Suburbia as a Narrative Space between Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary American Cinema

Examination Thesis, 2012
74 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Suburbia as physical and cultural space in the USA
2.1 The history of the suburbanization of the USA
2.2 The concept of suburbia as a cultural space

3 Utopian and dystopian narratives of suburbia

4 Suburbia in contemporary American cinema
4.1 Film as narrative space
4.2 The invention of reality: Simulations, simulacra, suburbia
4.3 Suburbia as setting and center of contemporary American Films: Introduction to the film analyses

5 Once upon a time: Suburbia as nostalgic utopia in Pleasantville
5.1 Introduction and plot summary
5.2 The opening scenes: Real vs. nostalgic visions of suburbia
5.3 The utopia of Pleasantville
5.4 Exploring utopia: The suburban space of Pleasantville
5.5 The creation of new spaces in Pleasantville
5.6 The end of paradise: Fall of Man, racism and visions of dystopia
5.7 Happy ever after? A summarizing reading of Pleasantville

6 Better than reality? Suburbia as simulacra in The Truman Show
6.1 Introduction and plot summary
6.2 Different layers of diegesis: Utopian and dystopian perspectives in The Truman Show
6.3 The space of Seahaven: The utopian artifice of suburbia
6.4 Seahaven between simulacra and simulation
6.5 “On the air. Unaware”: Surveillance and control in The Truman Show
6.6 Truman’s escape from dystopia: hope for suburbia?

7 “Look Closer”: Suburbia as imprisoning dystopia in American Beauty
7.1 Introduction and plot summary
7.2 Utopia or dystopia? The introduction of the suburban space of American Beauty
7.3 Defining the dystopia of American Beauty: Suburbia as a prison
7.4 The destructiveness of the American Dream in suburbia
7.5 The suburbs as “picture windows”: Voyeurism and control in suburbia
7.6 Hope for suburbia? The search for the true beauty in dystopia

8 Conclusion and outlook

List of figures

Works Cited

1 Introduction

[Suburbia] has become the quintessential physical achievement of the United States; it is perhaps more representative of its culture than big cars, tall buildings, or professional football. Suburbia symbolizes the fullest, most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture.1

As Kenneth Jackson notes in his price-winning chronicle Crabgrass Frontier, the suburban landscape has become inseparable from American culture within the last two centuries. Nowadays living in the suburbs is the norm for most Americans, as since the 1990s, more than two third of the population lives in suburban districts. The term suburbia does not only relate to the geographical concept that differentiates these dwellings from urban or rural areas, but also describes a cultural, ideological space incorporating Americans’ hopes for an economically safe and prosperous family life. Closely tied to the history and culture of the USA, suburbia marks a dynamic ideological space that is constantly influenced and recreated by both the events of everyday life and artistic discourse. Thus, the depiction of suburban life functions as a central narrative element in numerous works of American literature, art and film. In this context, fictional texts do not merely represent suburbia, but also have a decisive role in the shaping of suburban spaces.

The treatment of suburbia as a cultural space in American movies is of special interest, as their commercial success and popularity make films important cultural texts.2 As Spigel notes, “television and new media redirect our experience of private and public spheres”3 and therefore highly influence our perceptions of the spaces we inhabit. Regarding suburban landscapes, this aspect is particularly interesting because the inexorable rise of the television practically coincided with the postwar suburbanization of the US and had a significant effect on life in general and on the suburban ideal in particular. As a consequence, the TV-set was inseparable from the model of the suburban single-home in the 1950s. Thus, already in the fifties, when the idealized image of suburbia evolved, television had a decisive impact on the creation of suburbia as a cultural space. In this context, it must be questioned whether the depictions of suburbia are simulations of the real spaces, or if it is in fact the other way around, so that suburbia as a cultural concept is a mere simulation of the fictional spaces depicted on screen and thus a copy without an original4.

