Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture
London: Bloomsbury Academic 2013
Paperback. 230 p. ISBN 978-1780932248. £19.99
Reviewed by Virginie Marcucci
Université de Tours
The suburbs are part and parcel of American and British popular culture – one of the reasons why the study conducted by sociologist Rupa Huq is good news for those interested in the ill-defined concept of "suburbia". Rupa Huq first defines its contours and what is meant by "the suburbs". She tightly links suburbia and popular culture as the former originates from its representations in popular culture since the 1960s. Her goal is to examine the cultural significance of suburbia as well as its varied depictions in British and American popular culture.
She broaches a number of topics among which the binary oppositions underpinning the concept of suburbia - the opposition between the city and the suburbs, between the suburbs as safe haven and the suburbs as a prison of sorts, between the male and female energy of both locales, between consumerism and elitism, between white upscale inhabitants and a more ethnically diverse population etc.
Her approach is both textual and comprehensive, focusing on popular culture i.e. cinema, television, pop music and the novel. Huq has divided her study into eight chapters; after the first introductory chapter, she follows a medium-by-medium approach and focuses in turn on novels (chapter 2), music (chapter 3), films (chapter 4) and television (chapter 5). The next two chapters favour a transversal, cross-cutting approach focused on women in suburbia (chapter 6) and the Asian community in London (chapter 7). The eighth chapter serves as a conclusion.
In chapter 2, she shows how the suburbs in British novels such as Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939) go hand in hand with the notions of English decline and the uncontrollability of suburban sprawl. A similar trend is at work in American novels such as The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit (1955, Sloan Wilson) or Revolutionary Road (1961, Richard Yates) in which post-WW2 suburbia is characterised by boredom and dissatisfaction. Yet it is also a place of sexual liberation where adultery is rife, as in John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and a place where a lot goes on behind closed doors. One good example is The Virgin Suicides (1994, Jeffrey Eugenides) and the deep unhappiness and suicide of five teenage sisters living in a quiet suburb. Huq points out that many of the books in this chapter have been adapted for the cinema or television, a proof of their lasting legacy in and impact on popular culture.
The following chapter is dedicated to the influence of the suburbs and suburbia on pop, rock and punk music from the 1960s onward. Despite this music’s fascination with urban imagery, it is linked to the suburbs as it can be consumed as well as produced there. This music generally reflects the various faces of suburbia as well as the shift over time from optimism to ennui in both the UK and the USA.
The chapter and the examples chosen demonstrate that "[suburbia] is in a constant state of flux (...). Gentrification can be seen as the polar opposite of suburbanization but suburbia too is reinvented and gentrified with successive generations ". The experience of suburbia gave birth to British punk and new wave as well as to the more upbeat and optimistic pop of Wham! or Culture Club, showing how little monolithic and monocultural suburbia is. It also tends to prove that suburban pop’s key function is "escapism" as well as "the documentation of the quotidian"  as shown by one of the latest offspring of UK suburban music (The Streets, a British hip-hop artist moulded as so many others today by multi-ethnicity and rapid social changes.)
Both a literal landmark and a source of entertainment for suburbanites, the cinema plays a prominent part in the suburbs. The first films set in the suburbs are the adaptations of the novels The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit or Please Don’t Eat the Daisies – the latter focusing on the joy of family life in the suburbs while the former is less overtly optimistic. More recent depiction of life in the suburbs (from Pleasantville, 1998 Gary Ross, to Far from Heaven, 2002 Todd Haynes) often debunks the myth of the bliss of suburban life in the 1950s and 1960s.
In Great Britain, the suburbs as focal point are not on the map of filmmakers before the mid-1960s and start to appear in Mike Leigh’s films such as High Hopes (and Meantime 1983), in which they are painted as places of dull monotony. Huq notes the exception of a more optimistic take on suburbia in films such as Bend it like Beckham (2002, Gurinder Chadha) or Made in Dagenham (2010, Nigel Cole) in which feminine characters are central to the plot and display agency. The most recent strain of films on suburbia focuses on suburban dysfunction and alienation, such as Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) in which danger and threats lurk everywhere.
