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Perpetual Children on the Island of Suburbia

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Perpetual children on the Island of Suburbia.
In “Pastoral Paradises and Social Realism: Cinematic Representations of Suburban Complexity”, Rupa Huq cites the “lynch-mob mentality of vengeance seeking angry suburban dwellers” (p101) as a feature of the film, Little Children. What is the nature of this “vengeance” and what it is a product of, and how do children fit into the regulation of the social order? In his 1516 book Utopia, Thomas More describes an island with only one entrance and only one exit, with those who belonged to this island knowing how to navigate their way through the treacherous openings safely and unharmed. The façade of this island has diverged and developed over centuries to its contemporary apparition of white picket fences tended by the authoritarian Father of his Nuclear Family, and has permeated into existing countries under the guise of “suburbia”. However, those who belong to the Island of Suburbia tend to experience difficulty locating the exit; and have thus created a stagnant population polluted by muted frustration, impatience and intolerance (McCarthy 1998:41, as cited in Huq, 2013). The exclusivity-induced isolation of the Island has created a homogenised mindset, impervious to outside influence or discourse, which is spherically bequeathed to younger inhabitants; a breeding ground for prejudice and unawareness disguised as social mores. The adverse consequences of this uneducated and uninterrupted mind-think is delineated and discussed in Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), a film which explores suburban dissatisfaction and perpetual childhood. Suburbia and its accoutrements is not an unfamiliar theme in entertainment medias, with Huq easily listing close to a dozen films in the 2013 “Pastoral Paradises and Social Realism: Cinematic Representations of Suburban Complexity” which deal with such leitmotifs; however Little Children, though name and artifice, literally portrays the adverse effects the Island of Suburbia has on the mental development on its inhabitants, comments on children’s place in the suburban social order and renders an envisaged, cyclical future of the Island. Little Children is set in a small town in Massachusetts, USA, and uses multiple storylines to evidence the predominant concept of perpetual emotional and mental adolescence due to the character’s spatial setting. Brad, a failed law student and Sarah, a failed English PhD candidate, somewhat fulfil the role of protagonists who indulge in adultery to compensate for the promise of suburban utopia unfulfilled by loveless marriages. Their character’s pasts, and their romantic tryst, allude to the world outside the Island of Suburbia, however this insinuation is never realised, fortifying the cyclic nature of Suburbia.

Brad and Sarah, as characters, to some extent represent the world outside the Island of Suburbia. Brad subverts traditional gender roles by adopting the role of stay at home Dad while his wife is the primary breadwinner for the family, whilst Sarah considers herself “a researcher studying the behaviour of typical suburban women, not a typical suburban woman” (Huq, 2013) and also bears resemblance to Madame Bovary, intertexually referenced in the Book Club scene, when Sarah draws attention to the character’s ‘Hunger for an alternative…refusal to accept a life of unhappiness’. She is justifying her extramarital affair through a mode only relevant to her since her cohort did not receive a tertiary education as the audience is told Sarah had. However; Brad is dubbed “The Prom King” by Sarah’s Mother’s Group, plays in a football team and has a penchant for watching local male youths skateboard for hours rather than studying for his imminent Bar exams, whose success in dictates whether or not Brad can be a lawyer, and which he has previously failed multiple times. He and Sarah, the bored housewife who left a cultured life of mental stimulation for financial security, are seen “making out” on the football field following one of Brad’s games, fleeing their self-constructed monotonous existences for a weekend of assumed passionate embraces, rather than Brad attending his Bar exam, and abandoning their sleeping children for stolen carnal embraces. To the stereotypical gaggle of jaded, mindless housewives who reside in the town, their tête-à-tête would be quite the scandal, were it not for the distraction of Ronald James McGorvey. “Ronnie” McGorvey had been incarcerated for exposing himself to a minor, has a long criminal record for sexually molesting young girls, and is freshly released from prison to live with his Mother and deal with his psycho-sexual disorder. The audience first meets Ronnie when his presence at a public swimming pool on a brutally hot day precipitates mass panic among the assembled mothers watching over their children, Brad and Sarah included. This scene is dually pivotal; although Ronnie is swimming with a pool-full of children, it is the adults that panic and demand their children leave the pool much to the kid’s chagrin, whilst also establishing the irony of the paedophile fraternising with dozens of children being adjudicated by the adulterers and their hoard of condemnatory citizens. Citizens whom are refined and predisposed by Larry Hedges, the police officer who lacks the mental capacity to remedy the blood on his hands after he accidentally murdered a youth years prior; and instead embarks on a personal tirade against Ronnie, assumedly to compensate for his past actions. Rather than legitimate, legal methods of moderating Ronnie, Larry taunts and ridicules him, graffiting the home Ronnie shares with his Mother, May, and jacketing the town with warning posters regarding Ronnie.

