A Suburban Fairy Tale: A Simple Visual Analysis of Edward Scissorhands
Edward Scissorhands, a film released in 1990 directed by Tim Burton, is a fairy tale about how a young man with scissors for hands encounters the everyday “normal” world of an American suburb. Like most fairy tales, Edward Scissorhands is a morality play, designed to examine the continuum between “normalcy” and “difference” (and incidentally to explain why it snows in Florida).
The film explores these categories by setting up two very different spaces that signify these opposites: the suburban cul-de-sac with ranch style houses and their manicured lawns oppose the gothic castle overgrown with creepy vines that towers over the street. At the beginning of the film, the suburb stands for the normal; it is the place where nice families share a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The exaggerated details of suburbia (the houses and cars painted only in saturated colors, the synchronized movements of working fathers) serve only as an affectionate reminder of the everyday world we of the middle-class know only too well. Like the ranch-houses they adorn, the rich solid colors become markers of a kind of 1950s “approach to living,” more than of a particular decorative style. The gothic castle with all the conventional icons of the horror film, is clearly the domain of difference. As in Frankenstein, the overgrown garden, the dark and dilapidated mansion, the Inventor’s mixture of man and machine in his work suggest that this is a place where human hubris challenges the domain of God, bringing doom to all. But by an odd set of circumstances and the working through of an ethical crisis, at the end of the film the suburb becomes the place of horror, the place where difference is rejected as alien because of small-mindedness, bigotry and misunderstanding. At the end of the film, the suburb’s odd (but coordinated) palette and its extreme orderliness seem less affectionate details and more sinister signs of similarity, suggesting perhaps that the fears of critics in the 1950s that suburban housing developments would encourage a “creeping consumer conformity” were not too far off the mark.
At first Edward represents a kind of exotic difference to the suburbanites as he reinterprets the environment they live in, making it temporarily more like the gothic: boring hedges become 3-D arboreal sculptures, bouffants become avant-garde hair creations, and dogs’ coats become new expressions of their owners’ trendy individuality. At the same time, his work upsets the perfect orderliness of the suburban environment, introducing the element of nonconformity into a community that seems to have stagnated in the mid-1950s.
So in order to manage their discomfort at his difference, the neighborhood tries to reinterpret Edward in their own frames of reference: Peg tries to make him over with Avon products, the entire Boggs family politely ignores his difference, Esmerelda recognizes him as the devil’s spawn, and Joyce sees him as a (perverse) alternative to the dishwasher repairman. But as the film progresses, and as Edward’s stubborn difference threatens to expose the seedy, over-consuming underside of their bedroom community (in particular Jim’s greedy materialism and Joyce’s rapacious sexuality), the suburb turns on him, refusing to recognize his fundamental humanity, thus exposing the pale underbelly of society.
Edward’s trouble with the law and his refusal to accept money for his gardening give us a clue as to what is being affected by his difference, by his humanity. These episodes suggest that he is really upsetting the social contract that governs life in the suburb by minimizing chaos and non-conformity; the film calls this social contract “etiquette” and reveals its attitude towards it when the Inventor pronounces it boring, and prefers to humanize his surrogate son with limericks instead. Edward’s real difference thus is as much moral and ethical as it is physical. He represents the human cost of maintaining the social contract.
Edward Scissorhands, then, participates in the tradition of suburban critique, suggesting that suburbia is the place where a truly human society has stopped evolving. His expulsion from the suburb at the end of the film, Kim’s inability to cross over into and remain in his world, and the once-upon-a-time format of the framing story suggest that the possibility of redeeming the suburbs as a humane place to live is nothing but a fairy tale.