Dirt: TikTok and Suburban Gothic

Will the literature of the suburbs be written on TikTok?

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Daisy Alioto on the 2000s’ aesthetics of suburbia, TikTok-era adolescence, and learning to see yourself as the main character through the lens of your taste.

TikTok is a bedroom medium, by which I mean it is perfectly suited to the four walls that enclose our most intimate spaces. The platform also traffics in nostalgia, and lately I have had the uncanny sensation that I am watching b-roll footage from my own life. 

They say you should write what you know, but the topic I am most qualified to write about I have scrupulously avoided. When I say that I am a white girl from the suburbs, do you hear it in the triply pejorative sense? White. Girl. Suburbs. That’s ok, everyone does. 

The last time I had the sensation of watching my life play back was I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter on HBO. Michelle Carter served 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter after encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself when she was 17. She went to my Massachusetts public high school, although not at the same time as me. 

The nature of the crime, borne out in text messages, meant that there was no crime scene for the filmmakers to return to. Instead, the events were illustrated by excerpts of text messages — released from their green and blue bubbles — and transposed on stills of the high school, the coast of Cape Cod, a two-car garage at night, and a lit bedroom window light. The house looked like an album cover for the band American Football or Ra Ra Riot’s The Orchard which includes a song titled “Massachusetts.” 

There were some parts of the documentary I didn’t recognize. For example, the shots of the hallway didn’t look quite right. But if you didn’t know better, they are generic enough to be familiar. True Crime is a genre famous for capitalizing on the mythology of a place: the ghostliness of cornfields for a Midwestern murder, New York grit, Southern California noir… the list goes on. This documentary was no exception, with its “shipyahds” and Cumberland Farms and New England courthouse domes: Suburban gothic. 

I watch a TikTok of a single window that shows the changing of the seasons as well as the corner of the yellow house next door. “Okay Bella from the second twilight movie,” says one comment. “You live in a movie title sequence,” says another. The suburbs are full of in-between areas that high culture doesn’t value. Have you ever paused to consider the beauty of a highway median or a springy drainage pipe? 

“Yall ever been chillin Then you smell when you were 7,” another TikTok asks. The comments are a chronicle of melancholy:

I get so frustrated when I can’t describe it 

When it’s dewy or foggy outside I smell 5th grade morning of a field trip ya know?

And then you take the deepest breath you can and try and remember the exact place and time

When I was in fourth grade I moved to a cul-de-sac with a dot of land left in the middle of the dead end. Nothing more than a few trees and a hunk of granite that was probably more expensive to clear than pave around. We called it “the island.” I used to hike through the woods to look at a landfill shaped like Microsoft’s Bliss computer background. We imagined ourselves in music videos, but Gen Z doesn’t have to. They make music videos of the mundane moments of their own lives and post them for thousands of likes. “My life is a movie.” 

For me, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is the music video that best captured what it was like to grow up post-9/11 in the golden age of the chat room. I was never groomed by older men online, like some other TikToks discuss, but only because my computer monitor sat in the living room for maximum supervision.

Our whole street was on an incline, and I looked out the window next to our computer one day to see one neighborhood boy riding a child’s wagon down the street with another tethered to a rolling office chair behind him. Behind them was a boy inside an upside-down trash can attached to a tree. He would run to the end of the rope and collapse, then get back up and start again. It’s this feral activity in the face of global threat that Arcade Fire so perfectly depicted. As the kids would say, “Vine energy.” 

When I was in high school I knew I would never be nostalgic for high school. The reason that the suburbs make me uncomfortable now is because I associate them with a time that I didn’t feel in control of my life. And that has far more to do with the experience of being a teenage girl than it does a cultural void. How could a place so full of things feel like nowhere?

