ABC’s hit anti-suburbia series, “Desperate Housewives,” continued its winning ways on Jan. 16 at the Golden Globes, where it picked up an award for best comedy, and star Teri Hatcher was named best actress in a comedy. Since its premiere in October, “Desperate Housewives” has hit the 24.6 million viewer mark in a single night and provoked national controversy with its Nicollette Sheridan/Terrell Owens sex ad.
It has also triggered massive conservative consternation. American Decency Association president Bill Johnson calls the show “nasty and destructive to the American family … cultural-rotting programming.” Parents Television Council founder L. Brent Bozell III says that “‘Desperate Housewives’ really should have an even more obvious title, like ‘Cynical Suburban Sluts.'”
Portraying suburbia as a morally hypocritical, empty, sick place is nothing new for Hollywood elites. As Roberto Rivera writes in Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint Online, “‘Desperate Housewives’ follows in a 50-year-old tradition of depicting suburban life, especially the lives of suburban women, as a barren wasteland.” “American Beauty,” winner of the 1999 Best Picture Oscar, depicted suburbia as the home of closet homosexuals, pedophiles, druggies, adulterers and adulteresses – in short, the heartland of repression and hypocrisy. “The Stepford Wives” (1975) and its subsequent 2004 remake turn suburbia into a location where independent women become conformist robots. Suburbia by design in 1998’s “The Truman Show” is menacing in its fraudulent friendliness.
But are the suburbs truly a place where women are suppressed and men are robots, where soulless people live soulless lives, where money is king and morality is hypocrisy? Of course not. I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in suburbia. Some women work, and some men work. There are religious people and atheists. There are good kids and bad kids. Suburbia is a diverse place.
Hollywood slaps labels on suburbia because the elites detest the 1950s. They feel that today’s suburbia attempts to imitate a time when suburbanites largely shared communal bonds and values. The clean streets and clean lifestyles of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” deeply offend liberal elites. They feel that seething beneath the surface must be something cruel and inhumane. In “Pleasantville” (1998), a 1950’s show becomes the setting for a modern makeover; the world is dull black and white until sex, individuality and moral subjectivism blossom onto the scene, bringing color to life. In “Far From Heaven” (2002), the shiny facade of the 1950s hides closet homosexuality and wifely misery.
The 1950s weren’t paradise (segregation was a profound moral blot), but they weren’t as morally corrupt as any of the decades since. The 1960s brought individuality for individuality’s sake; the 1970s brought national malaise; the 1980s slowed the process of moral decay, but didn’t stop it; the 1990s were a pale imitation of the 1960s. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to the kind of cleanliness, neighborliness and communal moral unity that existed in the 1950s.
There’s another deep criticism implicit in Hollywood’s hatred for suburbia: suburbia as representation of capitalism. In this view, suburbia, and in particular suburban sprawl and flight, represent the desire to escape poverty, to “shut out” certain lifestyles. The liberals who rip suburbia would prefer that Americans be forced to live in one-room apartments off of Times Square in order to promote social integration and class interaction. They ignore the central reason for making money: to provide more freedom to do what you want and to provide freedom to escape from what you don’t.
John Cheever, in his anti-suburbia novel “Bullet Park,” describes one character, Nailles, as the representative of suburban life – Eliot Nailles is a churchgoing, antidepressant-addicted father and husband. Nailles describes suburbia as a place of “freedom and independence … you and I know that the blacks who live in those firetraps down along the river don’t have any freedom or independence in the choice of what they do and where they live.” The reader is supposed to marvel at the irony of a life-by-rote character championing suburbia as the source of his freedom and independence.
But isn’t Nailles correct? Suburbia is a decent representation of the American dream. Ideal suburbia represents the wish to rise in the world, to have a home of one’s own, to raise a family and children within communal morality. It represents the essence of capitalism and of basic American morality. It may sound hackneyed, but suburbia is apple pie and ice cream and baseball, church picnics and soccer meets and family dinners. Why shouldn’t Americans want all that?