The ‘housewife’ and the ‘cityman’: A match made in suburbia?

Last night, for the first time, I ventured to Pointe Claire, Quebec. Pointe Claire is what one could call a typical suburb of Montreal – a small residential sprawl located far enough away from the city to function independently and retain a certain sense of community, yet close enough for its residents to commute to the city centre – for employment, health care, shopping or entertainment – in about thirty minutes.

Yet what struck me most about this ‘burb’ was exactly how little it resembles ‘suburbia’. Driving along what could be called the main street, one doesn’t notice any of the usual clichéd suburban symbols. Where are all the white picket fences, huge cookie-cutter houses, ‘big box’ stores? Instead, what one does notice in this suburb’s is a certain small-town appeal: unusual boutique-style shops and cafés, a large – and historic – Catholic parish and Church grounds, a community pool and park, and streets lined with modest, uniquely-designed houses with doors that all but open to the sidewalk. This place, this humble residential area, bears no similarity to Levittown (a famous “village in central Long Island in New York, noted for its ‘cookie-cutter’ houses” ) or Mississauga (the largest suburb in North America). Pointe Claire doesn’t even have a single noticeable mall, for goodness sake. This cannot be ‘suburbia’, can it?

After this bewildering/ perplexing encounter with what is, in my opinion, a sort of pseudo-suburb, I thought it time to reconsider my preconceived notions about suburbia.‘Suburbs’ are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “one-class communities located at the edge of the city and developed at low rates of housing per hectare… The provision of open space is a characteristic feature”. Yet there is debate amongst scholars in forming a strict definition for the term. The same dictionary also defines ‘suburbanism’ from a dissimilar sociological perspective:

[Suburbanism] refers to social and cultural characteristics which some sociologists have claimed typify suburban residents. Accounts of suburbanism as a way of life differ widely but commonly refer to the dominance of younger, middle-class, and family-oriented patterns of work and social life; a high level of social activity based on friendship rather than kinship networks; and a considerable degree of uniformity, even conformity, in style of life.

Further confusing, the same dictionary also defines ‘suburbia’ (in contrast to the ‘suburb’, although it is not entirely clear how the two differ) as:

Low-rise residential areas on the fringes of towns that were supposed to be attempts to combine rural and urban advantages, but in which both were so diluted they became meaningless. In its pejorative sense [suburbia] is associated with philistinism, conformity, and dullness…

What, then, are the suburbs? Are they regions bound to certain geographical characteristics? Are they social spaces for people sharing common characteristics (such as race/ethnicity, religion, age, or status, among others)? Or are they something more?

While something like seventy percent (70%) of Americans now live in the suburbs, it is not the urban sprawls outside Buffalo or Chicago – filed with blue-collar, working-class and poverty-line families – that typify ‘suburbia’ in popular opinion. The accepted conception of ‘suburbia’, rather, still involves an unrealistic vision of the WASP, ‘nuclear family’ – even if that notion has evolved somewhat over the years. We no longer envision a mystical land of station wagons, kitschy wallpaper, and superb ‘family values’. Yet a ‘suburban myth’ still exists: where the suburbs stand (symbolically) in popular consciousness for a particular species of white, middle-class, flag-waving suburbanites, two-parent households, minivans, Christian values and the ‘American Dream’.

It can be seen, however, that the most prevalent and recognizable suburban ‘sign’ is not the two-car garage, the Tupperware container, the perfectly manicured lawn, or the ‘family unit’(comprised of 2.2 children), but rather a single person that wholly embodies the suburban spirit: the housewife. While the beehive-and-apron days of Leave It To Beaver are gone, the scent of a happy suburban housewife – basking in her ‘domestic goddess’-ness – lingers.

The suburban housewife is a perfected amalgam of mere city-dwelling women; she is at once the perfect caregiver (wife and mother), chef, gardener, housekeeper, neighbour, Christian, volunteer, and social butterfly, as well as (in more recent times) balanced ‘career-woman’. In this sense, from the advent of suburban living the housewife has become the recognizable ‘sign’, icon and emblem of (American) suburbia.