I remember my bus driver taking me home in a winter thunderstorm, snow and lightning illuminating the sky. I remember changing next to a girl with tiny handcuffs dangling from her belly button ring. Driving through a clinical subdivision, streets named after Native American tribes. Waiting in the stale car while my driver’s ed instructor bought himself coffee. I remember passing a boy who received a blowjob on the middle school bus in the halls, but not the girl who gave it to him — she didn’t return to the public school system. A particular Victoria’s Secret scent. The police lecturing us about MySpace. Sewing a baby quilt for a classmate and being told to specify it was from me and not the class because of the region’s predominant Catholic sensibility. I remember fake bomb threats that got us evacuated to the tennis courts, shading our eyes to look up at the local news helicopter. Popular girls doing coke from a plastic bag during a screening of Schindler’s List

It’s not that I remember the bad, I remember the banal. I was always busy — my days were not my own. I didn’t know what other people did after school. 

For me, adolescence was a waystation. A train platform in the middle of nowhere —an image straight out of the void or “liminal space TikTok,” as I’ve seen one commenter call it. Later on, during the summers home from college — smelling the wet air through the window screen and missing the intensity of dorm interactions — I could finally admit that the suburbs were lonely. But they were lonely in a way that was tolerable, because I was biding my time until my real life began. The only way out was through. 

Tell me you went to public school without telling me you went to public school. This  TikTok makes sleep deprivation and fluorescent lighting look like a fever dream. “POV: Nothing makes sense but it’s too early for you to care.” The subject is sitting in a classroom (via the green screen effect). Please rise for the pledge of allegiance. America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee) starts. The subject, who now plays a second person, turns around and says. “This ain’t even the pledge of allegiance.” The subject becomes another boy silently thrashing to his AirPods and then a fourth who asks, blankly, “Are you still selling chocolate?” The fire alarm blares and they all float out the door. 

It’s HBO’s We Are Who We Are with the romance sucked out through a soda straw. It’s everything. 

I asked Twitter, “when I say ‘literature of the suburbs’ what do you think of?” I didn’t expect that many people to reply, least of all getting over 200 responses. It was a test of my own recall, because when I think about it hard I can’t summon much between Sarah Dessen and John Cheever. There are names that come up over and over. You should read all the replies, really. But few capture the minutiae of a place like say, Last Night at the Lobster, a novella about the snowy closing night of a Red Lobster that begins: “Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day, stalled. Midmorning and the streetlights are still on, weakly.”

Even as a child, I was working out some idea of suburban literature. My aunt belonged to the same church as Frindle author Andrew Clements and I remember being so excited to meet him at her house. I showed him a picture book I was writing about a family of raccoons that lived in a dumpster behind Dunkin Donuts. He was kind and encouraging. (When I started writing this essay, I hadn’t realized he died in 2019. When his obituary came up on Google I cried.) I want a novel about going to Target. I want a novel about all of the parking lots our divorced parents decided to trade visitation in. Would Reese Witherspoon produce that, though?

The Virgin Suicides comes up a lot, understandably so. It is canonically suburban. But it has also contributed to the aestheticization of teen death and the “valorization of delicacy and softness, juxtaposed with violence” as Safy-Hallan Farah so perfectly wrote about a subset of Tumblr. It’s an aesthetic that I am unusually sensitive to. 

When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates wandered away from a party at an abandoned air strip and drowned in a few inches of water. Her body wasn’t found for a couple of days and when news of her death rippled through the school the sound of screaming in the hallway felt ripped from Twin Peaks. There were vicious rumors: that someone had pointed her in the wrong direction on purpose, that anyone who talked to the police found dead rats in their locker. 

Her wake was the first time I had seen an open casket. I remember kneeling next to a field hockey teammate and saying the Lord’s prayer. The girl was buried in mismatched, fuzzy socks. It’s an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Her hands were covered in scratches. One of my indelible memories of these events is her mother’s funeral speech, in which she talked about how her daughter was allowed to write all over the walls of her room. I’ve carried this statement with me, cherishing it as an act of literary agency. 

