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  • Social Space and the Suburb in Mike Cahill’s King of CaliforniaMapping Race, Neoliberalism, and Narratives of the Past in the Southern California Landscape
  • Emily Cheng (bio)


Mike Cahill’s 2007 comedy-drama film, King of California, tells the story of a father and daughter’s quest for a previously unknown treasure trove of gold doubloons lost by the fictional Father Juan Florismarte Torres in the seventeenth-century Spanish exploration of California. The main characters, Charlie (Michael Douglas) and sixteen-year-old Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), undertake this adventure inspired by the Spanish explorers, and in doing so navigate a constantly shifting landscape of suburban sprawl. From their position as modern-day “explorers,” Charlie and Miranda offer a critical perspective on their Southern California suburban space of Santa Clarita, located outside Los Angeles. Their use of historic maps and descriptions of the seventeenth-century physical geography to navigate the present space of strip malls, freeways, and mass housing developments highlights the environmental loss wrought by suburban sprawl. The film associates this physical devastation with the social, political, and economic terrains organized by capitalist development. At stake in this quest is the imagination of a California dream that celebrates the individual against its corruption by consumerism and conformity.

The film frames Charlie and Miranda as critics of suburban social and physical conformity. This approach particularly plays out in their position of resistance to the consumerism and privatized space of family valorized by the dominant ideologies of neoliberal [End Page 25] capitalism. Their social distance from the community living in newly built tract housing is signified from the beginning of the film through the visual contrast of their old house falling into disrepair. Diverging from the normative nuclear families around her, Miranda has been living alone since she was fourteen and has dropped out of high school in order to work a low-wage job at McDonald’s to support herself. Charlie, who masterminds the quest, is framed through his difference from the beginning of the film as we are introduced to him upon his discharge from the county mental health institution where he has spent two years in treatment for bipolar disorder. While Miranda initially doubts Charlie’s quest as insanity, she goes along with it and by the end comes to realize the validity of Charlie’s viewpoint that the “sane” world is blind to the constraints and consequences of capitalist conformity.

While the overt narrative of the film might be understood as a critique of neoliberal consumer capitalism that celebrates individual thought, this essay suggests that this narrative is complicated by neoliberalism’s central focus on the politics of privatization and responsibility at the level of the individual. By approaching the film through a critical race lens, my reading addresses King of California as a cultural text that embodies the contradictions of the centrality of the individual to neoliberal ideology. The film launches a progressive critique that defamiliarizes the dominant valorization of social conformity and consumerism; however, it does so by focusing narrowly on the economic terrain as a largely separate category.

In a sense, the film makes use of the very terms of neoliberalism by leaving normative ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality uninterrogated. As Lisa Duggan writes:

Neoliberalism, a late twentieth-century incarnation of Liberalism, organizes material and political life in terms of race, gender, and sexuality as well as economic class and nationality, or ethnicity and religion. But the categories through which Liberalism (and thus also neoliberalism) classifies human activity and relationships actively obscure the connections among these organizing terms.


By stopping its critique short of engaging the complex interconnections of the social, political, and economic terrains, the film [End Page 26] performs the racialized privilege of whiteness in regard to the construction of the US liberal individual.

This neoliberal separation of social and political categories underwrites the film’s appropriation of racialized histories and memories of California in constructing its filmic world. Through addressing the racial thinking embedded in the romanticized narratives of California history, for instance of Spanish exploration rather than conquest, this essay examines the racialization of the notion of the individual constructed in these mythologies of the West. In...