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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Fear and loathing of the suburbs

    Damion LeeNatalicolumnist
    Damion LeeNatali

    Meet Sarah – well-educated but not snobbish, attractive without being pretentious, she’s the very image of a perfect wife. It’s too bad she doesn’t exist. Or does she?

    In a literal sense, Sarah is a character in “”Little Children,”” a movie that won accolades after it debuted at the New York Film Festival two weeks ago. Played by Kate Winslet, Sarah is a “”desperate housewife”” without the farce of the television series; her flaws are real, her extramarital affair wounds deeply and her dreary suburban environs are a far cry from the sun-kissed streets of ABC nirvana.

    From another standpoint, though, Sarah represents something larger- pop culture’s seemingly endless fascination with the suburbs.

    It’s easy to see that the suburbs – those uniform tributes to meticulous zoning and well-manicured lawns – are the source of endless fascination for novelists, intellectuals and filmmakers. The list is as long as it is varied.

    Ernest Hemingway called the suburbs a place of “”wide lawns and narrow minds.”” Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan dubbed her suburban home the “”comfortable concentration camp.””

    We idealize the suburbs as part of our social fabric even while we reject what the suburbs have come to symbolize.

    Ricky Moody’s novel “”The Ice Storm”” seemed to dismiss them as bastions of booze-fueled adultery and neglected children. Here at the UA, dozens of freshman English classes are asked to dissect that Oscar-winning snapshot of suburban malaise – “”American Beauty.””

    And then, of course, there’s “”Desperate Housewives,”” a show that has won plaudits as a cheeky satire of suburban life, mixing infidelity with murder and black comedy.

    “”Susan’s husband Carl always teased her (about her macaroni and cheese),”” the show’s narrator says slyly in the pilot episode. “”It was too salty the night she and Carl moved into their house. It was too watery the night she found lipstick on Carl’s shirt. She burned it the night Carl told her he was leaving her for his secretary.””

    So satirizing the suburbs is clearly prevalent, but is it accurate? Are America’s communities nothing more than a swill of affairs and despair?

    Not if polls are any indication. With about half of America living in the suburbs, one survey by the Gallup Poll found that almost 85 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with their personal lives. Meanwhile, only 37 percent of men and 22 percent of women admit to having extramarital affairs, while 91 percent of Americans think infidelity is always or almost always wrong.

    So why have the suburbs become synonymous with sorrow? There seem to be two explanations – one artistic, the other philosophical.

    The first is predictably driven by Hollywood. University of Michigan history professor Matt Lassiter argues that the suburbs have long been fertile ground for artists in search of awards. “”There’s a long history of being able to caricature the suburbs and get away with the idea that you’re doing something that’s deep and profound,”” he told National Public Radio.

    But it’s the second explanation that is most unsettling, because it centers on the belief that the suburbs are somehow representative of the American character.

    “”If you want to write about America, (the suburbs) are the place you need to confront,”” said Tom Perrotta, author of the novel upon which “”Little Children”” is based. “”In a way that, in an earlier day, you would write about Main Street in a small town…I think now the suburbs are kind of the central American place.””

    But while the suburbs are held up as a portrait of America, many Americans seem to reject that portrayal. “”(There’s) an elitist notion that these suburbs are tacky; they’re all alike,”” says Columbia University history professor Kenneth T. Jackson. “”We have become so much a suburban nation that there’s kind of a blandness. There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.””

    The result, then, is a curious paradox that is distinctly American: We idealize the suburbs as part of our social fabric even while we reject what the suburbs have come to symbolize.

    It’s difficult to explain away this phenomenon, but one suspects that much of it is the product of good old-fashioned guilt. Flush with cash, and well aware that their country is the world’s only superpower, Americans have projected their guilt on the most visible target – their most privileged communities – and then rid themselves of the shame by rejecting the suburbs as tacky, corrupt or immoral.

    So it would seem that Sarah, that picture of perfection with a seamy underside, really does exist, even if it’s only in our own conscience.

    Damion LeeNatali is a senior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at

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