Media, Precarity, and the Home: An Introduction

Maid (Netflix, 2021)
Anna Viola Sborgi introduces the roundtable with some reflections on the meanings of housing precarity in urban centers and the recent proliferation of images of housing inequality in popular culture.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.”]

A young woman (Sarah Greene) is sitting in a car, making phone call after phone call in an attempt to secure overnight hotel accommodation for her family. As her repeated and patient question, “Heya, I’m looking for a room?”, is met by refusal after refusal on the other end of the phone, the rain relentlessly taps outside the car. In one shot that we view from the outside, she uses her free hand to clean the moisture from the windshield. We are then drawn into the claustrophobic passenger compartment with her and catch glimpses of her also mostly incredibly patient kids in the back seat. As it becomes clear when no accommodation can be found, the car is going to be the only available shelter for the whole family.

Rosie calling hotels from a list to secure temporary housing (Rosie, Element Pictures, 2018).

A perceptive and intimate look into the hardship and relentlessness of the Irish housing crisis, Rosie (Paddy Breathnach, 2018) is only one in a larger corpus of recent and internationally acclaimed media representations that feature the precarity of home as a prominent theme. Global screens have been populated by images of stark socio-economic and housing inequality (e.g., Parasite, Bong Joon-ho, 2019), home-building struggles (e.g., Minari, Lee Isaac Chung, 2020), and alternative home-making practices (e.g., Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, 2020). Other productions have focused on interlinked experiences of homelessness, motherhood, and precarious labour. Films like Rosie and Herself (Phyllida Lloyd, 2020) and the very recent Netflix series Maid (Molly Smith Metzler, 2021) acutely portray the endless movement of young mothers and their children from one form of temporary accommodation to another, as they grasp for an ever-elusive sense of home.

Rosie and her family move in between hotel temporary accommodations (Rosie, Element Pictures, 2018).

Beyond feature films aimed at a larger public, these issues are represented in a wider mediascape constituted by a multiplicity of genres, modes, and formats, from activist documentaries to online media representations. This growing interest certainly reflects the increasing precarity of housing conditions worldwide. At the same time, as some of the contributions to this round table will demonstrate, these representations build on a longer media history of precarity, to which they need to be connected in order to be fully understood.

While the right to adequate housing is recognised by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various definitions of the home emphasise its importance to our sense of stability and safety, 1David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (London, New York: Verso, 2016), Introduction, Kindle edition. our contemporary experience of home is increasingly characterised by precarity and unsafety. Contemporary urban living is permeated by precarity, and this particular experience of home, as Mara Ferreri has recently suggested, is “inextricably linked to the surge and diffusion of temporary urban ideas and practices.” Home ownership has become unreachable for large sectors of the global population, especially the most vulnerable ones. As Paul Watt notes, taking East London as a case study for youth housing precarity, practices such as private renting, which were once thought of as a stepping stone to owning a house or long-term social renting, have become the only option available.2Paul Watt, “‘Press-ganged’ Generation Rent: Youth Homelessness, Precarity and Poverty in East London,” People, Place and Policy 14, no. 2 (2020): 128-141. However, in a sort of Catch-22 situation, soaring real estate prices have made long-term private renting unsustainable or inaccessible for many people.

While questions of home certainly extend beyond the city, the contemporary housing crisis is particularly acute in urban centres for a range of reasons, including rising population, gentrification, and real estate speculation connected to large regeneration schemes. Housing affordability is, therefore, a core component of the right to the city itself, and raises questions about how we want to shape urban spaces. The contributions gathered here explore a set of different living spaces within the city: inner-city housing developments, banlieues, suburbs, Roma camps, and zooming in, the courtyard and the domestic interior.

