Being there: the real suburban America

Photo originally appeared on inhabitat.com

In the 1979 Jerzy Kosinski film “Being There” Chance the gardener, portrayed by Peter Sellers, gained his knowledge of American society entirely from what he viewed on television. Simple and sweet, his character was a satirical metaphor of how media numbs and distorts our perception of the outside world.

What would Chance think of American culture today, more specifically, those of us who live, work and play in suburbia? If he watched popular movies and television, he would learn that those of us who reside in bedroom communities are uniformly white, affluent, conservative, conformist, duplicitous, vacuous, simultaneously repressed and promiscuous, racist, and woefully clueless and uncool. As bad as the men are, women fare even worse.

In television, think “Desperate Housewives,” or their reality equivalents, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta, New Jersey, New York, Orange County, Beverly Hills,” et.al. To quote Orange County “Housewife” Alexis Bellino, ““Am I high maintenance? Of course I am. Look at me.” Yup, let’s celebrate being shallow slutty rich shrews. Yum.

In the mood for a few laughs? The ABC comedy “Suburgatory”  (Suburb + purgatory, get it?) mocks the triteness of cul-de-sac life. And the fun goes on…

Major Hollywood films slash suburban communities with an even sharper blade; showing a place where nobody is happy and dysfunction is king. The 1999 Academy Award winning movie “American Beauty” exposes the ugliness within: A dad sexually infatuated with his daughter’s best friend, a fatuous, materialistic mom, and to top it off—neo-Nazi neighbors. Other scathing depictions abound, from “Stepford Wives,”  “Pleasantville,”  “Ordinary People,”  “Little Children,”  “Revolutionary Road,” and the newest installment, this year’s Sundance Film Festival winner, “Nobody Walks.”

On the flip side, virtually any romantic comedy of the past 20 years from “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” to “27 Dresses” features uber-cool young adults living in funky lofts in cities like New York, Boston or Seattle with interesting, high-paying jobs, loyal friends, and plenty of sex with wildly attractive people. Wow. Let me in!

Sorry, Chance. Time to turn off the TV and breathe some fresh air. The suburbia of Hollywood and the One-percenters is largely a myth. Current census data and a 2011 Brookings Institution study report that the demographics of individuals who live outside of urban centers are far more diverse than typically portrayed. Here’s the real deal:

  • Today a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metropolitan areas live outside the city
  • One-third of American suburbanites are from racial or ethnic minorities
  • Suburbs are not solely the province of the affluent, with one-third of residents living below the poverty line
  • Suburbs range from older, smaller towns to sprawling new communities
  • Cultural vibrancy is swelling outside of the downtown districts; no longer do you have to take the Metro to see an indie movie or order foie gras.

That said, the traditional suburban lifestyle of playscapes, quality public schools, green spaces, tract houses, fast food, Rotarians, covered patios, and IKEA remains alive and well. And that’s okay. Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t selfish to enjoy a backyard barbeque or neighborhood bike ride. Maybe we aren’t so bad after all.


In “Being There,” Chance the gardener eventually learns that there is much beyond what he sees onscreen, saying, “This is just like television, only you can see much further.” If only our myopic media would do the same.

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