1950s America: Picture Perfect Rebellion

February 12, 2018 bxhistorycom 0 Comments

The legacy of the 1950s is largely remembered as Utopian and conservative. This legacy is one shrouded in fallacy. 1950s culture was not at all the picture perfect period that modern films and popular media has portrayed. While there was certainly an emphasis on patriotism, traditional gender roles, and the living of a domestic lifestyle structured around christian values, the black and white virtues of I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best that define the era, in fact, were extraordinarily gray. And as the decade progressed, the “idealized” images of the American family that was broadcasted in almost every home functioned to create the “perfect” conditions for rebellion.

Many of those that populated America in the 1950s had trudged through or were born into the woe and chaos of both the Great Depression and World War Two. They became known as the Silent Generation (mid-1920s to mid-1940s). Despite the many preservative efforts to (and enforcement of) that silence regarding topics deemed unchristian or, worse, unpatriotic, it was during this period that a plethora of alternative attitudes and counteractive thoughts about sexuality, society, and race were given a voice. The 1950s was the era that gave birthed (literally) to the riotous and revolutionary culture of the 1960s.

Sex in the 1950s is often presented as conservative, inhibited, and, if not entirely absent from American culture, kept entirely “behind closed doors” in every sense of the phrase implies.

Popular television refused to acknowledge sexuality. Screenwriters, directors, and producers were comedically caution with the content they’d create for broadcast to avoid any inference of sex or sexuality that could be drawn. Sitcoms regulated the environment of “bedroom” scenes between their fictitious spouses to be more sterile and platonic than what was even logically reasonable. To evade any allusion to intimacy (and intercourse) between TV couples, husband and wife characters were depicted more like sister and brother than romantic parters. In these scenes, not only were the couples fully clothed they were arranged in separate beds. 

 

One of the most iconic T.V. couple of the hit sitcom, I Love Lucy, sleeping in separate beds.

In spite of the great lengths taken to mitigate sexuality in 1950s American culture, the era was not as ridged as popular media might lead its audience to infer. In actuality, American bedrooms “booming” with sexuality; so much so that the heat couples were enjoying under the sheets gave birth to a legacy very appropriately titled as the Baby Boomer generation (1946 – 1964). While the spike in the brith rate during the 1950s has been correlated to the economic “boom” in prosperity, financial security, and just overall rise in quality of life (consumerism) that followed the victory of World War Two – a consequence of America’s geographic advantage (protection on both side by the Atlantic and Pacific) over the landlocked Axis and Allied powers whose cities (some more than others) became war zones – it should not be overlooked (or underestimated) that 1950s was also experiencing a sexual revolution that the 1960s and 1970s would take full advantage of. 

 

U.S. Birth Rage from 1909 – 2003 [source link
It was in the early 1950s – December of 1953, to be exact – that the lascivious Playboy Magazine was first published by cultural revolutionary, Hugh Hefner (1926 – 2017). The popular male magazine not only allowed men to acknowledge their sexuality, but it also made way for the creation of new attitudes about women and their’s sexuality.

Many depictions of women in 1940s and 1950s print media characterized a modest and dutiful woman whose concerns consisted of the fulfillment of domestic duties – cooking, cleaning, and child rearing – and the maintenance of her desirability to her husband – her weight, shape, and age. The media seemed built around exposing a woman’s insecurities for profit, and, if she had none, then creating a self-consciousness that would lead to a collapse in her self-esteem through printing images of extraordinarily beautiful and extravagant women as the standard that every women should set for herself (and buy whatever product being marketed) as that was the woman men wanted.

 

Hefner’s Playboy magazine featured the everyday, proper, and often working woman. Yes, she was nude, but she was not just an object of carnal fascination, existing to perform a service or fit into an idealized weight, shape, or age for the attention of a man. She was her own sexual being – self-determined, capable, and vivacious – and she was to be fulfilled as much as she was to be desired. This was immensely different form the docile, innocent, chaste motherly character in Leave it to Beaver. In Playboy a  woman were openly lustful and teasing, and this was what made her desirable – not the food she prepared or the way she cleaned house. In this way, whether intentional or not (the cultural ramifications are the same), Playboy publicized (and sold) a progressive feminist depiction of women that altered the expectations of the men who invested in the Playboy.