This explains a recent trend in popular culture: the suburban exposé. Perhaps due to a recent (late 1990s to present day) interest in so-called ‘reality television’, perhaps due to a backlash against Von Trapp-style, 1980s, Reagan-inspired ‘family values’ propaganda, or perhaps simply because audiences are finally tired of depictions of ‘suburban bliss’ along the lines of The Brady Bunch (or their Canadian counterpart, The Partridge Family), suburbia is under attack in the media. As the desire to dispel this ‘suburban myth’ and to critically evaluate suburbia has grown, it seems only logical to attack the very foundation of suburbia: its most recognizable and vulnerable figurehead – the housewife.

The most recent attempt at suburban critique in the mainstream media is the popular dramadie Desperate Housewives. Based on the premise (and tagline) that “everyone has a little dirty laundry”, the show centres on the four friends (three housewives and one single-mother/divorcée) of a woman who takes her own life. The late narrator’s suicide, described in the very first episode, at once challenges the myth of the ‘happy housewife’ and reminds audiences that suburbia’s seeming perfection is flawed and superficial.

Yet the plot of Desperate Housewives is driven in an unusual manner – in fact, it seems not to be driven at all: nothing really happens (much like a soap opera). Most of the scandalous plot-worthy ‘events’ have already taken place by the time the storyline begins. Before the first episode, for example, the narrator has committed suicide, one housewife has begun an affair with her underage gardener, and one husband is enjoying an S&M relationship with a neighbourhood dominatrix. In watching this program, then, the excitement, suspense, and enjoyment come from revelations, secrets, rumours and gossip, rather than events – and from witnessing the outcomes of scandal in the somewhat traditional, WASP, upper-middle-class suburban setting of Wisteria Lane. By far the most interesting segments of the show, therefore, revolve around ‘dethroning’ the four protagonists as ‘suburban Queens’.

The narrator introduces us to each woman (and the defect/blemish in her perfect suburban life) in the first episode:

…Kids do better with stay at home moms. It would be so much less stressful. But this was not the case. In fact, Lynette’s life had become so hectic, she was now forced to get her fried chicken from a fast food restaurant…

…Gabrielle liked her paella piping hot. However, her relationship with her husband was considerably cooler…

…Yes, Bree’s many talents were known throughout the neighbourhood. And everyone on Wisteria Lane thought of Bree as the perfect wife and mother. Everyone, that is, except her own family…

…A year had passed since the divorce. Susan had started to think how nice it would be to have a man in her life, even one who would make fun of her cooking…

As viewers become familiar with each character and her veiled imperfections, they are privy to a secret suburban ‘underworld’ where archetypes are combated: those eternally caring, selfless creatures – the swimming pool and soccer ‘Moms’ – are portrayed as emotionally and psychologically (and often physically) trapped. This ‘underworld’ suggests an unseen ‘truth’ behind suburban life for women – that housewives live tales of insurmountable woe, suffering, boredom and powerlessness – on the contrary to the mythical personages they emit. Snooping, spying, gossiping, and rumour-spreading, then, function as a means to assert control, rather than as superficial time-wasters or shallow pastimes.

Yet as the personage of the ‘domestic suburban goddess’ is exposed, and as more ‘realistic’ portrayals of suburban life surface, there is one question no one seems to be asking. What about the men?

So I wonder: where does the suburban husband fit alongside his closeted Jekyll-and-Hyde wife? Why, with all the recent attention being paid to the ‘suburban lifestyle’ (in the media, and particularly on film) hasn’t the depiction of men in suburbia evolved since the post-war popularity of the suburbs? Are suburban men justly represented by their stereotype – that of the hardworking yet distant husband and father who appears only at mealtimes and at baseball games?