Later, her mother would try to sue the friends who hosted the pregame. A news crew showed up to my senior prom and our class advisor told one of the party busses to pull up so they couldn’t photograph us through the windows of the banquet hall. We escaped through the back. The only way out is through

My memories of this funeral came flooding back when I watched HBO’s documentary about the Michelle Carter trial. Again, here was a woman asserting her own literary agency but in the most twisted of ways: passing off quotes from Glee as her own thoughts about her boyfriend’s death, a death she allegedly encouraged. It reminded me of a detail in Jia Tolentino’s essay collection about the Rolling Stone rape article. The fabulist subject used Dawson’s Creek quotes in emails she wrote to herself. 

In high school, the police told us not to drink; they didn’t tell us what to do if your older boyfriend is driving and he speeds up to try and scare you but he accidentally hits a telephone pole instead, leaving you with permanent brain damage — which is another thing that happened to a girl in my class. They told us not to talk to strangers on MySpace but not what to do if your boyfriend tells you he wants to die and has already attempted it.

They didn’t tell us that society may infantilize the suburban woman, but the responsibility is ours not to weaponize that. The specter of helpless white women is how power keeps power.

“Has anyone seen a preteen lately?” asks a woman on TikTok. “I haven’t seen a preteen in years, do they still exist? I don’t know. People are children and then they are teenagers. No one looks like they are thirteen anymore.” 

When I was a young teenager, I used to wait for my mom to pick me up from ballet on a bench along a window facing the Main St. of the town my studio was in. I would watch people go in and out of the post office and daydream. One evening, a man came up to the window and started gyrating his hips in exaggerated circles while looking down at me. I wasn’t sure if he was mocking my dance attire or my audacity to exist in public unbothered but it was an initiation of sorts.

Being a preteen is a midway point between childhood and being perceived primarily as a sexual being. In that sense, preteens were always an endangered category. America is a country that will boycott Netflix for portraying the sexualization of girls from a girl’s perspective and then change the channel to a radio jockey counting down to a celebrity’s 18th birthday. If you’re uncomfortable witnessing that as a growing girl, someone else will be happy to sell you an oversized t-shirt to cover up your insecurities and tell you you’re brave for not conforming to the beauty standards that prop up a wide swath of the economy. But there is always a standard to profit off of, and the anti-standard will hurt you the most. Because they tell you that you can escape being perceived, and anyone who tells you that is lying.

I attended a small church near my college campus. It was my Sunday morning ritual. Sometimes I caught a man looking at me. I didn’t know much about him except that he lived in town and didn’t have a wife or children. His face lives like a small whirlpool in my memory. 

One day, I was lying on the quad with a close friend, wearing one of my favorite shirts– a gingham blouse that ties at the bottom. We were lying in front of the campus art museum. My friend asked if she could draw the museum on my bare side. I dozed off and on in the sun as she gently scratched away with her pen. I had to contort myself to see the finished work but we both agreed it was a faithful rendition and she took a picture of me lying there, the building in the background, and tagged me in it on Facebook. Not long after, I got a message from the man at my church: “I wonder if my squirt gun could reach your belly button. I bet that would wake you up.” 

At first, I pretended I didn’t see it. I went to my classes. I ate lunch with friends. I worked my shift at the library, reshelving books. I bet that would wake you up. The next day I called my mom to tell her I wouldn’t be going to church anymore because someone had sent me an inappropriate message. She asked me what he said, but I couldn’t repeat it. I was afraid it would sound innocent to her, but all the times he was staring at me he must have seen through me because he knew I would know what it meant. I never stepped foot in that church again but I didn’t delete the picture. 

In the Michelle Carter documentary, it is clinical psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin who introduces the viewer to the mythology underpinning the case. “Men are terrified of women,” he says, as old woodcuttings of the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials appear on screen. Like the bureaucrats that populate the Custom-House that introduces Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Breggin is there to civilize the narrative. To explain evil. “It’s a perfect storm of a tragedy, it’s a complete tragedy,” he says at one point. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived near my college campus for a time. At the end of her life, the author suffered from dementia. “The interval was chiefly spent by her in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours every day she industriously used pen and paper, inscribing long passages of the book almost exactly word for word,” reported The Washington Post in 1988. 

