Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

American men have 30 minutes of more leisure time a day and use half of it to watch TV

Sociologist Liana Sayer tracks the leisure time of Americans by gender, finds a half hour gap between men and women (5 hours and 30 minutes versus 4 hours and 59 minutes), and looks at how men spend that extra time:

What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory…

Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup…

Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written

The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”

Television continues to have an outsized pull on the leisure time of Americans. This could change over time and the options for leisure seem to have exploded in recent decades, but even younger Americans seem drawn to television, just in through different means such as watching on phones or computers. I wonder for how many Americans television is the default leisure activity when they have no other other or limited leisure options.

I’m sure others have explored this but these time use findings would be interesting to connect to what it means to be a man in the United States: you watch a certain amount of television. Does it matter more what men watch (sports, action shows, etc.) or how much they watch? What cultural expectations do they pick up regarding how much television to watch and how exactly is this passed down?

 

 

Looking for the HGTV show that prioritizes fit and well-being, not budget and square footage

Reflecting on yesterday’s post on the dissonance of watching Marie Kondo in a McMansion, I wondered: where are the television shows that prioritize finding a home based on the social and psychological needs of the owners and their long-term health rather than emphasizing running up against the budget and maximizing the size of the home?

The easy answer is that these are not the homes or stories that Americans want to see. People want to get as much as they can within their budget. The overall price of the home and the size makes for interesting viewing across different locales.

Yet, I imagine there is some sort of viewership market for those who would rather emphasize how a home would fit their lifestyle. This occasionally comes through on HGTV but tends to be subsumed under concerns about budget and the size. Where are the people buying smaller homes and or cheaper homes because they appreciate the aesthetics of a particular home or because a smaller home is easier to clean and maintain or that cheaper and smaller home is near friends and family which are more important than their private home? Or, perhaps there could be a show about how relatively normal people purchase homes and then tweak them to fit their particular needs or interests.

If more homeowners are truly interested in long-term well-being, evidenced by interest in decluttering or options like the Not So Big House, it may be a while before they see this reflected on TV. Too many current shows are limited by budget and square feet to truly consider the well-being of the owners.

Can you tidy up with Marie Kondo in a McMansion?

A review of the new show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo contrasts organizing with purchasing a McMansion:

Stylistically, Tidying Up is gentle. Marie Kondo is a soothing presence—never soporific, somehow, but always engaging. She is twee, almost unbearably so, which is an affect not really seen in American television personalities. About 15 minutes into every episode, Kondo takes a moment to commune with the house, selecting a spot in the residence and kneeling in silent reverence. This goes on for longer than feels comfortable; sometimes the subjects join her, and sometimes they seem like they’re enjoying it. Conflict, when it happens, feels softer than it would on House Hunters, where couples routinely argue with increasing venom over the necessity of a mudroom in the home of their dreams.

The beauty of Marie Kondo’s world is that tidying is not punishment. She subverts the chore of cleaning by imbuing it with a radical sense of self-improvement. Unlike the underlying economic status anxiety that colors all of HGTV’s offerings, Tidying Up is more self-help than self-defeat. The home improvements, and by extension, life improvements, come not from buying a McMansion in Indiana, but from clearing life’s detritus out of your home to make way for something else.

The end of the review posits a dichotomous choice: either buying a McMansion to assuage status anxiety or tidying up to feel better.

But, I imagine many Americans would want to try to do both: purchase the McMansion or a large home and find a way to organize and declutter that home so that they feel better. Yet, this path seems to go against the path Kondo and others would prefer where Americans can’t have it all and have to make choices about their lives to prioritize well-being. Having a large home helps people feel like they can purchase and acquire more stuff. Having a bigger home is part of a consumer culture where buying bigger and more is a good thing.

One important step to the Kondo life would then be to not purchase the biggest home possible. How many Americans would be willing to do that or is it simply easier to buy into a tidying strategy that could be utilized in any home?

Comfort of suburbia allows for the flourishing of comedy and creativity?

I recently ran across a Will Ferrell quote where he discusses where his brand of comedy developed:

“I’ve got no dark secrets, I wasn’t beaten up, my parents were kind to me and there was a low crime rate where we lived. Maybe that’s where the comedy comes from, as some sort of reaction to the safe, boring suburbs. Although, I gotta say, I never had any resentment of the place. I loved the suburbs”, he told The Observer.

Right before this quote, the profile suggests this bucolic upbringing is unusual:

Oddly for a comedian, his was a golden and uneventful Californian childhood.

Rather than a reaction to adversity, it sounds like Ferrell had a number of advantages – including later attending USC – that gave him freedom to explore comedy. Or, perhaps this relative comfort channeled his energy into more zany humor rather than dark humor.

I am not sure it is worth a full study to explore the connections between place of upbringing and how this affects comedians but a broader look at place of upbringing and artistic creativity more broadly could provide interesting. Given that America is largely a suburban nation today, are the majority of its creative types from the suburbs or from cities? The biggest cities have long been upheld as more cosmopolitan and cultured places in addition to often serving as homes of clusters of artists and performers. In comparison, stereotypes of conformist and homogeneous suburbs abound even as a good number of those who grew up there would have had opportunities that may not have been available elsewhere.

Another quick thought: how many celebrities and famous today would freely admit “I loved the suburbs”?

Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part Two

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Part Two today:

George spirals downward because of financial problems at the savings and loan. Additionally, he was not sure about a life running the family business (which he thought his brother Harry would do). In the end, he finds joy in his family and friends in the community. The local relationships, from the local girl he married to the people who utilized the savings and loan, provide him reasons to keep living.

Yet, since the film came out (1946), Americans have moved away from the close-knit relationships. This has happened in two noticeable ways. The shift to suburbs from both big cities and more rural areas led to different kinds of social ties. Suburbanites can be fairly transient and build relationships around avoiding open conflict (see The Moral Order of a Suburb) and through local institutions (like school districts rather than because of immediate geographic proximity.

Additionally, sociologists and others have suggested Americans have fewer close friendships. Even if our social media and online friends and followers have exploded, these are different kinds of relationships compared to close relationships with people with interact with regularly in-person. Furthermore, advice columnists regularly suggest seeing therapists or counselors, more impartial third-party professionals, to work out issues.

Clarence shows George that the lives of those who cares about would be markedly different if he was not around. The closing scene finds the townspeople rallying around George and a proclamation that he is rich because of his relationships. How many people today would hope for such an ending? (Granted, this is a film so how often such joyous community celebrations happened is unknown.)

Of course, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life may just be its nostalgia for an age that seems long gone. In an often harried and disconnected world, Americans may yearn for a (fictional?) world where the good guys win, local companies and residents help each other, people have rich friendships, and people live in small towns. But, if anything, our collective decisions since the release of the film have likely moved us further away from these realities.

Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part One

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Specifically, I will discuss two key themes and how American society has trended away from the lessons of the story.

The main villain, Mr. Potter, runs a heartless bank. In contrast, George Bailey continues in the family business and operates the local savings & loan. George wants to help local residents get into a new single-family home (which look like they are part of a new suburban subdivision). George ends up being the hero as he is a compassionate local businessman while Mr. Potter is cruel.

But, hasn’t the large, impersonal, profit-driven bank won out in American society, particularly as it comes to providing funding for single-family homes? Even as the film was made (in 1947), significant changes in the mortgage industry were already underway to help provide more long-term mortgages and government support for private mortgages. As the decades passed, more and more local banks were bought by national and international banks. The savings and loans organizations disappeared, particularly toward the end of the 20th century. The housing bubble of the late 2000s largely involved huge financial institutions who had invested in mortgages. The situation is a far cry from the era depicted in the film.

The megabanks of today may be more impersonal than cruel but the idea is the same: they do not have as much interest in local communities as George Bailey and his family. George’s institution needs to make money and he seems to be doing okay with a home and job. but it also feels a responsibility toward local residents. Even if Americans say they like the idea of small businesses and local businesses that part of communities, haven’t they given over control or assented to a financial system dominated by large firms?