The View Through the Picture Window | Worlds Away

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes


Walker Art Center,
February 16 - August 17, 2008

Carnegie Museum of Art,
October 4, 2008 - January 18, 2009

Yale School of Architecture
March 2 - May 10, 2009

Because suburbia occupies a dominant presence in so many lives—a place of not only residence but also of work, commerce, worship, education, and leisure—it has become a focal point for competing interests and viewpoints. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. more

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The View Through the Picture Window

Surveillance and Entrapment Motifs in Suburban Film

by Robert Beuka

(excerpted from Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes)

Robert Beuka is associate professor of English at Bronx Community College, City University of New York. He has published articles on classic and contemporary Hollywood cinema as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction and cultural studies. His first book, SuburbiaNation (2004), examines the depiction of the suburbs in American film and fiction.

One of the surprise hit films of 2007 was a teen horror movie called Disturbia, a Rear Window-esque thriller about a boy who witnesses the sordid doings of his neighbors through the bedroom window of his suburban home. As the title suggests, the movie offers an over-the-top view of the anxieties of contemporary suburban life. The protagonist, a teenager named Kale, is confined to house arrest as a result of a violent outburst at school. He gets in the habit of peering out the window at his neighbors, and what he sees is unsettling, to say the least. DreamWorks Pictures initially promoted the film with the tagline, “Disturbia: The quieter the street, the darker the secrets.” Subsequently, the distributors shifted to an even more lurid promotional catch-phrase: “Every killer lives next door to someone.” Their idea of exposing the darker side of suburbia seems to have had its appeals, since D. J. Caruso’s Disturbia ranked as the number one film in America for several weeks. Indeed, the success of the film would seem to indicate that its critique of life in the contemporary suburbs is hip, fresh material.

Or is it? A look back through films about suburban life over the past few decades reveals that a movie such as Disturbia is, in fact, following an ingrained tradition of critique. In contrast to the rosy depiction of suburbia on network television from the 1950s onward, the suburbs have fared far worse on the big screen. In the 1950s, in the midst of the great middle-class migration to suburbia, films such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, No Down Payment, and All That Heaven Allows countered television’s glowing image of suburban life by presenting the suburbs as an alienating environment. Movies from the 1960s and 1970s, from The Graduate to The Stepford Wives, painted the suburbs as an artificial, entrapping world. Even the 1980s, the decade that gave us any number of carefree suburban teen movies, also saw the ascent of the “slasher-next-door” genre of suburban horror film. Additionally, seemingly innocuous 1980s films such as The ’burbs and Little Shop of Horrors indirectly raised the issue of racial and ethnic intolerance in suburbia. More recently, The Truman Show (1998) metaphorically painted suburbia as a prison house of surveillance, while the celebrated 1999 film American Beauty portrayed the suburbs as the site of isolation, materialism, family dysfunction, voyeurism, violent outbursts, and drug dealing, with a murder thrown in for good measure. What these cinematic depictions of suburban life reveal, particularly through their repeated emphasis on visual scrutiny, vulnerability, and entrapment, is our continued cultural ambivalence about life in suburbia—an environment that has, over the past sixty years, evolved from a revolutionary, insurgent landscape into the predominant environment of most Americans.

A basic starting point for this discussion is the idea that there is something a little distorted about the depiction of the suburbs that we see in a movie such as Disturbia. As I have argued, the suburban environment is often portrayed and understood in exaggerated terms; suburbia is the kind of place that tends to get alternately attacked and defended—overly idealized on the one hand, and demonized as embodying the worst aspects of our culture on the other.1 Both of these visions of suburbia—the utopian and the dystopian view, we might call them—seem clearly to be oversimplified understandings of this important American environment. Where do we go to get a sense of the roots of this distorted view of life in suburbia? There are worse places to begin than the advent of the mass-produced suburban development town, as seen in the founding of Levittown, New York, in 1947.

It seems all but impossible to overstate the historical importance of Levittown to life in the twentieth century. Both practically and symbolically, it marked the beginning of the era of mass suburbanization in the United States in the postwar years, an era that forever altered the way we think about physical space in this country. The uniform landscape of identical single-family homes and plots immediately became invested with a deep symbolic significance. On the one hand, the lower costs resulting from William Levitt’s mass-production techniques allowed for a generational move to this new landscape, in the process creating a massive new middle class in America. In this sense, suburbia became recognized as the new promised land of the American dream.2 On the other hand, social critics worried from the start about the physical homogeneity of the new suburban towns, fearing that places like Levittown would foster a similar sort of social and cultural homogeneity.3 Racially restrictive selling practices undercut the utopian view of community the new towns seemed to offer, and the individuals who did move to the new suburbs also had to cope with a sense of isolation, and the need to build communities from the ground up.

