Anne T. Donahue on the Misunderstood Suburbs: "It's Not the Same for Everyone"

"Fetish," Selena Gomez's latest video, is set in suburbia to emphasize a theme of isolation. The thing is, no one suburban existence is the same

A photo of pretty pink suburban houses against a blue sky

(Photo: iStock)

In the recently-dropped video for “Fetish,” Selena Gomez acts out, eats lipstick and ultimately breaks down—a stark contrast to the polished vids she’s released in the past. In an interview about the video that ran in Dazed, Gomez and Canadian photog Petra Collins (who directed the vid) explained that the suburban setting amplified a familiar feeling: isolation. 

“One of the reasons I put you in the suburbs is because I wanted to isolate you to the most insane degree where I’ve felt the most isolated,” Collins explained. “I wanted the viewers to know you were fully alone.”

“I can tell you that neighborhood in the video looks exactly like the one I grew up in,” Gomez agreed. “I always felt like where I lived looked at the surface very innocent but I knew exactly what was going on behind each of the houses and [understood] that feeling of being isolated. There’s a reason there is no one else on the street in the video.”

The thing is, no one suburban existence is the same. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood that backed onto a busy road and a plaza. My family was working class, and the financial comfort supposedly assured by growing up in suburbia—as evidenced in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls and Clueless—wasn’t our reality. Instead, like most of the families I grew up around, money was was tight. We didn’t go to Disneyland, my parents shared a car, and the idea of competing with our next-door neighbours via a series of capitalist-centric competitions to attempt to keep up with the Joneses was laughable. Nobody told me that my dreams weren’t plausible, they just told me that if I wanted to achieve them, I’d have to fund them myself. It was bizarre not to have a part-time job by grade 10. I still can’t think of a person I grew up with whose parents simply gave them money.

So when we write off the suburbs as dull, or elitist, or worse: all the same, we’re viewing them exclusively through our own lenses. And by doing that, we assume that suburbia is the same for everybody as it was for us. But similar to the way not all cities offer the cultural mecca we believe them to owe us, the suburbs aren’t all versions of prime-time dramas and uneventful youth. The number of fights, drug busts, tragedies and dead bodies I saw in suburbia still eclipse anything I’ve seen in the city. And none of that serves to make the suburbs better, more interesting, or grittier. It’s simply evidence of the way suburbia changes depending on extenuating circumstances.

And yes, like any place on earth, suburbia can be isolating. But there’s an upside to the isolation. For anyone who grew up in subdivisions outside of major cities and whose teen years paralleled movies like Dazed and Confused, the suburbs served as inspiration to seek lives outside of them (whether literally, or via a steady IV of pop culture).

In an interview this week, 19-year-old Matt James—the artist behind the cult favourite popculturediedin2009 —recalls his fascination with 2000s-era celebrity culture, which began as a result of being alone in suburbia. (“I really didn’t have any friends,” he said. “I was just watching all these celebrities. That was my exposure to what was out there, and it was a very, very twisted version of it.”) Meanwhile, earlier this year LOVE magazine released The Suburbs, a short directed by photographer Alasdair McLellan—who grew up in a village in north England—that featured Kendall Jenner and offered a highly-stylized take on the boredom and despair and, even, joy that can come from a suburban existence. Plus, the Arcade Fire once gave us The Suburbs, a depressing and sometimes relatable take on growing up amidst the sprawl. (As Will and Win Butler did, having spent their youth in suburban Houston.)

Which is where the real source of creativity lies. So many artists, musicians, actors, and writers have sprung from the suburbs, finding their people anywhere they didn’t grow up. And there’s a reason none of those creatives infringe on each other or even offer the same perspective when citing their past. Despite the notion of simplicity that’s supposed to define suburban living, the complexity existing in each community—hell, each house—works to shape the people in it. So when we condemn the suburbs for their isolation (or lack of culture, or homogeny), we assign only our singular narratives to a space that’s constantly changing.

More from Anne:
Anne T. Donahue Is Here for the Sweet Valley High Movie
Anne T. Donahue on Prince William and Prince Harry’s New Diana Doc
Anne T. Donahue on What We’re Really Saying When We Say Jonah Hill Looks Good