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Objects That Matter: White Picket Fence

In the 1940s, the mass-produced tract homes that formed Levittown, New York—one of America's first suburbs—specifically barred "any person other than members of the Caucasian race" in their leases.

The opening sequence of David Lynch’s 1986 neo-noir thriller Blue Velvet begins with sweet visions of a middle-class suburban idyll. A fire truck cruises down a calm neighborhood street, Dalmatian aboard. Red roses sway against white picket fences under a clear blue sky.

Suddenly a man watering a manicured lawn drops to the ground, gasping and clutching his throat. The camera zooms downward, past his collapsed body and into the earth, where we find a writhing mass of black beetles. In this iconic view of the perverse within the picturesque, Lynch is playing on a long visual tradition: Good fences do not always mean good neighborhoods.

Long before Lynch, the white picket fence had become a pop-culture emblem of the affluent middle class in 1950s television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver. But its appeal to the Cleavers of America is exactly what others still find so perverse about this signature symbol of the American dream. For as much as those iconic white stakes conjure visions of virtuous neighborhoods, the picket fence also stands as a reminder of the white flight, segregation, and oppressive conformity that shaped our country’s suburbs.

The fence didn’t long remain a symbol of American wholesomeness. Within the same decade, darker undertones emerged in films like Invaders From Mars, which portrayed idyllic suburbia as a vulnerable setting to be invaded and disrupted by outsiders — or aliens. The suburban neighborhood as stage for horror persists in TV series like Desperate Housewives, novels like The Virgin Suicides, and the Nightmare on Elm Street slasher-flick franchise.

Millennials, it seems, have had to embrace a larger trend of anti-nostalgia following the Great Recession, as the affluence associated with the white picket fence became more elusive. In 2012, nine in 10 adults considered having a secure job, rather than owning a home, a definitive signifier of being in the middle class. More than 60 percent of Millennials prefer the city to the suburbs, the highest level of any generation. For the first time in more than a century, 18-to-34-year-olds are also more likely to still be living with mom and dad than in a home of their own. Millennials may still live behind a white picket fence — but it belongs to their parents.