afghans, mismatched paneling, green shag carpet, cabinets stuffed with Yodels and Ring Dings. This kind of satire, far from seeking to jar an audience out of its complacency, sneers along with it from a superior distance.

"You know, people are always putting New Jersey down," says Helen, a writer who is a major character in "Happiness." "None of my friends can actually believe I live here. But that's because they don't get it. I'm living in a state of irony."

Irony, though, is an indulgence of the entitled. The material comforts ridiculed in a film like "Happiness" shimmer like mirages for the artists of new suburbia. Tamara Jenkins, the writer and director of the autobiographical film "Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998), grew up with a car-salesman father obsessed with getting his children into the renowned schools of that tony Los Angeles suburb. That meant bouncing from apartment to apartment, often with an unpaid landlord in the family's wake.

"For someone like me, who didn't have things, the usual middle-class sitcoms created an anxiety, an inferiority complex," Ms. Jenkins says. "With 'The Brady Bunch' I was fixated on the architecture; their house had an upstairs and a downstairs. I used to wonder, How did the people on the shows get that stuff -- couches, end tables, clothes? Because we had so much trouble accumulating stuff."

She says she "identified with the black sitcoms -- 'Good Times,' 'Sanford and Son' -- because those people were struggling."

"I remember an episode when Fred Sanford was flying and had never been on a plane before and brought his own food. That was something I understood."

When Ms. Jenkins ultimately put her experience onto film, not even her colleagues quite understood just how marginal suburban life could be. "After shooting the interiors of the apartments, people got concerned it looked too depressing," she recalls. "It was like, 'Oh, all the walls are so bare. Can't we put some color in there?' I'd told the production designer that these apartments are bare except for what the previous tenant left behind. They said, 'But it's a comedy.' I said, 'You read the script; poverty is not funny.' "

Eric Bogosian captured a similarly tenuous existence in his 1994 play "Suburbia," which was later filmed by Richard Linklater. The characters,
gathering nightly around a convenience store, have been through the military or menial jobs, and their sense of stunted horizons and vanished opportunities infuses several of the most dramatic scenes.

At one point, a high school classmate-turned-rock-star arrives at the convenience store in his limousine. One of the regulars, a former football star now drinking away his nights, starts to flirt with the musician's young publicity agent. "You think we're alike, Erica?" he asks. "Deep down, way down," she answers. He fixes her in his stare and says, "It's a mistake to think that."

Later in "Suburbia," a girl from the convenience-store group overdoses. The Pakistani manager, already exasperated by the "drunks" and "bums" on his property, cries: "You people are so stupid! What's wrong with you? Throw it all away. You throw it all away."

While Mr. Bogosian cites several influences on "Suburbia" -- the television show "Roseanne" and Donna Gaines's book about a plague of suburban suicides, "Teen-Age Wasteland" -- he drew primarily on his own past. Mr. Bogosian grew up as the son of a bookkeeper and a hairdresser in Woburn, Mass., the same blue-collar suburb of Boston that is the setting for the book, and now the film, "A Civil Action."

"I wasn't writing about 'The Other,' " Mr. Bogosian says. "I wasn't writing about the exotic. A lot of my experience in Woburn had to do with class. One of my best friends' fathers was a carpenter. Another was a truck driver. I had a friend whose father was a laborer, who'd come home from the job and lay on the couch and get drunk. We were being told in school that Woburn was a town to be proud of because it'd been a capital of shoe manufacturing in the 1890's. But we knew that was all gone. When I ran cross-country in high school, I went past all the empty factories."

Immigrants like Junot Diaz have often inherited exactly such suburbs, and many of the short stories in "Drown" capture the social geography in meticulous detail. Mr. Diaz's characters live, as his actual family did, in a low-income apartment complex surrounded by the malls, cineplexes and municipal pools of the middle class. The autobiographical Yunior, as much as he is a bilingual and bicultural figure, does what so many Anglo suburban children before him have done: get car-sick on family trips to relatives in New York; take a boring job in the shapeless years after college; experiment with sex in the basement; waste afternoons smoking pot.

IN painting this milieu, Mr. Diaz came to realize his distance not only from the white chroniclers of suburban privilege but also from black and Hispanic writers who, like him, were reared outside the city. "One of the things I see in an M.F.A. program is how many of the writers of color are from very middle-class backgrounds," says Mr. Diaz, who teaches at Syracuse University. "But what they portray are low-income people. You can't begrudge anybody what they want to
write about. But it shows that even writers are responding to pre-set notions of who 'we' are and how 'we' are supposed to be viewed."

Nowhere may such self-abnegation be more pronounced than in rap music. Such bands and performers as EPMD, Public Enemy, Busta Rhymes and Boss were reared in suburbia but rarely if ever reflect it in their songs. The most extreme example, Ice Cube, spent much of his childhood in a Los Angeles suburb attending integrated schools and then a trade college. Yet he went on to fame for his gangsta raps celebrating drug deals, drive-by shootings and sexual conquests in the South-Central slums that his own family had labored to escape.

"Because hip-hop started off in the inner city, the street was the place where you had to get your pedigree," says S. H. Fernando Jr., a rap producer and the author of the social history "The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop." "You hear a lot of rappers saying, 'You have to represent' -- meaning represent the inner-city life style, the 'hood, even if you didn't come from it. The suburbs are seen as corny, bland, Middle America. Who wants to know about that?"

As if to answer that question, every Tuesday night several million viewers watch the ABC sitcom "The Hughleys," the story of a middle-class black named Darryl Hughley who has just moved with his family into a mostly white suburb. The running gag of the show relies on Darryl's belief that his neighbor Dave is a closet bigot. "The man does wear a lot of flannel," Darryl says to his wife in one episode, "and he got those big belt buckles, too."

The most trenchant moments come when Hughley himself, the owner of a vending-machine company, grapples with his fear that by moving his family out of a black, urban neighborhood he has compromised his racial identity and solidarity. "You're on the slippery slope to lose your blackness," a friend from Los Angeles chides Darryl in the series pilot. Later in the episode, having watched his daughter choose a white doll rather than a black one in a toy store, Darryl moans, "I feel like a stranger in a strange land."

Yet that land surely looks stranger to the artists and audiences who remain stuck in the stock images of "Beaver" and Cheever than it possibly could to someone like Darryl Hughley, who is both a pioneer and a citizen of the new suburbia.

Back to top


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Culture Articles