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American Suburbia in Alf and Desperate Housewives British and American TV Series in the Classroom Re


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Title: American Suburbia in Alf and Desperate Housewives British and American TV Series in the Classroom Re

American Suburbia inAlf and Desperate
HousewivesBritish and American TV Series in
the Classroom Regensburg, 19 May 2006Prof.
Dr. Udo HebelAmerican Studies / University of
Introductory Presentation 1 American
Suburbanization Historical Survey and
Recent Trends 2 American Suburbia
Between Apology and Damnation 3
American Suburbia in American TV Series Sample
Scenes from Alf and Desperate Housewives Plenar
y Discussion
1 American SuburbanizationHistorical Survey and
Recent Trends
beginnings of modern suburbanizationØ      late
eighteenth-century England / especially
LondonØ      separation of work and residence
 general definition (following the Census
categories) the portion of a metropolitan area
located outside of central cities
America 1830s / 1840s Ø      complexities of
city lifeØ      development of transportation
technologies  earliest American suburbs in the
Northeast        Philadelphia        New
York        Boston
A. J. Downing / Frederick Law Olmsteadthe
ideal suburb is a consciously designed
landscape filled with handsome houses in
picturesque styles
Riverside (Chicago)Ø      spacious lots for
single-family residences Ø     
gardens and lawnsØ      winding roads Ø     
recreational areasØ      commuter connections
two major consequences Ø      separation of
workplace and residence for the father
of the suburban familyØ      the suburb as a
space dominated by women and children
during the day and family activities /
social life at night and during
weekends and holidays
1920sØ      suburbs grow faster than central
citiesØ      Commerce Department propagates
Better Homes for more American
families Ø      zoning laws specifications
for construction social homogeneityØ      Home
Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC)
building-appraisal methods and neighborhood
post-World War II America suburban nation
(Duany 2000) United States of
Suburbia (Thomas 1998) Ø      GI bill
(Veterans Administration VA) / programs of
Federal Housing Authority (FHA)Ø     
federal tax code provides for tax deductions
Ø      national and state highway construction
programs of the 1950sØ      increasing spread of
cars Ø      standardization of house
construction and mass-production of
low-cost family houses Ø      Levittowns
Ezra Stoller, Aerial View of Levittown, 1955
B2, Levi1
some statistics (Thomas 1998)Ø      1940 21
of all Americans live in suburbs Ø      1950
27 Ø      1960 34 Ø      1970 38 Ø     
1980 40 Ø      1990 42 ( 102
million)Ø      2000 Census suburban areas home
to more than 50 of all Americans (some
140 million)
political impact Ø     U.S. News World Report
December 30, 1991 The Suburbs Will
Dominate Politics As Never Before In the
1992 presidential election, more than half of all
voters will live in the suburbs.
Suburbs have traditionally been Republican
but the recession offers an opening for
Democrats. Ø     G. Scott Thomas, The United
States of Suburbia (1998) Suburban voters
now hold the reins of political power and
will dictate Americas course in the
twenty-first century. Ø     U.S. News World
Report September 8, 2003 election
strategists target Hispanic suburban soccer
moms in Texas, Florida, and California 
Ø      segregated and culturally exclusiveØ     
white flightbut increase of ethnic
populationØ      1990 19 2000 27Ø     
ethnic pluralization of American suburbia Ø     
melting pot metros (William Frey)
other changes and developmentsØ      from
residential spaces to multifunctional units
       shopping facilitiesmallsbusiness
facilities        exurbsedge
citiespost-urban cities  Ø      more
diverse social stratification         working-cl
ass families         economic instability
gated communities Ø      single-income
(two-parent) family no longer the rule
2 American SuburbiaBetween Apology and Damnation
some cultural implicationsØ      the ideal of
individual land- and house-ownership
corresponds to notions of personal independence
and private property Ø      the
suburban family home as the twentieth-century
continuation of the nineteenth-century
Christian family home  Ø      construction of
America as middle class culture
Ø      suburban neighborhood and
wholesome community spirit         Tupperware
Suburban Tupperware Party, c. 1956
Invitation to a Tupperware Bridal Shower Party
Ø      suburbia as modern-day American Arcadia
and pastoral idyll            suburban
lawn           agrarian ideal
Flower Grower, February 1944
American Home, May 1953
B2, U.S. News
some quotesØ     suburbia, as well as the
proverbial Bomb, is one motivation for
the present rebellion Ø      suburbiathe end
of a decent human existence Ø      Alan
Ginsberg invisible suburbsØ      David
Riesman suburban sadness Ø      Betty
Friedan those ugly and endless sprawls which
are becoming a national problem
critiqueØ      architectural, social, and
individual boredom Ø      conformity,
uniformity, confinement, group pressure Ø     
routine, artificialitysterility,
paralysisØ      superficiality and
inauthenticityØ      social exclusiveness
Ø      traditional gender roles Ø     
appearance and performance Ø      conspicuous
consumptionØ      existential alienation and
personal deformation Ø      mediocrity,
complacency, hypocrisyØ      traditional
Anglocentric definition of suburbia Ø     
dysfunctional families Ø      emotional and
sexual frustrationØ      suburban sprawlthe
suburban wasteland
 the quintessential physical achievement of the
United States that is perhaps more
representative of its culture than big cars, tall
buildings, or professional football (Kenneth
Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier The
Suburbanization of America, 1985) the
exemplary national landscape of postmodern and
postindustrial culture (Catherine Jurca, White
Diaspora The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century
American Novel, 2001) ButHow American are
the American suburbs?Are we not rather talking
about an international transnational
phenomenon that is mediated globally by e.g.
(American) TV series?
3 American Suburbia in American TV Series
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet October 1952
September 1966
Father Knows Best October 1954 September 1962
Leave It to Beaver October 1957 September 1963
The Donna Reed Show September 1958 September
        popularity of TV seriesgrowth of
suburbs         social construction of
suburbia as a positive norm        family
ensemble breadwinner father,
homemaker mother, and growing children        
lagging behind demographic and economic realities
        perpetuating the idea(l) of suburbia in
the American collective imagination
        single-family detached suburban home
        identical house and floor
plans        opening shots and/or credit
sequences focused on the home
        move into the sheltered interior
Father Knows Best
Father Knows Best October 1954 September 1962
7th Heaven August 1996 -
My Big Fat Greek Life February 2003 -2004
American Family2002-
two examples Alf / Desperate Housewives
  • continued productivity and power of ideology
    but different points in time / changes /
    different contexts
  • lend themselves well to comparisons
  • adolescent protagonists (of different kinds)
  • international media presence and success
    issue of Americanness?

