This is the second in a series of posts discussing the American suburbs. We’ve discussed the origins of the American suburbs, but now I’d like to go a little deeper into the societal issues created by the suburbs in America.
As we’ve already established, many social and cultural factors led to the creation of the American suburbs, being mainly white, conformist, and patriarchal.
Little boxes all the same…
The rapid construction of suburban areas in response to the housing crisis led to many construction companies building homes that looked very similar. Streets were lined by houses that looked the same – kind of like the background on The Flinstones whenever Fred ran away from someone. This conformity didn’t stop at the housing designs though, many suburbs had strict rules for homeowners.
Within Levittown suburbs (built by William Levitt would you believe) trees were planted every 28 feet, and residents were not allowed to remove or plant any more. Residents weren’t allowed to put up any permanent clothes hanging equipment since Mr Levitt believed they were ugly. Housewives were forced to set up temporary clothes driers and take them down every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday – which is just what overworked housewives want really, more work to do on their “day off”.
These strict rules enforced a type of conformity that some Americans actually craved in the post-war years. The sought out conformity also bred a community that feared those who did not follow the rules. This is partially why Americans feared communism so much in the post-war years, and beatniks, and POC, and feminists, and you get the gist really – white middle class Americans were taught to fear everyone and anyone (even their own neighbours if it furthered conformity).
The TV show Leave it to Beaver is a perfect example of this white conformist suburban family. The show followed the middle-class Cleaver family through the height of suburban expansion in the 50s and 60s. Throughout the shows 6 year run as prime time TV, almost no people of colour were included in the shows many characters. The Cleaver family was created to set an example of the ‘perfect’ white suburban family and what American’s should aim towards.
This conformity wasn’t blindly accepted by everyone as can be seen in the 1962 folk song Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds. Reynolds talks about how not only do all the suburban houses look the same, the people do too. This song was used as the theme song for the 2005 TV show Weeds which depicts the modern day conformity of the suburbs and how rigid societal rules can breed dark secrets. The idea of suburban rules leading to dark secrets is not unique to Weeds, it’s a trope many television shows use to push storytelling. Shows like Desperate Housewives and Big Little Lies use the secretive lives of suburban women as a platform to develop storylines.
The conformity of suburban lives is not all just because of the way houses were built, its also been powered by mass consumerism that really started after the war (WWII, the big war that everyone talks about – not all the other constant streams of war every country has been in since the fifties you know?). As I touched on in my last post once war production stalled, factories didn’t really have much to make, but they had lots of equipment to make stuff with. So, they decided to start making consumable goods for the masses. The American government also invested in factories due to their fear of another depression. Therefore it became the civic duty of all American people to help prop up the economy through the mass consumption of goods.
The 1950s also saw the introduction of a new way of shopping – the mall. These were regional shopping centres placed near suburban areas. These privately owned spaces of consumption started to be seen by suburbanites as public spaces. This meant the shopping mall began to be seen as a community space in which consumption of goods (usually with everyone buying the same products as each other) was encouraged. This in turn solidified the mall as a source of suburban conformity and consumption. I
Women’s work is never done – Especially if it’s fighting the patriarchy.
American suburbs were (and still are) very patriarchal – meaning men rule the roost so to speak (if we ignore the fact that women control/controlled every aspect of family life). The suburbs revolve around very gendered ideas of the ‘jobs’ men and women have. For women, suburban life revolved around unpaid work; taking care of the 2.4 children and the home. This role of the perfect woman was portrayed through all forms of media, from advertisements to TV and radio. Many advertisements portrayed women as purely domestic beings who longed for better appliances for their home or to look pretty for their husbands in order to help fulfil their role as suburban women (duh).
In response to this forced conformist image of domesticity and femininity, women began to feel their role in society was placed out with their control. For middle class women, dissent began in the columns of women’s magazines. Female writers created their own form of humour from what they felt was an inescapable position. Whilst this subtle form of humour (about women, by women) may seem minor, it shows that dissent about women’s societal position in the 50s and 60s was not just voiced by women in the cities. Middle class suburban women too felt a longing for something more than what they had.
A classic example of this middle class ennui (a fancy french for being bored and dissatisfied with your current situation) is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. In the book, Plath’s main character Esther Greenwood feels so uncomfortable and depressed by the position she feels forced to mould herself to that she attempts to take her own life. The Bell Jar stands not only as an example of the image women were forced to fit into, but the overwhelming sadness it created for those who felt they could not fit.
This opposition to the perfect mother and wife that the suburb encourages is seen in the HBO show Big Little Lies. Specifically, in a scene between Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s characters, in which both women literally scream about their feeling of being trapped by the image of the suburban woman. Both women want more – which they scream multiple times in Witherspoon’s car. This scene acts as a figurative and literal cry out for something to change – these women feel that there must be more to life than mothering and keeping their home in check.
The impact of the American suburbs is not merely fixed at one point in time. Due to the way they were built, and when they were built the American suburbs have longstanding effects on American society which you can still see today. For women especially, the suburbs have withstood the test of time, and many suburban women still carry out the same tasks as their predecessors did in the 50s and 60s.
In order to not make this post too long (cause I could rant about this topic for a very long time) I’ve only lightly covered the topics of conformity and patriarchy, but I’ve put some links below for anyone who wants to explore a little more.
Books & Journal articles (I can access these for you if you do can’t access them for free)
- David Coon – Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television.
- Mary Beth Haralovich – Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker’
- Godfrey Hodgson- America in Our Time; From World War II to Nixon – What Happened and Why. .
- Kenneth T. Jackson – Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.
- Nancy Walker – Humor and Gender Roles: The “Funny” Feminism of the Post-World War II Suburbs
- Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar still haunts me – The Telegraph
- The Persistent Economic Advantage of America’s Suburbs – Citylab
- The Culprit’s Behind White Flight – The New York Times
- The first episode of Leave it to Beaver – if you are very bored you might like it
- The trailer for Big Little Lies – Honestly I just wanted to include this because I binged the whole show a few weeks ago and I’m in love with it