The revisions the outside readers asked for in an old chunk of my dissertation were not the revisions I would have asked for (I would have asked for better sentences – there’s not a S-V-O sequence to be found). One of the stranger ones was the request to chop out sections because there was too much going on. Fine by me – I kill my darlings. I thought this reading of American Beauty was clever enough to stay in, but them’s the breaks. The advantage of chucking it up here – pictures.

“Here comes the neighborhood”: Gay men, gentrification, and class mobility in the suburbs

Finally, American Beauty indicts homophobia alongside racism and nativism in the maintenance of the imagination of normalcy in American suburbia as exclusively white and middle-class. In the final analysis, American Beauty represents suburban normalcy as primarily a product of not only sexuality, but also, most powerfully, economic behavior. Homosexuality is, for lack of a better word, tolerated in American Beauty’s suburbs. Reflecting larger trends highlighted in, to cite one book-length example, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren-Tiagi’s The Two-Income Trap, the sole stable family in American Beauty does not take the form of the traditional wage-earner father stay-at-home mother (the Fittses) nor the working mother and “downsized” father (the Burnhams) but rather the two-income family with no children. The Two Jims occupy a privileged position in the film’s ideological universe. The Burnham and Fitts families are unhappy in distinct ways that nevertheless intersect in the figure of the successful gay couple. The Two Jims – tax attorney and anesthesiologist – verge on parody in their respectable, middle-class professional suburban happiness. They are the embodiment of the suburbs as seen by Carolyn (they can afford and keep a nice house), Lester (they have a stable relationship), and Colonel Fitts (they’re another part of the world going to hell). With his high and tight hair cut, all-business demeanor, and self-identification as retired Marine Corps Colonel, Fitts places himself in his new home in terms of the reasons Brooks lists for continued sprawl: order, control, education, achievement, success, and most of all, a manageable mortgage. William H. Whyte and C. Wright Mills would recognize their Organization Man and White Collar suburbanite in either Jim before they recognized it in the retired military man Fitts or the full-time realtor Carolyn. Were Jim and Jim not a married gay couple they would be the embodiment of the painfully ordinary suburbanites Jane and Rickey cannot wait to leave behind. 

amb1In this sense, the stiflingly uptight and white inner-ring suburb in American Beauty reaches its suburban – as in sub-urbane, banal, drab – zenith in the form of the Two Jims, who do exhibit none of the ennui Catherine Jurca, in White Diaspora, identifies as the default white middle-class position. Jim and Jim are ironic suburbanites – since gay men as a group have come to signal gentrification. Could the presence of Jim and Jim mean that more gay couples will move into American Beauty’s upper-middle-class suburb, leading to the gentrification of an already-affluent but slightly monochrome town? The Fitts’ family car trip that follows the Two Jims’ early-morning welcome visit writes the anxiety of sliding out of the middle class onto the suburban built environment.

At the breakfast table, Fitts voices the usual suburban concern of declining property values, barely looking up from the paper to tell Rickey that “This country is going straight to hell.” As if conjured by the statement, the Two Jims arrive with a welcome basket full of homegrown vegetables. During the drive to school, Fitts excoriates his new neighbors in pedantically homophobic terms: “How come those faggots always have to rub it in your face?  How can they be so shameless?” Ricky barely looks up from his drug-dealing accounting to defend the Jims, but Fitts cuts him off angrily. Ricky, sensing what his father wants to hear, looks directly at his father, saying with palpable irony that Fitts evidently misses, “those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” If Carolyn’s sing along drive reveals a subjective landscape rooted in her sex life and Lester’s post-quitting drive shows the business world rolling off his back, Colonel Fitts’s drive with Ricky similarly deploys transit through the built environment to make concrete Fitts’s vision of suburbia. Throughout this scene, the Fitts take the very same route their neighbors the Burnhams followed in the opening sequence of the film, since both trips were home-to-school from the same starting point. However, rather than Lester’s point-of-view shots looking into a mostly empty gray sky, the street behind Fitts is a series of picket fences guarding brick houses. In every shot of Fitts during the trip, the visual shorthand of 1950s suburbia plays counterpoint to Fitts’s reactionary sense of the incursion into his suburban retirement – how, in this ideal Ozzie and Harriet setting, can people like the two Jims belong? amb2

Such a background reveals a distinctly nostalgic subjective landscape. The nondescript streets that rush behind shots of Ricky during the conversation indicate that for a military child who never made connections to his surroundings, the built environment is not worthy of sharp focus. Fitts’s violent reaction to gay men in his picket fence is without doubt based in homophobia, but there is an economic subtext to Fitts’s homophobia: his town is not slipping toward Burnfield-like stagnation, but rather may be creeping up the ladder, into not only something not white-heterosexual, but also, significantly, a price bracket he cannot afford on a military pension fixed income. 

Advertisements