It seems difficult to get an accurate portrayal of a male suburbanite – largely because, as we will see, he is often absent from the storyline or daily happenings of the suburban housewife and family. Perhaps, however, his apparent absence in suburbia hints at the suburban male’s very presence.

As much as ‘the housewife’ is powerless and superficial in suburbia, so too is her husband, (whom we may call the ‘cityman’). This ‘cityman’ suffers the same troubles in suburbia as his wife (that is, an impossible expectation of perfection), precisely because he is of a different world – the city – and will never entirely belong to suburbia – the mythical land of community, domesticity and idealism. In this sense the ‘cityman’ is marginalized and repressed, for he is always limited in his interactions with the suburban world.

There are only four noticeable roles for men in suburbia (‘citymen’): that of the decision-maker, that of the financier, that of the disciplinarian, and that of the offender. As decision-maker, the man is responsible for any larger issues concerning his family – what car to buy, where to live, when and where to vacation. As financier, he works – usually on a fixed ‘nine to five’ schedule – as a doctor, lawyer, executive, police officer, or some other unidentified ‘white collar’ professional. As disciplinarian, he polices and disciplines – with the authority to overrule and ignore any other member of his family unit. As offender, the ‘cityman’ engages in adulterous affairs, is aggressive and perhaps violent, steals and launders money, and generally lives according to an unacceptable, unethical or immoral standard of behaviour, although this is most often disguised from his oblivious community.

Yet while these recurring roles provide some insight into public perception of suburbia and the lifestyle it fosters, they are also restrictive and limiting. As a ‘cityman’ is defined within the bounds of one or more of these roles, he is also ignored from the remaining suburban text, and if often relegated to the position of a marginalized and abject character. In viewing some popular films portraying (either stereotypical or atypical) suburban life, therefore, it appears that suburban men are largely underrepresented and underdeveloped as characters, to the point that these ‘citymen’ are almost invisible in suburbia.

Case in point: American Beauty. This 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes won five Academy Awards, and was critically acclaimed for its ‘honest’ (if somewhat melodramatic) portrayal of the perfect, modern, suburban family in all its superficial and self-loathing glory. The story centres on middle-aged ‘cityman’ Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a white-collar husband and father on the verge of breakdown, and his collapsing relationship with his wife and daughter. While Lester is no doubt the story’s protagonist, he cannot be physically absent from the text, yet one could argue that he is, as are all ‘citymen’, psychologically and emotionally absent from his life, and from this suburban text. Moreover, Lester seems fully aware of his own lack of presence. In dialogue with his wife (Annette Bening), he clearly states “I am sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist. You two do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it, and I don’t complain”. Moreover, he even admits to his own banality, remarking to someone he’s met before who doesn’t remember him, “It’s OK, I wouldn’t remember me either”.

Another case: The Virgin Suicides. Another film made in 1999, this was Sophia Coppola’s first attempt at directing a feature film, as well as her skilled portrayal of life in a 1970s Michigan suburb. This story chronicles the (brief) lives of the five Lisbon sisters before their successful suicides. As the only man present throughout the duration of the storyline, the girls’ father, Mr. Lisbon, is a typical ‘cityman’. Although he occupies a large percentage of screen time (as the high school Math teacher, he is frequently seen during the day – unlike many other ‘citymen’ who disappear until dinnertime), Mr. Lisbon is as socially and mentally ‘absent’ as Lester Burnham. At one point in the film, he (ironically) asks his plans “Have we photosynthesized our breakfast today?” without having any idea as to the physical or emotional health of his children. He eats alone in his office at work, he watches baseball alone in the ‘family room’ after his youngest daughter’s suicide, and seems terribly unaware of his wife’s fascist control over their daughters. Furthermore, Mr. Lisbon is a distant and detached father: he loves his children, but finds them to be complete strangers, having no understanding of the (conceptual) place in which they live, as teenage girls. In this sense, Mr. Lisbon’s role is less that of a father, but more of a ‘cop’: he disciplines his children, as need be, according a certain moral imperative, although it is actually his wife (Mrs. Lisbon) who is involved in the daughters’ day-to-day issues.

