Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 4, Issue 1
fall 2013
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Craig Canfield
Layout Design, Nick Appleby
Photo
Self-portrait by Laura Wexler

The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs: Photographs by Laura Wexler

by Anna Meixler, ‘16

Twenty-one photographs of Laura Wexler’s The Tenderness of Men in the Suburbs line the hallway to the gallery in the Whitney Humanities Center. Before entering, one confronts a twenty-year-old Wexler in a self-portrait. Wexler, now a Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies  and American Studies, stares at her viewer, gaze steady and searching.

Wexler reflects on who she was at the time, saying “I am amazed that the intensity of the gaze of that girl comes out so clearly, not only in the portrait, but also in the other images.  There was no name for what I was feeling or doing, but there was also nothing that would deter me.”

The photos, on view through December 18th, are hung in a living room like gallery, with windows that open to autumn streets and tables with chairs inviting one to sit and feel at home with the works. The photos are equally intimate, welcoming the public into the private space of Wexler’s neighborhoods, Brookline and Newton (MA). Rage over the Vietnam War, fears from World War II and the Cold War, and nuclear suspicion are present but not directly seen in these nostalgic scenes of suburban Boston. Subtle but not immediately felt are also the domestic strife, racial inequality, assassinations, war protests, civil rights repression, patriarchy and the heteronormativity of America in the late 1960s.

Wexler was concerned with seeing Boston suburbs in relation to politics, but now sees that “I was looking for what we now call “gender,” but the word did not exist in the way we use it now.  The feminist movement had to invent it. It’s not so much that the places have changed for me, but it’s so clear that there has been a powerful struggle to name things that had no name. It’s a struggle that, as an anti-racist feminist, I was part of.”

Her hometowns housed manicured lawns, rigorous schools, and veterans with traditional lifestyles. Though domestic and international discord affected suburbanites (Wexler protested the war with her father and saw news of the nuclear arms race on TV), she was struck by the prevailing silence. She captured the mundane, attentive tasks of men in suburbia. When they were helpless to protect their families from greater threats, they found solace in normalcy. They clung to gendered acts in a time of great social change, raking leaves and chopping wood while their wives cooked dinner, caring for the home from within.
 
On view are tranquil images, a bank depositor smiling sadly, boys biking through piles of leaves. Some refer directly to postwar fears, a man at home, face pressed to a television screen. Other photos are studded with objects of consumer culture: shiny refrigerators and cars suggest post-war wealth, rooting the photographs geographically and socio-economically. But other photos, like that of a father looking at his son at dinner and those of a man returning from work and kissing his daughters transcend their era, communicating timeless security.

Monochromatic palates offer a stark view of a landscape that could not wholly soothe its shattered veterans and satisfy its inquisitive children. The photos shot indoors evoke stasis, incomplete comfort. Images of groomed hedges induce a sense of suburban insularity. But modes of transport, seen in bicycles and cars, suggest a desire for motion embodied by children photographed in action.

Wexler questions and pays tribute to the lives of suburban men, working to maintain stability for their families. But their blurry children, which she describes as “liminal” are not fully captured by the photographs, proposing that suburbia cannot offer lasting respite. The children are not plagued by the nuclear fears of their parents, but confront new questions of international discord, domestic inequality, and shifting familial structures. Wexler notes, they are “on the verge of an existential movement away from that time and place and the visions of the future that emanate from that place.”

Click here to view slideshow

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