Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Gender and Ethnicity in Post-Apocalyptic Suburbia

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Gender and Ethnicity in Post-Apocalyptic Suburbia

Article excerpt

Significant changes were underway in adjusting the boundaries of British and American cities in the 1950s and early 1960s. While London's suburbs had begun to be viewed as a rustic retreat from city life in the eighteenth century, the restructuring of the city after the Second World War saw the suburbs expand at a particularly marked rate. In the US, a number of factors coincided to make suburbia "the fullest, most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture," and a manifestation of "fundamental characteristics of American society" (Jackson 4). Within the communities themselves, despite the apparent flourishing of suburban development during these years, tensions were developing as white males in particular reacted to the gradual refiguring of gender and racial boundaries. Tensions manifested in the development of the suburban areas, influencing architectural forms and zoning, but hostility also spilled over into mass acts of violence such as the UK's Notting Hill riots. The complex social environment of suburbia became the setting for two influential post-apocalyptic science fiction works which imagined their white male protagonists as the last of a dying species: John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951), set in the south of England, and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), set in Los Angeles County, California. Building on the tradition of the "last man" theme, these works reveal postwar anxieties connected with suburbia in their unfavorable depictions of women and the descriptions of their antagonists in racially charged language. (1) Both novels soon saw film adaptations, as (respectively) The Day of the Triffids (1962) and The Last Man on Earth (1964) and have since been adapted for the small and big screens many times. (2) Looking at the novels and their adaptations can provide a means of assessing both a British and an American perspective on the relationship between urban and suburban spaces during the postwar years, and in their use of the last man theme, the gender and racial anxieties of these spaces.

Suburbia in Britain and the US

London's suburbs had been gradually developing since the eighteenth century, though this picked up significantly over the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, increasing from 400,000 inhabitants in 1861 to 2.7 million in 1911, "37 per cent of the metropolitan total" (Inwood 571). With the housing crisis caused by aerial bombardment in London and other major cities during the Second World War, as well as the development of Welfare State initiatives, the government increased production of "prefab" homes and municipal council estates on the edges of towns, and developed the newtowns program, initiated by the New Towns Act of 1946 and largely modeled on the Garden-City principles of Ebenezer Howard. Despite the expansion of residential areas on the periphery of British cities, the need for more housing was still a critical issue by the end of the 1950s. The desire for private homes grew alongside an emerging consumer culture and a "widely-expressed desire to re-establish marital and family life" seen in the baby-boom that followed the war (Langhamer 349). As rapidly growing suburban housing struggled to cope with demand, there remained something of the prewar notion of the private home as an aspirational space evocative of "stability and security" (362), and a return to a "'normal' existence" after the war (Thane 194). Home life in the postwar years generally retained a similar level of cultural conservatism to that of the 1930s, though "there are signs of a certain, relative loosening up in sexual relations in Britain in the 1950s" (Thane 199). Suburban family life consequently found itself in a similarly transitional era to that of the postwar US.

In the US, postwar suburbanization was fueled in part by the return of service personnel and a subsequent increase in birth rate, the reallocation of industrial land, and improved transport infrastructure, particularly with the rise of car ownership. …

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