Each sub-plot suggests that the adults involved lack the emotional and mental maturity to deal with the situation at hand. Brad and his Peter Pan syndrome, Sarah’s eschewing of familial responsibilities in order to indulge in passion, Larry’s overcompensation for an accident and Ronnie’s retreat to his Mother display the juvenile mentality of not only the characters, but the town as a whole. Any character or scene exhibits facets of adolescence, from Sarah’s husband Richard’s obsession with online pornography, to Kathy’s (Brad’s wife) summoning of her Mother when she suspects Brad’s infidelity, to Sheila’s reaction to Ronnie’s masturbating in her car following their date, and the shunning Sarah experiences from her Mother’s group after publically kissing Brad in one of the initial scenes.

The interrogation of “what makes an adult, adult?” is discussed by Harris (2004), who states “adult status must be earned through a series of set experiences and is not conferred automatically … having a grown up body does not bring the social rights of a social citizen.” I propose that inhabiting the Island of Suburbia disallows individuals to experience these formative teachings due to the mental and spatial disconnect the Island exists in, apart from the “outside world”; and thus, inhabitants of the Island may have a “grown up body”, but exist in a state of perpetual cerebral childhood, incapable of dealing with situations that present themselves and unaware of contemporary global changes due to the invulnerable and impenetrable environment of the Island.

With the concept of the Utopian Island dating back centuries, this suburban group-think is so invested in Suburban culture that it has become a social and cultural more. Each generation is being taught the same ideals, values and beliefs as those before them, with no development through cultural change. The once affluent American Dream saw parents clutching for the suburban dream of comfort and security (Muzzio and Halper (2002:252) as cited in Huq, 2013) which has essentially trapped generations in a motionless mentality and a sense of reductivism towards the contemporary world around them (Gonzales, 2006).

Derman-Sparks (1993) discusses the imperativeness of teaching children acceptance in a world full of differences, and states that children arrive at school bursting with preconceived notions of the world, obviously educated by their parents, siblings and societies they’ve often come into contact with before even reaching the age deemed appropriate to commence institutionalised education. However, on the Island of Suburbia, there are no differences due to the inconceivably long history of same-ness, and thus acceptance and tolerance need not be taught. So, when the norm is eschewed, like Ronnie’s sexual orientation, inhabitants of the Island are incapable of dealing with the situation due to stunted mental capabilities developed though a lack of education. Considering the characters in Little Children indeed have the mental capacity and reasoning skills of adolescents, it is almost expected that they react to the unknown as a child would. Lewis et. al. (1979) conducted a psychological study on violent juveniles and found the catalyst for most violent behaviour in children and adolescence is the simple fact of not understanding the situation, and thus reacting violently out of confusion and frustration. Interestingly, Sarah and Brad are not as malicious towards Ronnie; with Brad telling Larry he is uncomfortable with his public tirade against the man. This is either due to Brad and Sarah’s enlightened mindset as opposed to their co-inhabitants, or because they, too, are guilty of a crime and understand that they are in no position to judge. Hence, the “vengeance” depicted in the film is not a sinister act of violence, it is further evidence of the childised mentality of the characters, who, due to their lack of understanding of the “other” that is Ronnie, feel frustrated and confused due to the lack of education that has led to this incapacitated understanding of the world, have no other method of communication other than ferocity and anger towards Ronnie. Kitzinger (2002) states that news values have a tendency to “present the community with an identifiable hate figure to whom it could project its anxiety and frustration” through their coverage of paedophiles, which is supported by Drury (2002), who adds that issues such as paedophilia have “characteristically pathologized the crowd not only through use of particular terms and concepts, but also through anecdotes that served as evidence of diminished rationality.” An amalgamation of these three concepts is depicted in the film; an unprepared and unedified crowd of confused parents are presented with an individual, who has chosen to abjure the lifestyle and mind-set that the “lynch mob” knows as gospel, and is manipulated into believing the man is evil and should be castrated in order for society to return to normal by their trusted Police Officer. Ronnie, like Sarah and Brad, represents the “outside world”, a world their society doesn’t understand, and thus is being perjured because he is the “other” and his fellow inhabitants of the Island do not know how to deal with him. Thus, the “vengeance” in the film is a product of fear of, and incapacity to deal with, the “other”, due to the cyclical group-think of Suburbia.

The film concludes with Sarah and Brad returning to their relative spouses and children, disregarding their prior promise to run away together, and Ronnie falling victim to the Island’s values by castrating himself so he could be a “good boy”. The characters that once represented freedom from Suburban censorship and lifestyle succumb to the pressures of the Island and retreat to the roles they were destined to fulfil due to their Suburban surroundings. This surrender to the Island’s principles represents the film’s estimation of children’s place in the Suburban social order; they will be taught what their parents were taught, and lie in wait until their bodies develop to “grown up” standards, when they, too, will foster themselves a predetermined life that they either will not question because they haven’t the capacity to question, or face deleterious consequences if they cultivate the ability to contemplate the world outside their Island.

Little Children represents the modern-day phenomena of a secluded, exclusive cult known as Suburbia, whose social norms, cultural mores and collective values isolate its members moreso than the unattainability of its membership. With only one door in and out of the Island of Suburbia, it is certain that it entrance is difficult, but the group-think and diminutive concentrations experienced and adopted inside makes it impossible to leave.

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