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Despite this apparent contempt, Frank does in fact desperately want to fit in with the happy crowd he suggests he otherwise despises, but April recognizes his hypocrisy as well as her own miserable lot in suburbia and takes her own life as a consequence. After April commits suicide, Frank's frantic reaction is not unlike the running part of the trip taken by Ned Merrill to reach a home that was no longer there, but the suburbia described by Yates is no place for such tragies. In this regard, Yates portrays suburbia as a hiding place from the real world that exists outside, all plastic and tinsel with little real substance:
The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. Proud floodlights were trained on some of the lawns, on some of the neat front doors and on the hips of some of the berthed, ice-cream colored automobiles. (Yates 1962, p. 237)
Clearly, for this ill-fated couple, suburbia was not only a problematic place, but a dangerous one as well.
In her book, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, Lynn Spigel, reports that the popular and positive perceptions of the American suburbs as a happy place was not the "Ozzie and Harriet," "Leave it to Beaver," and "Father Knows Best" type of image portrayed in the mainstream media, but rather the harsh reality of suburbia was much different. For example, Spigel notes that, "The postwar suburb was often described as a land of 'fishbowl' houses where the view was not of postcard landscapes but of busybody neighbors next door" (2001, p. 2).
Nevertheless, this author emphasizes that such television programming during this era represented the primary way that suburban families learned about what they should be like and what they should be experiencing in their new lives in the suburbs. Like the differences in self-esteem concerning what an individual perceives to be their intended lot in life and the actual realities that form its basis, this discrepancy between what was perceived to be the American dream and what it was in reality resulted in countless disillusioned Americans who relied on their televisions to tell them what to think. In this regard, Spigel writes, "Given its ability to merge private and public spaces, television was the ideal companion for these suburban homes. In 1946, Thomas Hutchinson published a popular book designed to introduce television to the general public, Here is Television, Your Window on the World" (p. 33).
This actual "window on the world," though, provided a vision of American life in the suburbs that only a lucky few could realize. The lot for most suburbanites appears to be that described by Waldie: "You look out your kitchen window to the bedroom window of your neighbor precisely fifteen feet away" (pp. 11-12). It is little wonder, then, that there were so many "busybodies" in the suburbs because it hard to miss virtually anything that transpired in the neighborhood. These lives of quiet desperation held some severe outcomes for many suburbanites that were far beyond the problematic in ways that were not restricted to males alone. As Waldie reports, "A woman nine blocks west of my street woke up early one morning and went to the garage. She took a gallon of gasoline... And poured it around the foundation of the house. She set the gasoline on fire and waited quietly for in the dawn for the flames to build. When the fire engines arrived, the trees in the front yard had turned black, and the woman had already been taken away" (p. 30). While Waldie does not provide any information concerning what became of the male of the family, the episode suggests that life for this American male was certainly problematic and perhaps dangerous as well.
The research showed that in many cases, life in the American suburbs of the 20th century was in fact a problematic existence, and downright dangerous for some. The research showed that the authors and screenwriter reviewed in this paper provided a fairly grim view of American suburbia, with many of the characters living in these sequestered areas being described in less than admirable terms. While there were certainly problems associated with life in the suburbs, there were also problems associated with living in the inner city that far outweighed the social issues that emerged as a result of the white flight to the American suburbs in the years following the end of World War II, and it would appear reasonable to conclude that the inner city was a far more dangerous place to live than suburbia. Nevertheless, the research also indicated that even the most affluent and secluded suburbs were not free of violent crime, and the desperation engendered by the popular perceptions of what life in the suburbs should be like and what is was in reality caused many Americans to question their lot in life and how they came to such a sorry state. It would seem that for every successful and happy American in the suburbs, there was also a Ned Merrill and Frank Wheeler living out lives of quiet desperation, with some finding the experience so devastating that they were compelled to take their own lives. Problematic? Certainly. Dangerous, perhaps. Not everyone experienced these levels of problems and danger in the suburbs, of course, but it seems apparent that life in suburbia was not was it was cracked up to be by the mainstream media, especially the television programming of the era, and many people wondered what they were doing wrong in their attempts to achieve the American dream as a result. This fundamental discrepancy between what was supposed to be and what was in reality contributed to this problematic existence for many people during this period in American history, a dichotomy that was fueled in large part by the media images of happy families living satisfied and fulfilled lives in the suburbs.
Spigel, Lynn. 2001. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Duke University Press).…[continue]
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