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Popular Culture's Evolving View of the Suburbs


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 clichés. Little Children is about a stay-at-home mom whose existential discontent leads to an affair with a stay-at-home dad.


KATE WINSLETT: (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.

TODD FIELD: 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.

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.

MATT LASSITER: 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.


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


ULABY: (As character) A bunch of hypocrites.

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.


SIMON: (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.


FIELD: (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.

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.

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


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

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


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.

FIELD: 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.

TOM PERROTTA: 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: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.