Before analyzing fictional representations of suburbia, it is necessary to first look at the historical development of the suburbs and to explore how the cultural space of suburbia has been formed in the course of history. As I will discuss in the following chapter, the rapid suburbanization of the USA was mostly triggered in the aftermath of the Second World War, when suburbia promised the returning soldiers and their young families a peaceful life in homogeneous and green communities outside of the ever growing metropolises. For the veterans who were financially supported by the government, the suburbs proposed an opportunity to raise their children in decent, quiet and safe environments while nevertheless being able to have their jobs in the big cities. As a consequence, homeownership and suburban dwelling became closely linked to the American Dream in the postwar period.

More than fifty years after the war, the contemporary suburbia deviates from the concept of the suburbs projected in the 1950s, particularly due to high divorce rates and the increase of crime facing not only urbanites but also the residents of suburban areas. Nevertheless, the nostalgic view of the suburbs as the “Promised Land", an image closely tied to the postwar era, has survived in the minds of many Americans until today. As Hayden puts it, suburbia is still the “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”5. Postwar critics have long objected this view, considering the suburbs rather as overly controlled, depressing landscapes of mass-consumption, conformity and alienation. The reasons for this criticism are to be found in the “vision of the suburbs defined by endless malls, tidy streets with manufactured lawns, and houses with little character”6 and therefore in the uniformity of suburban landscape design in general. Hence, today the suburbs are mostly regarded as “either utopian models of community or dystopian landscapes of dispiriting homogeneity” and therefore “remain a contested, if only superficially understood, terrain”7. The explanation of the utopia/dystopia dichotomy in terms of the representation of suburbia in fictional works is the focus of interest in the third chapter of this paper.

After an evaluation of films as narrative spaces in general and their potential to shape the spectators’ perceptions of spaces in the fourth chapter, I will exemplify the dualistic representation of suburbs in contemporary American cinema by analyzing Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998), Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). As postmodern texts, these films critically examine the tension between utopian and dystopian perspectives on suburbia and question the validity of the mystification of the suburb as a space incorporating the American Dream. All three of them can be categorized as satirical (comedy-) dramas focusing, generally speaking, on their male protagonists’ search for the sense of life in a dysfunctional suburban landscape. By studying these films in terms of narrative techniques, cinematic realization and the portrayal of the suburban spaces presented on screen, I will explore the depicted divergence between the nostalgic, utopian ideal of suburbia and the dystopian concept connected to the problems of contemporary suburban living, like the collapse of the nuclear family, the breakdown of moral values, and particularly the occupation of private life by modern technology. By relating these fictional works to both the historical development of the suburbs and the significance of suburbia as a cultural artifact of the USA, I will examine how utopian concepts of suburbia are created both culturally and psychologically in the films, and how the underlying anxieties of the suburban experience, visualized by the employed dystopian narratives, challenge this ideal.

2 Suburbia as physical and cultural space in the USA

2.1 The history of the suburbanization of the USA

The origins of the suburban structure found in the USA today can be traced back to the first half of the nineteenth century, when “America’s largest cities underwent a dramatic spatial change”8. New transportation devices such as the steam ferry, omnibuses and the commuter railroad resulted in a first wave of mass immigration which literally transformed urban landscapes, leading to substantial rethinking and the urge to separate “work and residence in American cities”.9 The emergence of the first suburban homes was developed by a number of well known publicists in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly by Frederick Law Olmsted who inter alia designed Central Park in Manhattan, the educator Catherine Beecher and the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Olmsted drew his inspiration for his later landscaping and suburban planning projects from his trip to Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, a park area that “was surrounded […] by a picturesque suburb”10. He claimed that “leisure and metropolis were mutually exclusive”11 and that conscious and careful planning of suburban neighborhoods was necessary to ensure decent dwelling for residents. At the same time, the first typical American suburban houses were designed by Beecher and Downing, being “promoted by small builders and the editors of women’s magazines”12. Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy, published in 1841, served as “the first American book to offer plans for the practical dwelling”13 and became the central work to portray American domestic philosophy.