The complex engagement of screen media with these urban spaces provokes a series of questions for our roundtable. How do these spaces embody different and dynamic relations of proximity and distance, within themselves, but also in relation to other spaces in the city? How are movement and mobility represented within these spaces? How do the different types of movements (between the interior and the exterior, or between a shifting centre and periphery) relate to wider questions about social mobility and belonging (including, but not limited to, experiences of expulsion and displacement)? What is the experience of those who live in the spaces in between? Can movement be reversed and appropriated as a form of ownership/claim to urban space, even if temporary? Such questions recall Doreen Massey’s observation that “no spaces are stable, given for all time; all spaces are transitory and one of the most crucial things about spatiality (a characteristic which lends both its continual openness and, thus, its availability to politics) is that it is always being made.”3Karen Lury and Doreen Massey, “Making Connections,” Screen 40, no. 3 (Autumn 1999): 231. How are the complex spatialities of precarious homes and the city being made, inhabited, and negotiated through screen media?

This roundtable engages researchers from different disciplines and working on a variety of geographical areas to provide comparative perspectives on mediations of housing precarity and the urban. It intervenes within a growing area of scholarly interest on mediated representations of the home4Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Pamela Robertson Wojcik, The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Pamela Robertson Wojcik, ed., The Apartment Complex: Urban Living and Global Screen Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); John David Rhodes, Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Stefano Baschiera and Miriam De Rosa, eds., Film and Domestic Space: Architectures, Representations, Dispositif (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); Elizabeth Patton, Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020); Hollie Price, Picturing Home: Domestic Life and Modernity in 1940s British Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021). by focusing specifically on aspects of spatial inequality and precarity. It adopts an interdisciplinary, comparative urbanist perspective in order to illuminate connections, similarities, and differences across national concepts of the home and housing.

The contributors engage with a series of questions about “representation.” On the one hand, they investigate the most commonly depicted spaces — houses, apartments, blocks of flats, shelters, decanted homes, vacant properties — and how they are figured across different media platforms. On the other hand, they turn their attention to the categories of people represented in relation to housing precarity in the city. How does inequality (in relation to race, gender/sexuality, class, and/or other systems of inequality) affect the production of images of the city and the home? Are marginalised communities represented and do they have the space to represent themselves? If so, how and where? How are feelings of stability/instability, safety/unsafety expressed by those who live in precarious housing conditions within the city? Can this experience of marginality be reversed by media representations themselves?

The roundtable takes a broad trajectory, moving beyond the present to explore the longer histories of housing precarity across national contexts. While comparative approaches have been pursued in housing studies,5Paul Watt and Peer Smets, eds., Social Housing and Urban Renewal: A Cross-National Perspective (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2017); Sonia Arbaci, Paradoxes of Segregation: Housing Systems, Welfare Regimes and Ethnic Residential Change in Southern European Cities (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019); Raquel Rolnik, Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance (London: Verso, 2019). there is great potential for developing such a transnational approach to questions of housing and the media. Focusing on different countries in North America and Europe, the contributors elicit a series of contrasting patterns in relation to housing systems and how they are portrayed. While these differences need to be considered, we also hope to underscore common patterns in representation by taking a broad approach in the selection of materials under scrutiny. The contributors investigate precarious homes across different genres (horror, social realist features, comedies, melodrama, and musicals), modes (documentary, narrative film), and types of media (film, television, websites, and online images), bringing together historical, spatial, and ethnographic perspectives.

The roundtable contributors reflect on the above questions from a range of different perspectives. Pamela Robertson Wojcik discusses the longer histories of precarity by turning her attention to mobile figures such as tramps, arguing for their centrality to the cinematic and cultural history of the United States. Caterina Sartori reflects on the precarity of home ownership in the context of the UK’s Right to Buy scheme and the regeneration of social housing estates by drawing on her field research and examples from media representations of the Aylesbury Estate in London. Isabelle McNeill explores the domestic interior in French banlieue films, an often-neglected aspect in scholarly explorations of this genre. Adam Ochonicky elaborates on the idea of vacancy both in relation to the American Midwest and empty homes in horror films. Overall, the roundtable contributors seek to understand how moments of profound urban change reconfigure precarious identities in relation to the home and the city.

Notes[+]

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