ALF September 1986 April 1990
some guiding questions / issues
  • continuation of family programs of 1950s /1960s
    and their ideologies
  • repertoire of early family sitcoms (introductory
    shot interior settings family interaction)
  • mainly conventional, affirmative representation
    of American suburbia / suburbanites (esp. e.g.,
    family values)

  • outside / ethnographic perspective useful for
    EFL classes / cultural studies
  • stock scenes / culturally indicative episodes
    (e.g, Christmas, gardening, episodes focused on
    gender roles)
  • humor / sitcom qualities

  • Desperate Housewives 2004-

some guiding questions / issues
  • still indebted to suburban family series
    (setting / repertoire) but reflecting seminal
    changes, e.g.
  • ethnic / social puralization of American
  • changing family structures single parent
  • changing gender roles and responses (esp.
    working women,
  • showing womens frustrations)

  • generational conflicts prominent (and more
  • realistic)
  • social / group pressure more obvious
  • economic issues more obvious
  • elements of crime drama / secret(s)

For a longer version of this presentation
(especially of sections 1 and 2), comments on
further teaching materials (literary texts,
movies, visual arts / photography, songs etc.),
and extended bibliographical references, see
Udo Hebel . American Suburbia History,
Ideologies, Visual and Literary Representations.
Visual Culture in the American Studies Classroom.
Ed. Udo Hebel and Martina Kohl. Vienna RPO,
2005. 183-216.