These realities of life in postwar suburbia also formed the fodder for the cinematic representations of these new places. Consider, for example, a film that one might not immediately associate with the suburbs—Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Released in December 1946, just over a year after the end of World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life, despite its nostalgic tone and its sense of optimism, is a film that expresses a profound trepidation over the future of the small-town landscape in the postwar era. This becomes apparent through the manipulation of the image of the town throughout the film, as protagonist George Bailey comes to inhabit both the traditional small town, Bedford Falls, and the dark urban nightmare world of Pottersville. In the contraposition of these two visions of the same town, the film expresses a sense of anxiety over the direction in which the small-town landscape is evolving.

Historically, there was good reason for this concern over a landscape in transition, as the identity of the American small town was very much up in the air in this period. While the first half of the twentieth century saw increasing urbanization across America, the time of this film’s release also coincided with the beginning of a massive boom in new housing starts and the emergence of the suburban landscape.4 This was about the time that ground was broken on Levittown, an event that signaled the coming age of suburbia. And in its own way, It’s a Wonderful Life carefully addresses the emergence of the suburban landscape: the distinctly suburban-looking development of Bailey Park, which represents the future of Bedford Falls, also serves—through the subplot of Mr. Martini’s move there—as a central symbol in a larger thematic linking of new home construction and ownership with the rebuilding of traditional community values. Indeed, insofar as Capra’s film focuses on matters of town- and community-building, it stands as a sort of primer on the potential for creating old-fashioned “small-town” communities in newfangled landscapes.5 In this sense, It’s a Wonderful Life offers us an early glimpse of the utopian vision of suburbia that would be picked up by television sitcoms in the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, even with its ringing endorsement of these new suburbs, Capra’s film also constantly reminds the viewer of Bailey’s sense of being trapped in this town, prefiguring the entrapment themes to be found in subsequent suburban fiction and films.

Surely one of the dominant images of suburban life we have had from our popular media comes from television situation comedies of the 1950s and early 1960s. On programs such as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and others, the new suburban life was depicted in optimistic terms as family-centered and rich with community ties. As Nina Leibman has argued, the rise of these suburban sitcoms helped facilitate the psychic as well as physical mass migration to the suburbs.6 In the process, such programs created an image of the contented, white, solidly middle-class family that continues to be associated with suburban America.7 In effect, these shows created what Lynn Spigel has aptly termed a “fantasy of antiseptic electrical space,” fostering a simulated sense of community between the viewer and on-screen counterpart.8 But if television helped to contribute to the image of suburbia as the new home of the middle-class American dream, feature films tended to show a different side of the story. Sometimes the critiques of the move to suburbia were lighthearted, as in the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, starring Cary Grant. Here the move from the city to exurban Connecticut was shown to be fraught with perils and annoyances; nonetheless, all works out well in this benign satire. The 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, adapted from Sloan Wilson’s novel and featuring Gregory Peck, depicts life in the suburbs as well as the climb up the corporate ladder as alienating experiences for the protagonist. Other films of this era, such as Martin Ritt’s No Down Payment (1957) and Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) paint an even darker picture of suburbs as repressive and even dangerous places.

In comparing depictions of the suburbs on television programs and in movies of the immediate postwar years, we may begin to see how the popular media and arts had a hand in shaping the utopia/dystopia binary that seems to continue to influence our thinking about suburbia even today. In contrast to the image of contented family and community life portrayed in network television’s image of suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, big-screen portrayals of the suburbs were characterized by their darker subjects: isolation, entrapment, anxiety, and the breakdown of the family. Such themes were to become increasingly apparent in suburban films of the 1960s.



