Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.

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?

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?

Do suburbanites watch screeds about suburbia?

I recently read a review of a new documentary that addresses the housing issues and racism of the American suburbs. This led me to a question: do Americans in a largely suburban country watch films that directly criticize the suburbs?

I made a list of the first movies that came to mind as being known for their critique of suburban life. I have also included their box office earnings:

American Beauty – 1999 – $356 million

Far From Heaven – 2002 – $29 million

Pleasantville – 1998 – $49 million

Revolutionary Road – 2008 – $75 million

Stepford Wives – 1975 and 2004 – $4 million, $102 million

This is not an exhaustive list at all though it does quickly become tricky to determine whether a film is truly about suburbia and its way of life or the plot is simply set there.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. There is clearly an audience for such films. Not all of them were blockbusters but they made decent money.
  2. Some more data would be useful such as how much money was made on each film and how these box office figures compare to other films of their time.

Based on the research I have done on suburban-set popular television shows, I would guess television shows that try to critique suburbia do not tend to be popular.

 

 

Maybe Suburbicon failed because it has a well-worn suburban storyline

Suburbicon did not do well in its opening weekend: low box office receipts and abysmal responses from critics. While critics had a variety of concerns, could one of the issues be that the film has a suburban plot that is familiar? View the trailer here and the Google summarizes the plot this way:

Suburbicon is a peaceful, idyllic, suburban community with affordable homes and manicured lawns — the perfect place to raise a family, and in the summer of 1959, the Lodge family is doing just that. But the tranquil surface masks a disturbing reality, as husband and father Gardner Lodge must navigate the town’s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit and violence.

Even with the Coen brothers presumably putting their own twist on things, plenty of novels, movies, and television shows (from the The Crack in the Picture Window to The Stepford Wives to American Beauty to Weeds) have explored a similar premise: beneath pleasant-looking white middle-class suburbia are deep secrets, unrest, and residents waiting to be violent and exclude others. It is even a regular theme in horror films. To stand out from this crowd, the new cultural product needs to be pretty interesting.

Additionally, I am not sure that all suburban residents take kindly to such portrayals. Some of these depictions are thinly veiled critiques of all of suburban life. While they may contain a grain of truth, the majority of Americans live in suburbs. Many of them feel that they worked hard to make it to their suburban location and will put up quite a fight if they feel their quality of life is threatened. Put it another way, with all of the negative portrayals of suburban life in six decades of mass suburbia after World War II, it may be surprising that Americans still moved there and often stayed.

Miniaturize yourself to afford a McMansion

Here is a (fanciful) way to truly downsize and still acquire a McMansion:

Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an overstretched man in an overstretched world, working as an occupational therapist down at Omaha Steaks and still living in the house where he was born. Paul hungers for a fresh start and finds it courtesy of the newfangled technique of “cellular miniaturisation”, which promptly shrinks the recipient to a height of five inches. This technique has apparently been pioneered by scientists out in Norway, although one might just as easily claim that Payne has been doing it for years. Films like Election, Sideways and Nebraska, for instance, spotlighted a burgeoning crisis in American masculinity, focusing on men who fear that they’re seen as small by the world. With the excellent Downsizing, Payne has simply gone that extra mile.

The benefits for Paul are clear from the outset. As a little man, he costs less and consumes less. His assets of $152,000 convert to a whopping $12m in the bonsai community of Leisureland Estates, which means that he can now afford a McMansion or a luxury bachelor pad, like one of those cash-poor Londoners who sells their Hackney flat and then buys up half of Rotherham. A flick of the switch and the process is complete. Afterwards the nurses return to theatre and lift the clients from their beds aboard small steel spatulas…

The point, of course, is that glass-domed Leisureland is merely America in microcosm, with all the same corruption and wealth-disparity, loneliness and strife. Neither does it exist in splendid isolation. If the outside world starts to burn, then Leisureland is all-but guaranteed to go down in flames too.

It sounds like the McMansion critics win in the end in this fantasy land.

Seriously though, wouldn’t many Americans want to say they had both downsized as well as acquired a sizable and well-appointed house? Here is how this could happen:

  1. Given the size of many new houses in recent years, people could downsize – lose 1,000+ square feet – and still have really large houses.
  2. Downsizing does not necessarily mean giving up amenities. What if someone gives up a large home for a smaller home but it has all the latest features or is located in the trendy neighborhood? Downsizing can be associated with trying to live a simpler life but this could be hard for many.

We’ll have to wait and see what those with the potential to downsize – largely Baby Boomers – actually do.