The idea of being bored and reckless in a white-picket-fenced small town setting is something that has fascinated teen-directed media for a while. Yet, it’s more than an idea – it’s an aesthetic, or a sequence of visuals that has turned feelings of teenage angst into an unattainable “perfect” version of youth. Think: blue-toned bedroom-situated clutter, clueless adults, sexually driven regret, getting drunk for the first time, riding through the streets on an old bike. It’s the concept of raging against the machine of the ideals created by a conservative generation before our own – a generation whom once manifested all it’s energy into keeping alive the Christian, middle-class, perfectly domestic American dream. The romanticisation of suburbia is youth’s way of envisioning the socially-deemed utopia of the ‘burbs as a dystopia, instead. It’s the ultimate youth aesthetic to feel trapped and to long for life elsewhere. However, the romanticisation of suburbia is not the sole feeling of entrapment – but rather the embracement of it. It’s as if it’s an aesthetic that says: “hey we hate this place, but for now, while we’re stuck in it, we’ll enjoy it.“
The Virgin Suicides
Sofia Coppola’s critically acclaimed take on Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 novel of the same name is a staple in longed-for aesthetic. It’s a visual minefield feast for film-goers – 1970s soft baby pinks and fluffy hair. It’s a haunting dissection of melancholy youth and adolescent lust that creates an air of romanticisation not just for the suburbs, but for death itself. Coppola and Kirsten Dunst made teen suicide seem beautiful through their visuals.
While there are an array of musicians defining different eras of youth rebellion, an important one today is that of Troye Sivan. There’s no denying that Morrissey’s Manchester ruled the schoolyard in a time before our own, or that the sounds of punk bands and rock ‘n’ roll made parents brand youths as noisy thugs. I mean, who could forget how Marty McFly’s guitar solo in Back To The Future horrified other teens in the 1950s – only for him to reply with, “your kids are gonna love this one day”. Rather, today’s vision of pretty youth and romanticisation of suburbia comes particularly with Troye Sivan and his debut LP, ‘Blue Neighbourhood’. He sings about being young and gay and falling in love. Sivan is a testament to the new youth – the teens in the suburbs who strive to live as their true selves.
The 1988 black comedy starring then It-Girl Winona Ryder, has become a cult classic film full of bright 80s visuals and the over-chronicled demise of the popular bitch. Heathers is about, quite literally, killing the populars who make high school an unbearable hell. It’s an aesthetic that is, however, more than serial killing and shoulder pads – it’s a visual celebrating the aloof, moody boy rather than the jock – the quick-witted, intelligent girl, rather than the bimbo blonde. Heathers pioneered the suburban outcast.
John Green’s novels are immensely popular and are apparently guaranteed to make you shed a tear (or 50,000). Whilst Green’s books are touching to the fragility of a lonely 14-year-old heart – it’s not a realistic portrayal of teen life in the ‘burbs. Truth is, you probably aren’t going to be the cute nerdy boy who starts a relationship with the mysterious blonde across the road.
And So Much More
However, this youth aesthetic in the media is more than a mere nod to widespread teen thought – by challenging entrapment, it has created a dense layer of entrapment itself. Perhaps this is just me, but when watching Skins, or reading Rookie, or listening to Lorde’s lyrics, it’s hard to feel content with this teen life they portray as dangerous and fun. In reality, it often feels mundane. When you see the imperfection of suburbia within media, it makes it the new standard in which you must live by an unattainable feat. It’s like a new trend, its as though these media texts force you to think: ‘some kid in some random town feels lonely and finds a vice in illicit substances and random sex? Alas, I must too!’ Hear me out – it’s the romanticisation of suburbia that gives me (and perhaps others) massive youth FOMO.
In her debut album, Pure Heroine, Lorde sings about running around with her mates into the early hours, and about her fears of the pressures of adulthood. The same applies to the TV show, Skins, mostly as it’s a showcase of boozy late nights, feeling detached from the big man that is society, and doing crazy shit in general. It’s hard to feel accepted as a teen when, in comparison to the content being shoved down your throat, you spend most nights in playing Mario Kart with your siblings or doing homework – essentially NOT being wild and fun and interesting, etc. My own teen years were rotted away by crippling insecurity and an overbearing dedication to my ATAR, thus leaving me unable to fulfill this seemingly universal youth “bucket list”. Were my own teen years unworthy and un-lived because I never took a measly pinger? Was it wrong to enjoy my suburban setting? Did the age spanning 13-18 even mean anything if I never snuck out? And even if my laid-back parents were never going to punish me for sneaking out in the first place, would sneaking out even be an act of rebellion? The list goes on, as does my own “privileged” self-reflection (I say “privileged”, as there is violence happening everyday, everywhere, and I’m here, safe in the comfort of my own bedroom, worrying about the validity of my youth).
“Yet, the romanticisation of suburbia, and of youth, is something that I feel is important. While it may produce pressures surrounding an “ideal” youth, by challenging social norms…”
Yet, the romanticisation of suburbia, and of youth, is something that I feel is important. While it may produce pressures surrounding an “ideal” youth, by challenging social norms, the romanticisation of suburbia ultimately showcases a representation of vast youth culture in mainstream media – challenging a feeling of acceptance for many minorities. You only have to dip your toes in ever so slightly to see depictions of race, life-altering situations, and sexual orientation (among other important identity factors) through characters and lyrics and dialogue and art and fashion and music. Whether it’s 1980s flamboyant subculture icons, or it’s Emma Roberts being sulky and pretty and thoughtful in Palo Alto – it’s all there and it’s all relevant to how some teen, somewhere, in some small town, feels in this exact moment. Even if Effy from Skins was all moody and eyeliner-y, I was able to connect with her simply due to the fact that I felt isolated and somewhat misunderstood in my own life.
Perhaps the idea of suburbia ain’t so bad after all.