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Look Closer

Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Look Closer
    Book Description:

    In recent years, the media landscape in the United States has followed a pattern similar to that of the physical landscape by becoming increasingly suburbanized. Although it is a far cry from reality, the fantasy of a perfect suburban life still exists in the collective imagination of millions of Americans. This dream of suburban perfection is built around a variety of such ideologically conservative values and ideals as the importance of tradition, the centrality of the nuclear family, the desire for a community of like-minded neighbors, the need for clearly defined gender roles, and the belief that with hard work and determination, anyone can succeed.

    Building on the relationships between suburban life and American identity,Look Closerexamines and interprets recent narratives that challenge the suburban ideal to reveal how directors and producers are mobilizing the spaces of suburbia to tell new kinds of stories about America. David R. Coon argues that the myth of suburban perfection, popularized by postwar sitcoms and advertisements, continues to symbolize a range of intensely debated issues related to tradition, family, gender, race, and citizenship. Through close examinations of such films asAmerican Beauty,The Truman Show, andMr. & Mrs. Smithas well as such television series asDesperate Housewives,Weeds, andBig Love, the book demonstrates how suburbia is used to critique the ideologies that underpin the suburban American Dream.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6209-4
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Welcome to the Neighborhood
    (pp. 1-29)

    In an early scene from the 1999 filmAmerican Beauty, the protagonist, Lester Burnham, offers a narration that plays over an aerial shot of a suburban neighborhood. The image reveals rows of large, single-family houses, neatly arranged on tree-lined streets. As the camera slowly moves closer to the street, Lester’s narration sets up the film’s story.

    “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.” As the image changes to a shot of Lester in his bed, waking to the...

  5. 1 Traditional Values: Nostalgia and Self-Reflexivity in Visual Representations of Suburbia
    (pp. 30-68)

    A promotional video for the Village of West Clay, a suburban development outside Indianapolis, Indiana, opens with a title card reminiscent of those found in silent films. The image shakes a bit, and the sound track features a solo piano along with the sound of a film projector. The title card says, “Mother has some errands that need to be run.” This is followed by a shot of a neighborhood street. The image is black and white with scratches and other imperfections, suggesting the look of old film stock. The camera pans past two cars that appear to be from...

  6. 2 Back Yard Fences: The Public, the Private, and the Family in Suburban Dramas
    (pp. 69-102)

    In a revealing sequence fromAmerican Beauty(1999), suburban father Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is eavesdropping outside his teenage daughter’s bedroom door. Inside the room, Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is trying to ignore the comments of her friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), who is talking about how attractive Lester is, and how she would willingly have sex with him if he worked out a little. Although Lester is outside the door listening and cannot see into the room, the sense that he is inappropriately crossing certain boundaries is enhanced by the fact that Angela (and potentially Jane, though the framing...

  7. 3 Suburban Citizenship: Defining Community through the Exclusion of Racial and Sexual Minorities
    (pp. 103-140)

    In the promotional video for the town of Mount Laurel, a new suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, one resident speaks of her family’s decision to move: “In order to move to Birmingham we had to find a place where we could have a sense of community.” Another resident says, “It was apparent right off the bat that this place had a strong sense of community, and most of the people that are here are community-oriented.” The brochure that is included in the promotional packet with the DVD notes, “When you purchase a home in Mt. Laurel, you get more than just...

  8. 4 Desperate Husbands: The Crisis of Hegemonic Masculinity in Post-9/11 Suburbia
    (pp. 141-178)

    In her bookGendered Spaces, Daphne Spain examines a variety of physical structures that range from domestic, professional, and educational to civic, commercial, and sacred. She argues that built environments in our society have historically segregated men from women, with some spaces being viewed as masculine and others as feminine.¹ Linda McDowell concurs, noting that the industrialization of Western societies in the 1800s led to a partial separation of home and work, helping to establish the ideology of separate spheres for men and women. Particularly for those in the middle class, “the home was constructed as the locus of love,...

  9. 5 Protecting the Suburban Lifestyle: Consumption, Crime, and the American Dream
    (pp. 179-211)

    In an episode of the legal dramaClose to Home(CBS, 2005–2007) entitled “Land of Opportunity,” a real estate mogul is being interrogated by a district attorney regarding some questionable business practices that allegedly caused home buyers to default on their loans and lose their houses. Proclaiming his innocence, the man says, “I’m in the business of putting hardworking people in their dream homes.” He goes on to say, “You can’t criminalize business in the land of opportunity.” Moments later, one of his associates, also being questioned, says, “We got into this because it made us feel good. Not...

  10. Conclusion: There Goes the Neighborhood
    (pp. 212-234)

    I began this book with descriptions of the opening moments from two prominent suburban narratives:American BeautyandDesperate Housewives.These two examples, along with the other films and television programs discussed throughout the book, have much in common with respect to their depiction of suburbia. They all offer images of tasteful single-family homes in visually appealing neighborhoods with tree-lined streets. The sizes of the homes, as well as their interior and exterior designs, suggest comfortable middle-class status. While these neighborhoods might be an economic step up from the reality of most viewers, they are still within the realm of...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 235-256)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 257-270)
    (pp. 271-272)