“This was done unconsciously from memory, the authoress imagining that she composed the matter as she went along. To her diseased mind the story was brand new, and she frequently exhausted herself with labor which she regarded as freshly created,” the report said. 

Sometimes I am afraid I avoid telling the facts of my life because they only cohere to one story and if I set myself free to write it, I will continue to write the same thing in different ways until polite literary society marches on and leaves me clutching my American Eagle sweaters and box of Livestrong bracelets. 

André Breton is credited with introducing automatic writing to the surrealists in 1919, five years after Gertrude Stein wrote Tender Buttons in what has been interpreted as automatic style, or writing unconsciously. Stein herself had performed automatic writing experiments on Harvard and Radcliffe students in 1898, connecting her results to Freud’s work on the origins of hysteria. (Although Freud distanced himself from a gendered theory of hysteria, he still considered gender a psychological criterion for hysterical behavior.) Stein was adamant that she saw no gender differences in her experiments, rather personality differences that didn’t allow the subjects — male or female — to take their minds off their pens. 

Stein disavowed automatism in her own writing, claiming instead that she wrote with an “xtra[sic] consciousness, excess.” 

TikTok-ers speak of wanting to escape the male gaze. But if there is a TikTok gaze, it is the idea of a gaze itself. Filters show you what you look like to someone else (with your face flipped). Or separate the sides of your face to turn you into two people in the backseat of a car, a test of facial symmetry. The TikTok gaze is you staring back at yourself in your phone. The TikTok gaze is you deciding to film yourself at all.

Do I look like a Republican?” asks a girl with long blond hair in a striped sweater and jeans. She plays up her distress for comedic effect but it’s clear these are her regular clothes, her regular hair. “Hey girly may I recommend bangs and a piercing,” someone says. “You gotta either dye your hair or stop wearing skinny jeans because...yes.” 

To be suburban is to always be on the wrong side of the politics of taste. Rebecca Jennings has written about the difficulty of being a girl online which, of course, is the difficulty of being a girl. Privilege is having choices, but oppression is when all of those choices lead to the same outcome. And some outcomes are better than others — objectification is not equivalent to poverty. What TikTok comments make clear is that there is no set of choices teenage girls can subscribe to that won’t subject them to mockery from themselves or others. 

Objectification is the endpoint of American girlhood; it never goes away, but the terms and conditions are constantly evolving. We’ve invented new ways to look down on one another. Whether man-repelling or mxn-repelling, it’s all deeply underwhelming. The other day I asked my husband and a friend what percentage of male leftists would press a button for universal healthcare and legal weed tomorrow if it meant abortion would be illegal. Then we sat in silence for a minute. I mean, what else is there to say?

The suburbs as a political symbol is a lot closer to its pop culture depiction: feminized and superficial. As static as an album cover. Women only attained a degree of political power when they became consumers, and society has been punishing them ever since by mocking their consumption habits. Not even white liberal Vermont women are safe. We want their votes, though, don’t we?

They say to a hammer everything looks like a nail. Maybe to a feminist everything looks like sexism. Well, I’m a feminist, and I know we’re living on the head of the nail and always have been. So I take my problems as they come. I am interested in the liberation of all women, which is a political problem, not one of taste. I am on the record hating corporate feminism

I want to leave behind the problems of my gender, but I’m not willing to make superficial changes to do so. I’ll keep my balayage and my Starbucks because giving them up wouldn’t make one iota of difference to the way society sees me. I am not of the mistaken belief that my cynicism will get me closer to liberation than a Live, Laugh, Love sign. Or that deliberate bimbofication as a rebellion against late capitalism is somehow more virtuous than women who get engaged at Disneyworld, as if we’re not all trapped on the same spectrum of coping. 