The first true suburban boom took place in the 1920s, when the automotive revolution and the expansion of electricity gave “working and middle-class people the opportunity to move from congested cities to spacious suburbs”14. From this time onwards, the car functioned as “the connective tissue between home, work and […] consumption”15 and therefore marked a central element of the suburban development. Alongside the automotive revolution, there was also a profound change in the real-estate sector, as housing in the outer areas accessible only by car became much cheaper than in the cities. The rise of the advertising industry also played an important role in the expansion process of suburban areas, as “advertisers promoted the private suburban dwelling as a setting for other purchases”16, depicting the single house as the true center of a happy family life. As a response to the technological changes, a group of intellectuals, among them urban planners, social critics and architects, formed the Regional Plan Association of America (RPAA), a collective that focused on new models of community planning and organization. Their central vision was to build communities “with well-made, efficient, affordable houses and space for both pedestrians and cars”17, mixing parks and leisure areas with modern road systems, which would make it possible for residents to combine their private and working lives effectively. The group performed innovative experiments in planned housing particularly in the outer areas of New York, for instance by designing the suburban communities of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Radburn, New Jersey. Although these projects could not solve the problem of “one third of a nation remain[ing] ill-housed in tenements and slums”18, their ideas were visionary as they shaped public views of community planning and dwelling and also had a great influence on the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt Administration to follow.

When the Great Depression took place in the 1930s, many Americans suffered from mass-unemployment, poverty and homelessness in a way they had never experienced before. As a reaction to the desperate financial situation, the government around President Roosevelt installed the so called New Deal, a series of strategies that aimed at helping the USA to recover economically. With regard to the housing sector, the two schemes that had the most influential effect for suburban development were the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), founded in 1933, and the Federal Housing Administration (FDA), founded in 1934. The HOLC, in short, “[protected] defaulting homeowners against foreclosure”19 by sending more than $3 billion to regional banks to refinance millions of homes.20 FHA made it possible even for citizens with low income to buy houses by ensuring that “private capital could flow into the home construction industry”21. Although the Depression slowed down the actual progress of suburban construction, the New Deal laid ground for a new standard of American suburban living, as it “put in place an apparatus of financial security that allowed private money to build post-war suburbia”22.

The years after the Second World War, particularly the 1950s, marked the most crucial suburban boom in the history of the USA, which resulted from several intertwining phenomena. When the soldiers returned to their mostly young families, there was an “unprecedented demand for affordable housing”23. At the same time, the government approved a new kind of compensation that granted money to the veterans only for specific uses, especially for education and homeownership. As a result, although renting would have seemed the safer option, considering the economically bad years of Depression and war, the government encouraged them to help reshaping the American economy by buying homes in suburban areas.24 Being aware of the newly gained financial potential of returning soldiers, the private housing industry also focused on veteran families as their main target group, often luring them by offering houses for cheap rents in order to eventually transform them into buyers. Both the advertising industry and the national policy portrayed homeownership in the suburbs as the ultimate American way of life, representing not only freedom and independence, but also status and wealth. Post-war suburbanization was furthermore boosted by the increasing popularity of credit financing that came with the end of the Great Depression, which made “purchasing a house seem as easy as buying a toothbrush”25. As a consequence, the number of people living in American suburbia rose from 35 million in 1950 to more than 102 million in 1980, and by 1990 more than half of all Americans resided in suburban areas.26

In the last three decades, the suburbs have developed into a new urban form, which Robert Fishman calls the “technoburb”27, a term relating to the significant influence of technological innovations on the modern suburbs, such as the “proliferation of freeways, […] and the development of sophisticated communication networks”28. Whereas in earlier times, people had to commute to their work places which were usually located in the cities, now factories, offices and laboratories offering a range of different jobs are also present in the suburbs. Consequently, these new suburbs are often indistinguishable from the cities. The enormous impact of new technologies is also present in the so called gated communities, a specific private housing option within the framework of suburban structures. The “[desire] for safety, security, community and ‘niceness’” is inherent to a lot of American citizens who decide to live in “secured residential enclaves”29, predominantly because of the increasing crime rates in both cities and suburbs. As Baxandall and Ewen note, the estimated number of gated communities was 20,000 with about 3 million households in 199730, while between 2001 and 2009, the number grew by 53%, leading to “more than 10 million housing units [located] in gated communities”31 in 2009. The communities are usually protected by private security guards and studded with cameras, leading to full surveillance across the enclosed neighborhoods. Moreover, the residents often have to obey “rigidly enforced rules and regulations”32 created by the private founders. Despite the significant criticism the founders and inhabitants of gated communities are subject to, the extensive growth of such secured neighborhoods can be regarded as a good indicator of the problems suburban areas are facing today, which I will elaborate on in the course of this paper.

2.2 The concept of suburbia as a cultural space

As Bennet Berger already noted in 1962, suburbia is not only an “ecological term” that distinguishes suburban areas from cities or the countryside, but at the same time also a “cultural term, intended to connote a way of life”33.

Berger calls this cultural concept the “suburban myth”, as it contains rituals as well as “sacred symbols” and “articles of faith”34. According to Berger and others, the visual elements of this myth, which describe the surface structure of suburban landscapes, are the typical T-shaped single-homes with neat front lawns, “winding streets”35, large garages and picket fences. For Berger, the mythical vision of the suburbs is moreover characterized by homogeneity among its inhabitants, all being in the same range of age, having comparable jobs and sharing a similar family life. Accordingly, suburbia is often imagined as an ideal form of communal living. Other critics, like for example Tom Martinson36 and Amy Kenyon, call the concept “American dreamscape”, making it clear that the landscape of suburbia is particularly linked to and inseparable from America. Combining the connotations of these two terms, myth and dreamscape, the concept of suburbia can be understood as a sacred but also mysterious and not fully grasped landscape of the mind. In simpler words, it represents a longing for a better life, a space in which the grass is greener and life is calm and peaceful, “the site of promises, dreams and fantasies”37. Kenyon even goes one step further by calling suburbia the “spatialization of the American Dream”38. Especially in the era after the Second World War, the central elements of the Dream, like the pursuit of happiness, economic wealth and individual freedom, were all mapped to suburbia, turning the suburbs into America’s postwar “Promised Land”. The idea/l of suburbia is therefore closely intertwined with both the history and the national identity of America, which makes it possible to legitimately calling it a cultural phenomenon.

For the purpose of this paper, the most persuasive way to describe suburbia is to call it a cultural space, as a space is always both “experienced and created”39 or, to put it in Michel de Certeau’s words, “space is a practiced place”40. The term therefore classifies suburbia as the manifestation of the interaction between its physical form and the ideas and visions that people map to it: The space of suburbia does not exist on its own, but is constructed “according to the subject’s affective and instrumental relations with it”41. It is important to note that the relationship between spaces and the subjects moving in them is interdependent. Not only does the construction of spaces result from the subjects’ relations to them, but, as Grosz demonstrates, spatial reference is at the same time important for the subjects’ identities: “It is our positioning within space, both as the point of perspectival access to space, and also as an object for others in space, that gives the subject a coherent identity […] in space”42.

Returning to the initial discussion of the cultural concept of suburbia, one can conclude that whenever Americans experience suburban living or look at representations of it in literature, art and film, their inner vision of suburbia, culturally informed by the myth or dreamscape explained above, is always actively shaping their perception. For this reason, Kenyon regards the American perspective on suburban existence as “the irresistible spatial arrangement in a culture of avoidance”43, as people’s perception of the suburban space is at all times distorted by a collective nostalgic imagination. She points out that the concept of suburbia is flagged by different layers of detached spaces, for example the one between suburban areas and the city or the detachment caused by the open spaces between suburban houses.44 Following this line of argumentation and combining it with the precedent discussion of space, I would argue that the most problematic form of detachment happens on the meta-level, caused by the divergence between today’s complex, geographical space of suburbia in the USA and the people’s continuous longing for the suburban dream.

As a number of contemporary critics argue, this deviation between the real and the imagined suburban space can be read a logical consequence or byproduct of postmodernism: Dickinson notes that in postmodern America, due to “[massive] migrations, new transportation and communication technologies, and shifting […] economic and political relations”, the physical spaces of the suburban landscape are changing radically, causing “deeply felt anxieties”45 in suburbanites. Postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson argues, is characterized precisely by “the effacement of some key boundaries or separations”46: The same way as the distinction between high culture and mass culture is distorted in postmodernism47, the fast expansion of suburbia and the transformation into what Fishman calls technoburbs can be considered as the collapse of suburbs and cities into one another, thus erasing the reference spaces Americans need to locate themselves within individual and also national identity. Jameson describes this phenomenon as a postmodern dilemma:

[This] latest mutation in space […] has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map cognitively its position in a mappable external world. [This] alarming disjunction between the body and its built environment […] can itself stand as the symbol and analogue of that even sharper dilemma, which is the incapacity of our minds […] to map the great global, multinational and decentred communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.48

As a reaction to this inability to locate themselves within the quickly transforming physical spaces, individuals try “to create private and public spaces that feel safe”49 for their better orientation. Concerning the public aspect, the implementation of gated communities can be read as one way to cope with postmodern anxieties, particularly as the gates or walls that fence these planned communities create comprehensible settlements within the otherwise undefined technoburbs. With regard to the private aspect, the individuals’ cherishing of the mythical view of suburbia as the American dreamscape can be interpreted as another, psychological way to counteract the postmodern disorientation in space. As I will point out in my analyses of contemporary American movies, this orientation towards the nostalgic space of suburbia functions as an attempt to gain psychological stability, but also leads to further alienation caused by the strong divergence between the imagined and experienced suburban spaces.

3 Utopian and dystopian narratives of suburbia

As suburbia marks a culturally important and at the same time extremely complex and ambivalent space for Americans, its depiction in fiction is often highly ambiguous as well. Before starting with a detailed analysis of the utopian and dystopian perspectives on suburbia in contemporary American movies, it is necessary to first give a general definition of the concepts of utopia and dystopia as well as an explanation of how these concepts will be used in the further discussion of this paper.

The term “utopia” was firstly introduced by the author Sir Thomas More in 1516, when he published his book Utopia in which he described an imaginary state on an Atlantic island. Borrowed from Greek, the word utopia is “ambiguous in its derivation”50, as its origin can be both ou- topos, meaning ‘no-place’, and eu- topos, which can be translated as ‘good place’. Thus, the term describes an ideal, perfect society does not exist in reality. Accordingly, utopia is a place that is, in Fern’s words, “desirable, perhaps, but at the same time unattainable”51. The typical utopian narrative tells the story of “a visitor’s guided journey through a utopian society which leads to a comparative response that indicts the visitor’s own society”52, providing him53 with the image of a possible alternative to his own culture. Thus, the relationship between the protagonist’s society and the portrayed utopian culture is always significant for the moral of these stories, as the main character always judges the utopian society by the standards that are inherent to the culture he belongs to. Whether the utopian ideal is, in relation to the protagonist, a wishful vision for the future or represents the longing for “[images] of lost paradises and golden ages”54 of the past, it is always locally separated and distant from his actual society. Therefore, access to this perfect world is usually granted to the protagonist only once, making the experience even more precious and significant.

With regard to the function of the presentation of such a utopian society, giving a comprehensive analysis would certainly go beyond the scope of this paper. In Krishan Kumar’s opinion, the purpose of utopian fiction is “to overstep the immediate reality to depict a condition whose clear desirability draws us on, like a magnet”55. As regards the film analyses to follow, I argue that fictional works on utopia on the one hand criticize the actual culture by showing a perfect society in which the problems found in the real world do not exist. On the other hand, these stories also embrace the actual society in the end, as it is made clear that the utopian culture it is compared to is a mere product of fantasy. For that reason one could regard utopian fiction as both experimental and educational, as it explores possible alternatives to the actual state of being in an abstract and fully imaginary space, while in fact leaving the real society untouched. Within the story, it is the informed visitor who, returning to his own society, can decide how to use the insights gained in utopia, while viewing from the outside, the readers or spectators are invited to critically examine their own society according to the standards presented in the fictional world.