Television is a central element in households. It has been playing a prominent part in shaping attitudes towards the suburban family, which has become at once audience and subject matter for many TV programmes. British sitcoms have been accused of portraying the suburbs as much too white, conservative and middle-class, failing to reflect its changing demographics. Huq cites Terry and June (1979-1987), One Foot in the Grave (1990-2000) or The Good Life (1975-1978), all of which have tended to reinforce the conservative values of the suburban lifestyle, unlike American sitcoms such as Roseanne (1988-1997) or the Simpsons (1989-).
She analyses Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) as one example of a TV show that is not limited to one genre. Marc Cherry’s show focuses on the discrepancy between apparent domestic bliss and a much darker state of emotional affairs. Other series such as Weeds (2005-2012) or Breaking Bad (2008-2013) took up this ominous depiction of suburbia. Despite this will to integrate different experiences of suburbia, American series are often found wanting on the representation of minorities – few of them are represented in Desperate Housewives (apart from one Hispanic family among the regular cast) or Mad Men (2007-).
Suburbia is not only a changing space, it is a gendered space – a space inhabited by women and children while men are out, busy making a living for their families. The feminine energy of the suburbs is therefore opposed to the male energy of the city. The starting point of this transversal study is The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and its review of the mental state of housewives in the suburbs in the 1960s, epitomised by the famous phrase "the problem with no name". This problem was to make women believe that keeping house and buying appliances, cooking or doing the housework was enough to define them. The unease (to say the least) felt by some women finds an echo in songs such as Mother’s Little Helper by the Rolling Stones, books such as Revolutionary Road, films such as Diary of a Mad Housewife, and TV series such as Desperate Housewives.
The common point to all the representations of women in the suburbs nowadays is the expression of their dissatisfaction and the questioning of gender roles ascribed to them by society. It is also true for fictions engineered today but depicting bygone eras, especially the heyday of American suburbia, like Mad Men or Far from Heaven. As Huq writes "context of the era of a media text’s cultural production is intrinsic to it, as the past undergoes continual rewriting as it ends up reflecting present times" .
The suburb is no longer a place of innocence and unmitigated bliss, as one would have wanted us to believe a few decades ago, it is dynamic, changing and full of contradictions, and its representations should reflect that and other societal changes, from Women’s Lib to ethnic diversification.
In her final chapter, Huq addresses the South Asian diaspora in postcolonial suburbia in the UK, and especially the youth. She mainly focuses on suburban London to expose a few stereotypes, especially concerning ethnic minorities and the assertion that they live in inner cities only. Indeed, evidence and figures prove that they are moving to the suburbs, a shift illustrated by TV shows such as The Kumars at Number 42. The suburbs of London especially are not culturally uniform, and popular culture is more prompt to acknowledge such changes than official statistics. The conclusion emphasises once again the paramount notions of flux, change and diversity due to economic or political changes, immigration or ethnic diversification, and feminism, which all subvert common expectations of the suburbs.
While a study of suburbia is very much welcome due to the peripheral place too often assigned to the topic even in cultural studies, it is unfortunate that this volume should be plagued with mistakes. The reader much too often stumbles upon typos or incorrect sentences. Even more problematic are a number of factual mistakes – the names of actors are not always correct, the spelling of some titles is not either. All in all this accumulation of mistakes damages the impression one has of the book and its research.
Operating on a medium-by-medium approach has its advantages but it also leads the author to repetitions, and one of the few cross-cutting chapters (the one on women in suburbia) seems much more dynamic than the others. Maybe a theme- rather than medium-oriented approach would have led to less repetition and would have charted overarching trends in the depiction of American or British suburbs more efficiently.
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