1 For a fuller discussion of this thesis, see Robert Beuka, SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). (↑)

2 David Halberstam in The Fifties (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993) notes that the mass-production techniques of Levitt and similar firms can be thought of as not only a response to the growth of the middle class and their subsequent need for housing, but indeed as a force behind the growth of the new middle class itself: “These techniques made it possible to provide inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle-class before,” 132. For more extended discussions of Levittown’s history and its cultural significance, see Barbara M. Kelly, Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) and Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York: Basic Books, 2000). (↑)

3 Sociologist David Riesman, for example, in his influential 1950 work The Lonely Crowd (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press) argued that postwar culture was becoming increasingly “other-directed,” with the focus on the maintenance and progress of the group rather than the individual, a phenomenon that manifested itself in the conformity and classlessness of suburban living. William H. Whyte, in The Organization Man (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), advanced a related argument, considering the many ways in which organizational/corporate structure shaped the individual and society in the postwar years. Included is a section on the nature of suburban living, with a particular focus on social dynamics in the suburb of Park Forest, Illinois. (↑)

4 For a thorough discussion of the postwar housing boom, see Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford, 1985), chapter 13, 231–245. The sheer numbers of new housing starts are indicative of the landscape revolution under way at this time. As Jackson notes, “Single-family housing starts spurted from only 114,000 in 1944, to 937,000 in 1946, to 1,183,000 in 1948, and to 1,692,000 in 1950, an all-time high,” 233. (↑)

5 In an interesting article that presents a contrasting view, Patrick J. Deneen, in “Awakening From the American Dream: The End of Escape in American Cinema?” from Perspectives on Political Science 31.2 (Spring 2002): 96–103, argues that the success of Bailey Park will eventually lead to the loss of the old-fashioned sense of community in Bedford Falls: “Bailey Park is not a community that will grow to have a form of life and communal interaction similar to that in Bedford Falls; instead, George Bailey’s grand social experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households that will find shelter in Bailey Park but little else in common,” 98. This argument, while potentially compelling, seems to be based on the erroneous claim that “the development is empty, devoid of human presence. The residents of this modern development are presumably hidden behind the doors of their modern houses,” 98. Bailey Park only actually appears in one scene, a sequence where it appears that a great number of neighborhood residents turn out to welcome the Martini family into their new home. (↑)

6 Nina Leibman, Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995). (↑)

7 As Dana Heller argues in Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), suburban family sitcoms tended to “naturalize” the white, middle-class suburban experience, serving as models of “familial normalcy” (45), idealized visions of what suburban middle-class family life ought to be like. (↑)

8 Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 111. (↑)

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We asked people to make a video telling us about the suburbs and put it on YouTube. Selected videos are showing in the gallery at the Walker Art Center during the run of the exhibition.

Selected Videos

See all submitted videos

Original Submission Call

See YouTube video call

Do you live in a suburb? Do you work or go to school in one? What is your experience of the “burbs? ”…

Whether you love them or hate them we’re interested in your thoughts on the phenomenon of the American suburb. We invite you to make a 5-minute video about strip malls, cul-de-sacs, office parks, and green lawns or whatever suburbia means to you. A select number of videos will be chosen to screen as part of the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes in the Target Gallery from February 15 to May 18, 2008.

To participate, upload your video to YouTube and add the tag “walkerworldsaway” or post it as a response to our video above. We’ll feature all videos on the Walker’s YouTube page. To be considered for gallery screening, entries must be 5 minutes or less and be online by January 18, 2008.

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Adaptive Reuse
Anchor Store
Asphalt Nation
Auto Park
Baby Boomer
Ball Pork
Bedroom Community
Big Box
Category Killer
Chain Store
Collector Road
Community Interest Development
Compact Land Use
Crunchy Suburb
Cup-holder Cuisine
Curb Appeal
Dead Mall
Deeded Community
Discount Department Store
Drive Til You Qualify
Edge City
Edifice Rex
Empty Nester
Family Room
Fast Food
Fast Food Cluster
First Ring
Food Court Druid
Garage Band
Garage Mahal
Gated Community
Group Attributes
Growth Machine
High Density
Home Office
Home Owner Association
HOV Lane
Inner Ring
Lifestyle Commuter
Light Rail
Logo Building
Low Density
Mall Rat
Media Room
Mixed-use Development
Monster Home
New Suburbanism
New Urbanism
No Growth
Noise Barrier
Office Park
Outer-ring Suburb
Outlet Store
Park and Ride
Patio Man
Peter Pan Suburb
Picture Window
Pork Chop
Power Center
Property Owner Association
Quality of Life
Realtor Mom
Ring Road
Slow Growth
Smart Growth
Snout House
Soccer Mom
Speed Bump
Sprawl Stress Syndrome
Spread City
Sprinkler City
Starter Castle
Streetcar Suburb
Strip Mall
Suburban Plantation
Tank Farm
Theme Park
Tower Farm
Tract Mansion
Trailer Park
Value Retailer
Warehouse Club
Weekend Home
Weekend Warrior
White Flight
Willow Syndrome
Yea it is That Way

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