The concept of dystopia can be read as a countermovement to utopian literature, as dystopian fiction openly criticizes the “existing social conditions or political systems”56. Whereas utopian fiction explores the differences between the invented and the actual world, the dystopian world is usually depicted as “the nightmare future [being] a possible destination of present society”57. The portrayed dystopia can therefore be interpreted as the logical consequence of the deficiencies found in contemporary society. In contrast to most utopian stories, in which the main character travels to the utopian civilization and then returns to his ‘real’ society as an enlightened individual, the dystopian text “usually begins directly in the terrible new world”58, focusing on the protagonist’s alienation of the dystopian society. In Film und Utopie, André Müller notes that the three main topics in dystopian fiction are the function of modern technology as a means of total control over the individual and society in general, the use of biological or psychological manipulation techniques in order to ensure the people’s obedience and the citizens’ alienated relationship to nature.59 Accordingly, dystopian fiction draws on the readers’ or spectators’ anxieties resulting from the nuisances of their actual society, particularly the fear of total control and their loss of individuality. For the subsequent discussion of contemporary American movies, the first motive Müller mentions is the most significant one. As Ferns argues, the “emphasis of on the extraordinarily public character of life”60 is the common denominator of most popular dystopian works, as the dystopian society is characterized by clear hierarchies and control, forcing its inhabitants to conform to the strict standards it proposes: “[A]ll resources of modern technology are employed to ensure that privacy is kept to an absolute minimum”61.

A number of critics (e.g. Sargent, Moylan) differentiate between the terms dystopia, meaning simply the negative of utopia or the ultimate bad place, and anti-utopia, often used “to describe those works that use the Utopian form to attack either Utopias in general or a specific Utopia”62. Others (e.g. Booker, Ferns) use the term dystopia for both phenomena, claiming that “dystopian fiction [combines] a parodic inversion of the traditional utopia with satire on contemporary society”63. With regard to the film analyses to follow, I will favor the latter definition of dystopian fiction, thus considering dystopian perspectives as a direct reaction to and criticism of utopian thought. As Gordin, Tilley and Prakash note, dystopia can be considered “utopia’s twentieth- century doppelgänger”, identifying a “utopia that has gone wrong”64. According to this interpretation, any form of dystopia presented in a fictional text is logically dependent on the underlying utopian ideal that is attacked and inversed.

With regard to the depiction of suburbia in American fiction, any utopian portrayal of it is closely connected to the nostalgic, mythical feeling many Americans still have about the suburban space, resulting from its intertwining with the American Dream as discussed above. Thus, a utopian representation of suburbia often focuses on idealized images of the surface structure of suburban neighborhoods, like the integration of nicely built single homes in “uncluttered, contiguous, parklike landscapes”, creating the “utopian ideal of perfect community”65, security and an economically safe life. Many social and literary critics question exactly these virtues, as they consider suburbia rather as a “landscape of mass-produced, uniform tract housing”66 constituting a “hotbed of conformity”67. The dystopian depictions of suburban dwelling in the fictional works to be discussed in the following chapters draw precisely on this criticism, focusing on the destructive forces resulting from the utopian idealization of the suburban space: The utopian view of suburban community, safety and self-realization is inverted in dystopian fiction as it portrays the suburbs as “inauthentic consumption centers and conformity factories”68, making their residents subject to total control and surveillance.

4 Suburbia in contemporary American cinema

4.1 Film as narrative space

Before turning to the films to be discussed, it is interesting to first clarify the impact of filmic images of suburbia for the spectator and for society in general. As illustrated in the preceding chapter of this paper, suburbia marks a complex and dynamic cultural space that is shaped by the individuals moving in it. As Michel de Certeau argues in his essay “Spatial Stories”, narration plays a crucial role in the formation process of spaces, as it is precisely storytelling that creates spaces in the first place69. For him, any space is defined (in a mathematical, axiomatic way) by its limitations and interconnections to other spaces, and it is the process of narration that articulates these boundaries:

“[Where] stories are disappearing, […] there is a loss of space: deprived of narrations, […] the group or the individual regresses toward the disquieting, fatalistic experience of a formless indistinct and nocturnal totality. […] The story’s first function is to authorize, or more exactly, to found.70

In this sense, one can regard films as a very efficient type of spatial stories, as they are rich cultural texts that combine sight and sound and offer a multisensual experience71. In his essay “Narrative Space”, Stephen Heath assigns an even more central role to cinematic representations of spaces, claiming that reality itself is “the match of film and world”72. By watching movies, according to this interpretation, the spectators actively engage with the spaces perceived on screen by connecting them to their mental images of physical spaces: “[T]he structure of cinematic perception is readily translated into that of natural perception, so much that we can rely on information we construct in viewing films to supplement our common perceptual knowledge”73. Coming back to suburban spaces, one can conclude that movies do not merely depict suburbia, but that “rather the cinematic images are part and parcel of the ways in which we actually live and act”74 in it. The establishing shot can be regarded as a simple example of this phenomenon: With the help of this technique, films can show the spectators a landscape, e.g. a suburban neighborhood, from above, a perspective they are usually denied in everyday life. Thus in films, as Siegfried Kracauer notes, “many material phenomena which elude observation under normal circumstances”75 are made visible by methods of perspective, framing and focusing. Be it very small or big things the human eye usually cannot grasp, transitory movement normally unseen or even familiar scenes we do not pay attention to in our everyday life, “films alienate our environment by exposing it”76. For these reasons, movies play a significant role in our shaping of suburban spaces. As Burgin states when investigating the space of the city, “[t]he city in our actual experience is at the same time an actually existing physical environment, and a city in a novel, a film, a photograph, a city seen on television”77. To transfer this statement about urban areas onto suburban spaces, one can infer that whenever we actually move in suburbia, our experience is always influenced by the ways in which we have looked and are still looking at the representation of suburbia in movies and art in general. At the same time, when watching suburban movies, our perception of the spaces shown on screen is also filtered by our actual experience of suburbia.

4.2 The invention of reality: Simulations, simulacra, suburbia

As one can conclude from the preceding paragraphs, the mythical or utopian concept of suburbia is in a way “immortalized by its simulated representation on television, arts and literature”78. It is important to note that the postwar suburbanization of the USA virtually coincided with the entry of television into the American home, so the TV-set was the center of the living room of the typical suburban house. As a consequence, already in the aftermath of the Second World War, TV-shows “provided an illusion of the ideal neighborhood [as just] when people had left their life-long companions in the city, television sitcoms pictured romanticized versions of neighbor and family bonding”79.


1 Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press 1985, p. 4

2 Cf. Halper, Thomas; Muzzio, Douglas. “Pleasantville? The Suburb and its Representation in American Movies”. In: Urban Affairs Review, 37 (March 2002), pp. 544-545

3 Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press 2001, p. 10

4 Jean Baudrillard’s definition of the simulacrum will support the discussion in Chapter 4.

5 Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia. Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books 2003, p. 3

6 Baxandall, Rosalyn; Ewen, Elizabeth. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books 2000, p. xv

7 Beuka, Robert. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2004, p. 7; emphasis added.

8 Jackson 1985, p. 20

9 Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books 1987, p. 116

10 Ibid., p. 104

11 Kenyon, Amy Maria. Dreaming Suburbia: Detroit and the Production of Postwar Space and Culture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press 2004, p. 149

12 Hayden, Dolores . Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. New York: Norton 2002, p. 38

13 Jackson 1985, p. 62

14 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, p. 41

15 Ibid., p. 48

16 Hayden 2002, p. 50

17 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, pp. 39-40

18 Ibid., p. 49

19 Kennedy, David. “What the New Deal Did”. In: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 124, No. 2, 2009, p. 257

20 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, p. 56

21 Kennedy 2009, p. 258

22 Ibid.

23 Kenyon 2004, p.30

24 Cf. Hayden 2002, p. 54

25 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, p. 111

26 Cf. Kenyon 2004, p. 19

27 Fishman 1987, pp. 190-207

28 Girling, Cynthia; Helphand, Kenneth. Yard, Street, Park: The Design of Suburban Open Space. New York: Wiley 1994, p. 146

