Suburbia and the Wilderness
The trope of Suburbia has long been used to create a familiar stage on which the battle between good and evil is played out, exploring our innate propensity for either. In a world of expansive digital connectivity and opportunity however, the established societal ideals around the moral goodness of suburbia are being challenged by our growing involvement in digital realities. Exposed to so much, it is no wonder we are beginning to look beyond our physical boundaries and agitating for more. Idealised suburbia is being physically and metaphorically reframed both in real life and on screen as we explore virtual and mystical worlds beyond it.
Conventional representations have familiarised us with the concept of the suburbs as complete social eco-systems. Inhabitants enjoy the safety and security of a traditional close-knit community, within which individuals indulge their voyeuristic tendencies, holding their neighbour’s morals to account with twitching curtains and prying eyes. These typically class-defined spaces are policed by unwritten rules and conventions, determining nuanced hierarchies within their predominantly middle-class communities. Whilst surveillance maintains stability, the iconic symbol of the white picket fence marks a physical and metaphorical boundary. They are designed to protect and preserve our territories from not only the undisclosed threat of the exterior world, but often from the neighbours themselves too. Suburban neighbourhoods rife with gossip, judgement and jealousy tread a fine line between the cosseted safety of privacy and the dangers of display.
This format highlights tensions between the status-quo and any deviation from the establishment. Issues of race, gender and class are often personified by the presence of an outsider, whose existence threatens to disrupt the eco system’s outward stability. These outside characters represent a contamination of a supposedly seamless social system, typically setting off a series of events exposing its hidden imperfections.
At first glance, this year’s hit TV series Big Little Lies offers no deviation from this formulaic approach, presenting us with an archetypal suburban tale. Viewers are invited into the unattainably luxurious homes and daily dramas of an incredibly affluent community. We are even given an ‘outsider’ character in the form of Jane Chapman, a low-income, single mother from Santa Cruz, whose near un-explained arrival in Monterey sets an almost farcical tone of suspicion and instability from the first episode.
However, Big Little Lies has a self-awareness many previous interpretations of suburbia such as Desperate Housewives, Pretty Little Liars and Breaking Bad, lack. Although these shows have also continually undermined idealized suburbia, their high drama plot lines and often overtly archetypal characters serve to constantly remind the viewer of their fictional nature. Maintaining the fourth wall in this way provides the audience with a recognisable motif which nonetheless remains removed from their reality.
In contrast, the relative subtlety of the drama played out in Big Little Lies makes the action more relatable to its audience. This combined with a seeming awareness of its wider cultural context places the fictional community into our world. By allowing us to intimately examine traditional suburban motifs, it calls to question their contemporary relevance. The introduction to our protagonists, for example, made through police interviews given by unnamed community members, sets up a pastiche-like portrayal of small town surveillance. Its focus on a privileged neighbourhood with a majority white cast amidst current discussions of white privilege and elitism shows suburbia as out of touch. Emphasising entrenched tensions with the outside world, Big Little Lies exposes how potentially dangerous the insularity of 1950s idealised suburbia can be.
The Wilderness: Motif and Metaphor
Big Little Lies also disrupts the physical boundaries of suburbia. By sending its women out of the quintessential suburban landscape, towards the wilderness of the Big Sur coastline, it pushes them right to the edge of the land itself. The familiarity of the white picket fence is replaced by the huge expanse of possibilities and the unknown.
The imagery of the Big Sur Coastline—Bixby Bridge in particular—is especially powerful in its inferred meaning. The women are often shown traversing this link between the built-up areas of Monterey and the isolated cliffs and ridges of Big Sur, setting boundaries between their public and personal lives. These journeys in and out of traditional suburban environments create distance within the closed community and communicate the character’s isolation within their castles atop the cliffs. The symbolism of the women’s homes, all standing alone at the water’s edge, adds to this as the ocean offers both freedom and an unequivocal parameter. This is an idea which is directly acknowledged by the show’s characters: “It’s something. It’s the big out there. The Ocean is powerful. Mostly its vast. Its full of mystery, full of life. Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface.”
In this line, the beautiful yet unpredictable force of the ocean is acknowledged. In making a reflexive reference to the perspective it lends the characters, the ocean becomes a metaphor for the suburbs themselves; seemingly peaceful and idyllic but beneath the surface lies potential for harm.
The quotidian of the suburbs is constantly pitched against the power of the Ocean. The water’s edge is where the women of the story often meet or confront their emotions, escaping their homes to stand and stare into “the great unknown”. The power of this natural boundary is a strong visual motif throughout the series, often matched with the raw energy of human emotion. In many scenes, we are shown women, wives and mothers, quite literally running towards these borders between the man-made and natural worlds, in search of answers.
This adds to the melancholy of the show. Whilst the isolated calm and safety of their environment is beautiful, the boundaries they gaze longingly across are beyond their own creation or control. This progression from picket fence into the affluent wilderness of Big Sur comments on conventional models of success and the growing prevalence of contemporary isolation—driven by busy lives lived increasingly online. A white picket fence, whose ideals of pristine uniformity and demarcation are no longer relevant in a culture of liminality, connectivity and mounting loneliness, is not a difficult barrier to dismantle, nor does it offer such an enviable view of life’s rich possibilities of progress. In these frontiers however, which more subtly offer alternate realities to their own, the characters can see infinite potential for good and bad beyond their own lives, creating a dichotomy between suburbia as a safe-haven and a trap.
This juxtaposition of reassuring familiarity beside the great unknown of the wilderness is a wider theme in current culture. Other shows are taking a more fantastical approach to the potential for alternate realities the unknown holds. The OA’s exploration of dimensions beyond our own addressed the limitations of suburban existence and the desire for something beyond the bleak landscape of the everyday. Stranger Things’ creation of the ‘upside down’ captured the world’s imagination, borrowing from classic 80’s suburban narratives of the spectre of evil within the safety of the suburbs, it played on growing societal anxieties around the fragility of community, especially in today’s political context.
In Twin Peaks the Return, David Lynch weaves a tangled web of surreal misunderstandings across an existence far broader than the suburbs allow. Here the encroaching wilderness of the dark forest surrounding the sleepy town offers a gateway into unexplained realities.
This is no longer a case of man-made versus the natural world. So, in a world where our interaction with reality is increasingly filtered and augmented by technology, what has made us turn to the wilderness in search of alternative planes of existence? The digital world is creating new topographies, mapping new dimensions accessible through our screens while feeding our desire to traverse realities. Perhaps the wilderness offers an escape from technology’s fragmentation of reality?
Shifting Space: Searching for Stability
Dissatisfaction and isolation in suburbia are by no means a new concept. However, these feelings are now amplified, and vividly manifest in the popularity of disorientating surroundings or impossible alternatives in TV shows set in suburbia. Whilst previously, dramas set in suburbia were driven by the actions of individuals, now, it is the overshadowing wilderness and realms beyond our understanding that dictate character’s lives. It appears contemporary suburbia has lost control of itself.
Despite this, it is likely that the suburbs will maintain their allure as comforting enclaves for those desiring to reclaim a sense of rootedness. The seemingly infinite and disorientating power of technology, which can generate a sense of futility and helplessness, is echoed by the fiercely mysterious wilderness that encroaches, symbolic of a fragmenting and dissolving of boundaries no longer relevant or desired in today’s world. The wilderness, at once empowering and intimidating—like evolving digital topographies—embodies both a threat to and escape from the conventional society of the suburbs. As we adapt to a world less concerned with demarcating physical spaces, we now all exist on the edge of this unknown. We look on, excited and paralysed by its infinite potential.
– Roberta Graham, Cultural Analyst