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Popular Culture's Evolving View of the Suburbs

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Popular Culture's Evolving View of the Suburbs

Arts & Life

Popular Culture's Evolving View of the Suburbs

Popular Culture's Evolving View of the Suburbs

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In American fiction, TV and film, suburbia has long stood as shorthand for repression. It's a place of "wide lawns and narrow minds," as Earnest Hemingway put it. But representations of the suburbs have taken on a different shape of late.


Speaking of siding and windows, the suburbs generally don't fair well in novels, TV or movies. Ernest Hemingway famously called the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, where he grew up, a place of wide lawns and narrow minds. The new film Little Children, set in an upper middle class suburb, opens this weekend. It stars Kate Winslet and was directed by Todd Field.

And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, it may be an indication that popular culture is ready to take suburbia more seriously.

NEDA ULABY: Unhappiness and infidelity are suburban staples, if not outright clich├ęs. Little Children is about a stay-at-home mom whose existential discontent leads to an affair with a stay-at-home dad.

(Soundbite of Little Children)

Ms. KATE WINSLETT (Actor): (As Sarah Pierce) It's the hunger, the hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.

ULABY: But director Todd Fields says he didn't set out to indict the suburban way of life.

Mr. TODD FIELD (Director, Little Children): That field has been plowed by many other people before. I also don't happen to believe that the people in the suburbs are any different from anywhere else. I'm a product of the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs.

ULABY: Field believes that using a suburban setting as a sort of shorthand for alienation and repression reveals the smugly provincial limits of a culture industry centered in cities.

Mr. FIELD: So there's a real packaged contempt that I think comes from that fact.

ULABY: A contempt that's obvious in movies like American Beauty, says University of Michigan Professor Matt Lassiter.

Professor MATT LASSITER (University of Michigan): 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.

ULABY: Certain stereotypes of suburbia are so pervasive, in fact, that Lassiter begins his class on the history of American suburbs with an opening clip from Blue Velvet, the highly acclaimed and deeply creepy David Lynch film from 1986.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Velvet")

Prof. LASSITER: You see the 1950s domestic scene, a man mowing his grass, and then he has a heart attack, and it goes down and shows that beneath the grass the ants are killing each other. It's a metaphor for the darkness, the nightmare that lurks beneath the surface of the sunshine and the optimism of suburbia.

ULABY: Lassiter says the suburbs have always worn a double face in popular culture, as utopias were upwardly mobile mid-century families escaped cities and memories of World War II, thanks to the G.I. bill and mortgages that often excluded women and minorities. The dystopian flip side? A stifling landscape of conformity, alcoholism and adultery, as in this early 1960s film called Sin in the Suburbs.

(Soundbite of film "Sin in the Suburbs")

Unidentified Woman #1(Actor): (As character) Boy, from the time that 721 goes out in the morning and the 635 comes in at night, how many of these babes have boyfriends who pay them visits?

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) It sounds like a very sexy neighborhood.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) A bunch of hypocrites.

Prof. LASSITER: They say this is the worst place, this is a place of misery, the disaster. The family crashes and burns.

ULABY: Matt Lassiter says these suburban mythologies do not reflect the complexity of human lives or the realities of history. And they don't account for suburbia's demographic realities.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Rapping) I am the stone that the builder refused. I am the visual, the inspiration.

ULABY: The suburbs are increasingly non-white and not necessarily made up of traditional nuclear families. In the comic and animated show The Boondocks, two African-American kids move to the suburbs with an elderly relative.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Boondocks")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) My grandfather, Robert Jebediah Freeman, after a lifetime of odd adventures and strange mishaps, decided to spend his last days in the warm embrace of suburbia. So he moved to his perfect house in his perfect neighborhood.

ULABY: The notion of perfect suburban blandness may give us a safe way to talk about difficult things, says history professor Matt Lassiter.

Prof. LASSITER: Another thing that I think happens in suburban films is they seem to capture the political anxieties of the moment.

ULABY: So you can read Cold War unease in a 1950s film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and anxiety over women's lib in The Stepford Wives.

Prof. LASSITER: In the 1970s, you get a lot of horror films because there's so many fears of crime...

(Soundbite of film "A Nightmare on Elm Street")

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As character) There's something out there, isn't there?

Prof. LASSITER: The Freddy Krueger's are coming in and scaring white girls and attacking them in their beds.

ULABY: Nightmare on Elm Street is from 1984, but Lassiter says his point stands. Our suburbs, our selves. In the '90s, he says film makers viewed suburbs ironically, in movies like Heathers and Serial Mom. And now, try McMansions filled with mob families.

(Soundbite of theme to "The Sopranos")

Unidentified Man #3 (Singer): (Singing) Woke up this morning. Got yourself a gun.

Prof. LASSITER: Of course The Sopranos is maybe the most important contemporary example of a story that makes you see the suburbs in a new way.

ULABY: Tom Perrotta wrote the novel Little Children and he co-wrote the screenplay. He suggests The Sopranos suburbs reflect a post-Enron world where people and businesses disguise shady behavior at terrible cost behind the thick mansion doors. Todd Field, Little Children's director, says his film mirrors other fears of today. For example, one of Little Children's subplots concerns neighborhood strife after a sex offender moves in. Field says what happens reflects a post-9/11 mentality.

Mr. TODD FIELD (Director, Little Children): So you know, you have one character who's going around screaming there's evil on the shadows, there's evil on the dark, there's evil-doers out there, you've got to get them. And then you have a lot of other people who are affected by that fear and affected by the fact that they're having a hard time defining who they are themselves.

ULABY: Field says that's less a suburban story than an American story. Author Tom Perrotta says right now maybe the two are the same.

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author): If you want to write about America, that's the place you need to confront, in the way that maybe at an earlier day you'd write about Main Street in a small town or you'd write about the teaming quarters of the city. I think now the suburbs is kind of the central American place.

ULABY: Tom Perrotta's next book will come out next year. It's about a public school sex ed teacher who runs afoul of conservative Christian parents. It's also set in the suburbs.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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