29 Low, Setha. Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York: Routledge 2003, pp. 9-10

30 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, p. 252

31 Benjamin, Rich. “The Gated Community Mentality”. New York Times Magazine; March 30, 2012; New York Time, p. A27

32 Baxandall and Ewen 2000, p.252

33 Berger, Bennet. Looking for America: Essays on Youth, Suburbia and Other American Obsessions. Englewood: Prentice Hall 1971, p. 151

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid., p. 154

36 Cf. Martinson, Tom. American Dreamscape: The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers 2000

37 Hayden 2003, p. 3

38 Kenyon 2004, p. 1

39 Dickinson, Greg. “The Pleasantville Effect: Nostalgia and the Visual Framing of (White) Suburbia”. Western Journal of Communication, 70, No. 3. (2006), p. 213

40 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press 1984, p. 117

41 Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. New York: Routledge 1995, p. 92

42 Ibid.

43 Kenyon 2004, p. 45

44 Cf. ibid., pp. 45-68

45 Dickinson 2004, p. 216

46 Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. In: Jameson, Frederic. The Cultural Turn. Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. London: Verso 1998, p. 2

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., p. 16

49 Dickinson 2004, p. 216

50 Ferns, Christopher. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1999, p. 2

51 Ibid.

52 Baccolini, Raffaella; Moylan, Tom. “Introduction. Dystopia and Histories”. In: Baccolini, Raffaella; Moylan, Tom (Eds.). Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. London: Routledge 2003, p. 5

53 Most critics agree that the protagonist of the typical utopian story is male.

54 Levitas, Ruth. “The Archive of the Feet: Memory, Place and Utopia”. In: Griffin, Michael; Moylan, Tom (Eds.). Exploring the Utopian Impulse: Essays on Utopian Thought and Practice. Peter Lang: Bern 2007, p. 19

55 Kumar, Krishan. Utopianism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1991, p. 3

56 Booker, Marvin Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport: Greenwood Press 1994, p. 3

57 Ferns 1999, p. 107

58 Baccolini and Moylan 2003, p. 5

59 Cf. Müller, André. Film und Utopie: Positionen des Fiktionalen Films zwischen Gattungstraditionen und Gesellschaftlichen Zukunftsdiskursen. LIT: Münster 2010, p. 59

60 Ferns 1999, p. 112

61 Ferns 1999, p. 113

62 Sargent, Lyman. “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited”. Utopian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1994), p. 8

63 Ferns 1999, p. 105

64 Gordin, Michael; Tilley, Helen; Prakash, Gyan. “Utopia and Dystopia beyond Space and Time”. In: Gordin, Michael; Tilley, Helen; Prakash, Gyan (Eds.). Utopia/Dystopia. Conditions of Historical Possibility. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2010, p. 1

65 Beuka 2004, p. 5

66 Kenyon 2004, p. 72

67 Beuka 2004, p. 6

68 Halper and Muzzio 2002, p. 543

69 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press 1984, p. 123

70 Ibid., pp. 123-124

71 Cf. Halper and Muzzio 2002, p. 544

72 Heath, Stephen. “Narrative Space”. In: Rosen, Philip (Ed.). Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press 1986, p. 385

73 Andrew, Dudley: Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 1984, p. 41

74 Dickinson 2004, p. 214

75 Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Establishment of Physical Existence”. In: Braudy, Leo; Cohen, Marshall (Eds.). Film Theory & Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009, p. 265

76 Ibid., p. 269

77 Burgin, Victor. In-different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2000, p. 28; His emphasis.

78 Harvard Law Review (Author unknown). “Locating the Suburb”. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 117, No. 6 (Apr. 2004), p. 2003

79 Spigel 2001, p. 43

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Suburbia as a Narrative Space between Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary American Cinema
University of Cologne
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suburbia, narrative, space, utopia, dystopia, contemporary, american, cinema
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Melanie Smicek (Author), 2012, Suburbia as a Narrative Space between Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary American Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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