Yet another case: Edward Scissorhands. In this classic 1990 Tim Burton film, Edward (Johnny Depp) is an unexpected visitor that wrecking havoc in a suburban neighbourhood of candy-coloured, cookie-cutter houses and gossipy housewives. (On a side note: The ‘true’ protagonist of this tale may be the pitiable Peg Boggs (Dianne West) – the local Avon lady – so hapless and lonely that she visits a deserted mansion (and finds Edward), locates and nurtures a neglected android if only to reassure her sense of self-worth.) The mysterious Edward is an outsider – or “a perversion of nature”, as one neighbour laments – and as such, he cannot act like the other men in the tale, as a suburban ‘cityman’. The other men – ‘the husbands’, as they are referred to – lack any unique or individual features, and are therefore referred to as a collective of clones. At a very specific and reliable time each day, ‘the husbands’ depart for their unidentified white-collar jobs en masse, their pastel-coloured station wagons and four-door vehicles forming a single-file line through the suburb to the distant city. These ‘citymen’ remain physically and entirely outside of the text for the majority of the storyline, and are therefore unable to develop any personal character traits throughout the course of the film (or throughout their lives, if the film is to be considered realistically.) When ‘the husbands’ finally arrive home from work, each respective wife flocks home to attend to needs of her husband, and there – during ‘family supper’ – the ‘cityman’ will be able to enact one (or more) of his typical roles. In this film, and in many fictional suburban texts, the men remain outside of the natural dialogue and progression of the film, occasionally interjecting with anecdotes and fatherly ‘words of wisdom’. In Edward Scissorhands, for example, one unnamed ‘cityman’ gives Edward some token wisdom: “Sweetheart, you can’t buy the necessities of life with cookies”.

This faux-‘wordly advice’ typifies the characteristics, or lack thereof, of the ‘cityman’ in suburban texts. Whereas the ‘housewife’ is restricted to and trapped by the confining boundaries of suburbia, seldom to grace the border to urban life, the ‘cityman’ has been removed – physically, emotionally and/or psychologically – from the private sphere of domestic (and community) living in suburbia.

If, then, the ‘housewife’ is the emblem of suburbia, and represents all of its supposed perfection, her counterpart (and antithesis), the ‘cityman’ emblemizes the imperfections, gaps, and flaws of suburbia. He and suburbia are underdeveloped, without characterization, lacking in uniqueness, lacking in presence. Perhaps contemporary critiques of suburbia, then, represent an unconscious desire to critique the ‘cityman’ – the stereotypical dull, cubicle-working, American husband and father lacking individuality – and by extension, to critique the banality and mediocrity of the American Dream for which so many strive.

ENDNOTES

  1. “Levittown” The New Oxford American Dictionary, second edition. Ed. Erin McKean. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. McGill University. 1 August 2005
  2. “Suburb” A Dictionary of Geography. Susan Mayhew. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. McGill University. 1 August 2005
  3. “Suburbanism” A Dictionary of Sociology. Ed. Gordon Marshall. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. McGill University. 1 August 2005
  4. “Suburbia” A Dictionary of Architecture. James Stevens Curl. Oxford University Press 1999. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. McGill University. 1 August 2005
  5. The existence of a course such as this on the ‘Suburban Dream’ is a testament to this.
  6. Perhaps in the same way that flag-burning is the most easily recognizable way to express contempt for or disapproval of American government or politics, a sociological attack on the housewife is a recognizable way to critique suburban values and idealism.
  7. Desperate Housewives. Episode 1: Pilot. ABC, 3 October 2004. Approx. 45 min.
  8. Ibid.
  9. American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening. 1999.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne West. 1990.
  12. Ibid.

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