The first edition of Playboy Magazine [source link]
In addition to championing for the liberation of women’s sexuality, Hefner further revolutionized 1950s culture (and the way a brand was marketed) through establishing Playboy as an entity that was beyond simply men’s entertainment. Playboy wasn’t just a brand; Playboy was an identity. Hefner balanced the controversial images of the semi-nude/ nude women with thoughtfully selected literature that brought “The Playboy” to life. Hefner created a philosophy, and it was this philosophy that made it distinctive (and enduring) from its predecessor, Modern Man. Playboy was a mindset that men could adopt to and become “The Playboy.” There was more to The Playboy than sex and beautiful women. Hefner set a new standard for men in society. The Playboy was a gentlemen – refined, well read, and intelligent. He was not racist. He was not crude. The playboy was sophisticated.  And it was his duty to pleasure women, but most importantly, the Playboy went against the status quo. He was not just about sexual freedom, but about personal freedom as a whole – an idea radical for the cookie-cutter “Silent Generation” of the 1950s.

In the same year that the first publication of Playboy was released (and sold out of Hefner’s kitchen office), biologist, sexologist, and “Father of The Sexual Revolution” as proclaimed by American Historian and Journalist Richard Rhodes Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894 – 1956), published the Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), following Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). Earlier, Kinsey conducted interviews with men and women on their sexuality. In his research he concluded that women liked sex, despite what the majority of 1950s popular culture hosted. The Kinsey Reports revealed that not only were people of the 1950s having sex, they were having a lot of it as well as sex of different kinds. He even went as far to explore sexual orientation. He found that a lot of people were in the middle when it came to sexual orientation – nether strictly heterosexual or homosexual. What Kinsey did is similar to what Hefner did – he brought sexuality out into the open air of the puritanical 1950s.

Screenshot from KinseyInsititue.org of the ‘Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale’ or “Kinsey Scale” that was first published in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) [source link
In the 1950s, the age of homophobic McCathyism, the subject of sexuality was as  political as it was social, and the actions of both revolutionaries came with severe repercussions. While Kinsey eventually became defunded and shamed by harsh criticism from his peers within the behavioral sciences, Hefner’s Playboy was ridiculed as seditious. Playboy was in the direct line of fire with other magazines and comic books that were scrutinized by the 1950s House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials that had been organized by the the House of Representatives in a morally charged investigation of “obscene” media that was found to be in circulation. It was a “crusade against smut” as detailed by , the Associate Professor and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University in Newark.

It was this violation of the status quo that put Playboy and Hefner at risk. Luckily, it would be that identity with a principled philosophy and association with sophistication that pivoted the investigation away from charging Playboy with obscenity. In ‘How Playboy skirted the anti-porn crusade of the 1950s,’ Whitney Strub describes as Playboy “always really a lifestyle magazine, with nudes simply acting as window dressing,” summarizing the brand’s exclusion from the witch hun.  Playboy, as Strub explains, “The magazine – at least, how it presented itself – was simply too classy to be confused for porn.” 

The Cold War in full swing and Red Scare was still active in 1950s America, and the Silent Generation was often mandated to maintain such voicelessness. Despite that the massive discrepancy in the missile gap between the United States and Russia – America’s 20,000 missiles to Russia’s 1,600 – the media and the government worked together to perpetuate the Cold War crisis to control information both inside and outside the nation. Through conservatism, conformity, and suppression of all things “other,” the 1950s was one of the darkest politically periods – arguably tyrannical – in American history. Yet, it would be the rigidity of this environment that fertilized the roots of revolution, and it was this Silent Generation that the Civil Rights Movement would inherit its voice. The legacy of 1950s was this:

The Pill – the oral contraceptive; birth control – was the technological advancement needed to springboard the rise of the 1960s Women’s Movement that became known as the Third Wave of Feminism. It was in the 1950s that contraceptives gained popularity as well as moral criticism. In a time where women’s sexuality was just being publicized with aid from the Kinsey Reports and Hefner’s normalization of women’s sexuality, social acceptance (and availability) of contraceptives was improving. Contraceptives gave women an opportunity to explore their sexuality, liberating women as masters of their own bodies, and, subsequently, masters of their own lives. Nearing the end of the 1950s, women were beginning remember the vigor for independence that their great grandmother’s had championed for in the First and Second Wave of Feminist. While no where near the same numbers that the 1960s and 1970s would see, women began to test their abilities in sports, politics, and business, but they would certainly get the ball rolling with contributions that rivaled Playboy in the publication of Cosmos Magazine. However, Cosmos was not completely revolutionary, and Playboy may have been considered  more feminist by today’s standards. While brave enough to discuss women’s sexuality, with articles that would discuss how to find, pleasure, and keep a man,  Cosmos was not against advocating for the confining gender roles of the 1950s nor  was Cosmos above capitalizing on feminine insecurities perpetuated by those roles that left women dependent on men for survival. Regardless of its philosophy, Cosmos was still publicized the details of female experience in 1950s. It was an outlet that created a female audience that sought self-improvement. 

The Civil Rights Movement that would flourish in the 1960s began in the 1950s. In the 1954 revolutionary ruling of Brown vs Board of Education. The breakthrough  dismantled the Jim Crow laws that ruled Southern society and gave Caucasians  dominance over African Americans (inside and outside of their segregated communities), resulting in terrible acts of violence against minorities. Jim Crow laws were constitutionally justified by the Separate but Equal clause of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling, Plessey v Ferguson. The Supreme court decision in Brown vs Board of Education was groundbreaking as it was the first step taken address the inequality of education that truly barred African Americans from political participation, economic opportunity, and full inclusion in American society.

The Civil Right movement in the 1950s started the fire that would set the 1960s ablaze. What is now regarded as perhaps the most iconic spark of the racial  revolution was lynch mob murder of a fourteen-year-old boy, Emmitt Till, who whistled to compensate for a stutter he had when pronouncing ‘b’ sounds. In August of 1955, Till, a native from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi, and had stopped into Bryant Grocery and Meat Market. The store was being managed by a white, 21-year-old woman, Carolyn Bryant, while her husband was in Texas. Bryant would be 80-years-old before she confessed that the sexual harassment she had accused Till of (and testified to) was a entirely fabricated. Bryants lies against Till had were spread through the town of Money, MS, and upon her husband’s return, they began looking for Till. Bryant’s husband, brother-in-law, and two other men employed by the Bryants kidnapped the young boy from his family’s small home in the darkest and earliest hours in the morning, bound him, and took him to a barn where they beat and mutilated Till beyond recognition before shooting him by the river they dumped him body after tying a barbed wire around his neck that was tied to the heavy 70lbs fan. Despite an extensive search effort, Till’s body did not resurface until three days after his disappearance. 

In regard to the technology of the time, his murder was publicized and the event received protest form both black and white Americans – uniting the two races and demonstrating the powerful social and political role photography as a technology would play in the decades to follow. The 1950s would see all forms of Civil Rights protest. The Martin Luther King’s influence began to emerge as he led a bus boycott in 1955. This began the campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in protest of national segregation. This event was followed by the press and broadcasted, bringing even more attention to the issues in the South. The 1950s was where the tactic of sit-ins were first used, and student participation rose. The 1950s were vital to the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

The overly confirmative, politically repressive, and socially constrained 1950s acts as a foundation for the radical change that exploded in the 1960s. The 1950s marked the beginning of revolution and awareness that the 1960s would capitalize on. The leaders of the 1960s were grown in the suffocating atmosphere of the 1950s, and they would go on to reeve up and radicalize the culture of the 1960s. The 1950s is an era marketed today as “Pleasantville”, but when truly analyzed, the 1960s was pinnacle to the riotous transformation of the 1960s in that it was teaming with radicalism.

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