WHITE FLIGHT & STEPFORD WIVES

white-flight

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Well cinefriends October has come to an end, but the thrills and chills don’t have to stop there! White Flight and Stepford Wives: A look at the underbelly of suburbia, a cinema studies paper I wrote in the fall of 2011, explores the very real attitudes and motives of the past that led to some of the most popular stories in horror films of the future. Enjoy!

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In the 1975 film The Stepford Wives based on a novel of the same name by Ira Levin we meet Joanna Eberhart: a photographer and mother of two who moves out of New York city with her family and settles in the quiet suburbs of Stepford Connecticut. It is here the family believes their problems will dissipate with a healthy dose of fresh air and solitude, but under the Pleasantville like charm and seemingly perfect façade their lies a dangerous undercurrent. The perpetual fear of a homogenous society and loss or lack of individuality is a theme that has been explored in many films, particularly those in the horror and science fiction genres. The irony of the suburbs within both genres is that it is too good to be true; these films present the area as being two-faced, a utopian fantasy with dystopian levels. Yet the average white family moving out of the city and into the idyllic “burbs” is not a fictitious genre trope; during the 1940s and 50s thousands of American families moved out of the city, desiring to escape the mass influx of immigrants and the growing ethnic mix of the urban environment. This mass migration, known “White Flight” has given birth to some of the most memorable and iconic films we know and love today.

“White Flight” or the “flight of the middle class” (a more accurate term) is a term describing the mass departure of the newfound Caucasian middle class from the city to the suburbs. This “flight” took off due to the passing of the G.I. Bill, a bill that gave rise to the American middle class and provided vocational education for veterans returning from World War II. With its passing veterans or G.I.s were now able to attend college and start training in a specific field of study. This bill was passed in 1944 and with that knowledge one can gain a better understanding of the “Baby Boom” that took place the following year. With the influx of veterans now established in their new careers it is only natural for many of them to desire a family. This generation of “Baby Boomers” (1945-1961/62) spiked not only the fertility rates that had dropped during the depression but the economy as well, including the motion picture industry. Naturally the cities that the veterans were returning to did not resemble the “picturesque” communities of the suburbs they would eventually move into, picturesque meaning all white. A reasonable case can be made that the suburban flight of whites, which occurred immediately after World War II, resulted in part from racial motivations (Frey 426). Laura Pulido, author of Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California explores environmental and spatial forms of racism. Although the paper specifically uses Southern California as case study it does make a good point; “whites have secured relatively cleaner environments by moving away from older industrial cores via suburbanization” (12). This self-segregation represents the drastic reaction to racial integration within an urban environment that peaked during the 1950s, creating the 50s housewife that would later be satirized in The Stepford Wives.

The suburban appeal is apparent; the setting is far from the dangers of the city, there is more land making it an idea location to raise a large family, there are little to no immigrants (or any ethnic group of any kind) and everything appears to be in order. It is a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds” according to Hemingway, one that is synonymous with the word boring, but in recent years the artistic portrayal of the suburbs has taken on a more sinister tone. In the national public radio (NPR) interview with director Todd Field (Little Children, 2006) by Neda Ulaby she states that “in American fiction, TV and film, suburbia has long stood as shorthand for repression”. It is even apparent in music, Greenday’s music video for their single entitled Jesus of Suburbia shows a young punk who has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother and spends most of his time loitering around convenient stores. Unhappiness, lies, and hidden agendas have become suburban staples and tend to cross the border into a cliché. That is why the “white flight” from the city makes the perfect backdrop for horror or science fiction films; the “flight” itself was a form of alienation, an act on the American dream that, either consciously or subconsciously opening the door to a warped perspective.

One film, or rather opening sequence that best illustrates this is David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet. In the opening scene we are introduced to an idyllic 1950s suburb; a man who was watering his lawn suddenly suffers a heart attack and falls, from there the camera travels onto the lawn and sinks below the grass, reveling the insects that are essentially ripping each other apart. An obvious metaphor representing the clandestine discord that festers below the sunny and pleasant exterior the suburbs prides itself on possessing. There is also the 2005 film Hide and Seek whose basic plot is after what appears to be the suicide of her mother a young girl named Emily moves with her father to a quiet neighborhood in upstate New York. It is believed that the move from the city will ease Emily’s mind but it does the opposite and proves to be more dangerous than the city she grew up in. History professor Matt Lassiter states that the notion of perfect suburban blandness may give us a safe way to talk about difficult things (Ulaby). In the case of films like The Stepford Wives that blandness represents is a sign of conformity.  The fear of being one and the same dates back to the original film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Twilight Zone episode entitled The Number 12 Looks Just Like You. No monsters lurk within the closets of these stories because the real fear is the fear of being replaced. That is precisely why the original cinematic adaptation of The Stepford Wives is the perfect example of the suburban nightmare.

In both the novel and the film audiences are aligned with the character of Joanna Eberhart; a photographer and mother of two. We learn that she and her family are the newest residents of Stepford CT and that they moved from New York to feel “safe” and start anew. Stepford is everything a middle class white suburban area set out to be; clean, safe, friendly, perfect, yet the longer Joanna remains in Stepford the more sinister it becomes. Joanna’s husband joins a men’s only society and begins to spend all of his time with them and Joanna begins to notice that the wives of the men of Stepford are a little too good to be true. The notion that Stepford would be safer than New York is quickly shattered when Joanna’s fears are confirmed by the zombie-esque nature of the wives. As the film unfolds we learn that Joanna is not the only one who believes something is wrong, her new friend Bobbie thinks something is off as well. In one scene one of the Stepford wives repeats “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe” over and over at a party, her expression a permanent mask of pleasantness. Joanna soon discovers that the meetings her husband has been attending at the Men’s club are the leaders of a conspiracy and are replacing their wives with robotic versions of themselves in the form of the perfect 50s housewife.

In one of the films two terrifying scenes Joanna visits her friend Bobbie to see if she is looking after her children only to discover through stabbing her that she is no longer her open minded, witty friend but a narrow and rigid wife whose sole purpose is to please her husband. It may sound a bit silly but the way The Stepford Wives is presented is a brilliant commentary on suburbanization. Sadly in the end Joanna is introduced to her robot counterpart and we are led to believe that she kills her as well. The pair is identical; one would never know which Joanna is the real one if it were not for the unfinished eyes on the robot version. They are pitch black and devoid of any soul, Joanna is just another poor resident to loose her individuality to the suburbs becoming a shallow, repressed housewife, but being forced to like it.

It is the insects killing each other in Blue Velvet, aliens taking over unsuspecting victims in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the perfect 50s housewives in the suburbs of Stepford. It is the picturesque eeriness of it all, the place that is too perfect and too good to be true. Where something is wrong but you cannot quite put your finger on it.

WORKS CITED

Frey, William H. Central city white flight: Racial and nonracial causes. American Sociological Review (1979): 425-448.
Pulido, Laura. Rethinking environmental racism: White privilege and urban development in Southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90.1 (2000): 12-40.
Ulaby,Neda. Popular Culture’s Evolving View of the Suburbs. Weekend Edition Saturday. 7 Oct. 2006. Radio.

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That’s it for October! I really enjoy sharing my work and look forward to the cinematic adventures of next month, thank you for reading!!

the-end

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