The first commercial that struck anything close to awe in me played before a movie at a Regal Cinema. It was the 2011 “Go Forth” Levi’s ad with “riot imagery” that was pulled in the UK because of protests against police brutality. As far as I know, the protest imagery was never in the American version at all. I didn’t know that the words in the commercial were Bukowski. I had never heard of Ryan McGinley or Wieden+Kennedy. I didn’t have anything that could be recognized as taste; my whole life was being marketed to. Here, someone was telling me I could be the main character.

Gen Z makes commercials for their own lives. They make the suburbs look sublime. Or boring. It doesn’t matter; let the algorithm decide. This TikTok has 12.7k likes: “Things to do in the suburbs.”

Scoop your friend
Watch the sunset
Get dunks
Go to target
Get food
Sit in the parking lot
Drive around

The first comment has 599 likes: “This is so Massachusetts.”

In my family, I played Phoebe to my brother’s Holden. When my dad moved to the midwest, my brother followed, but not before leaving two angry holes in the wall of his bedroom from the coat hooks on the back of his door. I met up with him in New York City — me, on a church youth trip, him on leave from his military academy — and he showed me a tattoo of his initials next to our stepbrothers’ and their cousin. “My brothers,” he said.

My younger sister reminded me of the tattoo years later when I lived in New York. I put down my chopsticks and chased the memory down the corridors of my brain, trying to find the pang of rejection where I had stashed it behind a tiny door. My sister and I had one of those child-sized Barbie Jeeps that we drove around the yard long after it was appropriate. We would compensate for our size by sitting on top of the jeep rather than in it, which threw off the vehicle’s center of balance.

Once, while driving up a small knoll on the lawn, the jeep flipped. I watched it soar over her in slow motion and put up my hand to protect her. When she eventually followed my brother to the midwest, I dropped her off at Logan Airport with a piece of notebook paper I’d written a Winnie the Pooh quote on: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” 

The first time I ate at a Michelin-starred restaurant was on a date with an older coworker at my first job out of college. I remember being impressed by him, because he had been published in The Atlantic. I think we were talking about my career trajectory. “I’m going to be very successful someday,” I told him. He laughed. Later in the meal he told me that if he had known we weren’t going to have sex he would have chosen a less expensive restaurant. I didn’t sleep with him. 

I wrote recently about being laid off from The New York Review of Books, but that wasn’t my first time being laid off from a media job. In 2016, when news of restructuring at Time Inc. hit my inbox, I roamed the building looking for someone who would tell me whether I still had a job. The news was eventually broken to me gently by a man in the finance department.

In the months following my layoff, I was faking it until I made it or I ran out of money. I wore the same outfit to every interview: my roommate's black Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, black tights, a faux fur coat with a big gold buckle I found at Search & Destroy for $75 and a pair of black kitten heels. The shoes were Italian leather with elegant, pointed toes. There was only one problem, hardly even a problem: the heel caps had worn down, or maybe they never had any. They were slingbacks, so when I went down the subway stairs I scrunched my toes up so they wouldn’t slide around. 

One day, on the way to yet another job interview, my heels clacked along on the sidewalk. “If everyone was as loud as you, the city would be unbearable,” said a voice behind me. I pivoted to face the middle-aged man. He saw a woman in an expensive-looking fur coat making too much noise. I saw a little girl in a leotard waiting for her mom to pick her up. “There’s stuff you can buy so they aren’t so loud,” he said. I think I stammered out an apology — but I still have the shoes. 

Men who have deliberately stolen my peace appear in the B-roll footage of my life. I play it back as I watch teenage girls bisect themselves to measure their own symmetry. I play it back as Michelle Carter is released early for good behavior. 

In the suburban gothic, there is little payoff for being a thinking woman. But it’s a privilege to think there is a payoff for thinking at all. I think because I am alive and because I can. All great things begin with internal resistance. Taste is just the mall conviction shops at. 

Ashes to ashes, suburbs to suburbs. From a dead end I came and to a dead end I’ll return. But like a single lit window in a dark house, I have never belonged to anyone but myself. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving.