Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"Do You Smell Fumes?": Health, Hygiene, and Suburban Life

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"Do You Smell Fumes?": Health, Hygiene, and Suburban Life

Article excerpt

THE TYPOGRAPHICAL. SPECIFICITY THAT DISTINGUISHES the title of Todd Haynes's 1995 film [Safe] betrays the film's interest in questions of security, shelter, and well-being but also of interiority and identity. [Safe] is set in late eighties suburban Los Angeles and traces the physical and psychological deterioration of its protagonist, Carol White (Julianne Moore), as she suffers from an illness her doctors cannot identify. Increasingly desperate to understand her symptoms, Carol is drawn to a poster at her health club that asks, "Do you smell fumes?" After attending a seminar hosted by a new age ecological group, she begins to believe that her symptoms are triggered by environmental sensitivities. Such a diagnosis points to a contradiction at the heart of Carol's affluent suburban life. At the same time that suburbia, particularly the suburban home, is meant to foster a sense of security and a feeling of being nestled within its walls, safe from real as well as figurative contaminants, it also generates a sense of susceptibility, of being at risk from any number of unseen and unknown dangers that everyday life presents.

As much as the titular parentheses seem a typographic rendering of the walls of the suburban home or the gates of the suburban community, they also suggest that safety is a psychological matter, that it is less dependent on the actual existence of external threats than on the internal perception of one's own vulnerability. As such, suburbia is an expression of the desire to be safe, to find safety within by building barriers without. The film's clinical observation of Carol's decline suggests, however, that life in an environment characterized by the desire for safety, and which aspires to be both sterile and antiseptic, renders a person susceptible to a whole set of illnesses against which suburbia not only provides no protection but of which it is an identifiable cause. In this article, I explore the ways this film and other representations of the suburbs connect environment to illness to propose that while representations of suburbia frequently dwell on the exterior, relishing with metropolitan scorn such things as architectural homogeneity and signs of conspicuous consumption, the real anxiety is generated by what is (or is not) happening inside. I will begin with the origins of suburbia in nineteenth-century Britain and the near simultaneous appearance of anti-suburban tracts that condemn this new form of living. The greater part of my analysis will focus on cinematic representations of suburbia, which even more than their literary equivalents find figural expression for the fear that the future is suburban. I will identify a series of suburban anxiety films (of which [Safe] serves as the culmination or at least the most complex and nuanced expression of the fears that drive its antecedents) that focus on the process of dehumanization that strips the suburbanite of his or her own will. These films explain suburban existence in terms of a hollowing out of the soul, a negation of the capacity to reason, or the betrayal of the mind by the body. Given the social pull of suburbia, however, these representations are rarely altogether negative. Their force rests in their capacity to suggest that everyone, including even the most ardent urbanite, is susceptible. As such, these films frequently demand a certain level of urban identification with suburbanites, no matter how alien or strange their lives may seem, even if this identification is never complete.

There is a core contradiction in the development of suburbia and the history of its representations. What was first conceived in nineteenth-century Britain as a space of health and hygiene is now primarily represented as a space of illness and contagion. Suburbia was meant to be an escape from the contaminated and diseased core of the city, but its association with domesticity, consumption, and leisure means that it has often been perceived and pathologized by urban male sophisticates as altogether too feminine to be truly healthy. …

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