The Origin Of "The Fifties"

Discussion in 'The Golden Era' started by LizzieMaine, Feb 13, 2014.

  1. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    My distaste for "meme" is due largely to my intense dislike for Richard Dawkins, but that's a personal distaste on my part. If the dictionary accepts it, so be it.

    I have many distinct memories of the 1960's, but I never experienced "The Sixties" -- they didn't happen in my town. That simply demonstrates that other decades can be turned into -- ick -- memes with little relation to reality -- which can be used just as easily for manipulative purposes as "The Fifties." "The Sixties" have, in fact been used almost as often for that purpose as "The Fifties," and in much the same way, by the very same people. "The Sixties" are used as the mirror adversary of "The Fifties," either good or evil depending on the perspective of the manipulator.

    "Andy Griffith" was definitely not a "Sixties" show in the sense of "The Sixties". But I'd submit that it was actually a "Forties" show more than a "Fifties" show -- much of its structure seems to consicously emulate that of "The Great Gildersleeve," especially the way in which the town was portrayed. One of the Griffith writers, John Whedon, had been "Gildersleeve's" head writer in the mid-1940s, so this similarity is likely not coincidental. The Paul Henning-Jay Sommers series, "Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction," and "Green Acres" are similarly much, much more in a 1940s style than "The Fifties"
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  2. herringbonekid

    herringbonekid I'll Lock Up

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    do you have an example of this in action ?

    i don't see the manipulative aspect, but maybe it's a uniquely U.S. phenomenon.
     
  3. The first part of your statement though is key. It didn't happen "in your town". But it did in others. My mother wore poodle skirts and listened to Elvis and hung out in the soda shop. My father, who is from a far different upbringing, never saw television, or more than 50 people together at the same time or a building over two stories until he joined the Army in 1957, which for him was like arriving on another planet (not to mention that his experiences in his 1957-1962 Army years completely turned upside down any idealizing of that period, socially or politically). That doesn't mean the former is pure fiction.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  4. Exactly.
     
  5. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    That seems likely as not. Economically, America was experiencing a postwar boom of unprecedented proportions when your country was still undergoing food rationing, and we were stepping into our new role as the dominant superpower while The Empire was on the wane.
     
  6. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    It's difficult to cite the best examples without getting overtly political, but just for the sake of discussion --

    "In the Fifties, women didn't have to work outside the home because the husband was able to earn enough to support the family alone. Unions have caused companies to move offshore because of their harsh demands. We need to get back to the ways of the Fifties so that our families can be stronger and manufacturing jobs can return."

    That's a paraphrase of a lot of -- ugh -- memes that you hear quite often. The implication is that labor has too much power nowadays and in the Fifties it didn't. The listener, who doesn't really know much about "The Fifties" except for that image of "The Fifties" as a time of strong nuclear families and happy workers, is going to connect the two ideas even though the premise is false: in the actual 1950s, union membership in the United States was at an all-time high. And the other premise is false as well -- the percentage of married women in the workforce increased steadily over the historical 1950s, reaching 30 percent in 1960. That's about half of today's percentage, but it was part of a steadily increasing trend that began as far back as the 1890s. During no decade during the twentieth century did the percent of married women in the workplace *decrease.*

    Or, here's another. "In "The Fifties," women vowed at the altar to 'obey' their husbands -- an overt enforcement of the patriarchal society which dominated American family life until the advent of modern feminism. Marriage is merely another weapon used by the patriarchy to oppress women."

    Well, again, where to start? First off, no major religious denomination required women to vow to "obey" their husbands in their standard marriage rituals in the actual 1950's. The movement to remove "obey" from the wedding ceremony was well underway in the last quarter of the 19th century, and had been accomplished in most denominations by the first quarter of the 20th. My own copy of the Methodist "Book of Discipline," edition of 1916, omits "obey" from the wedding ritual, and most other mainstream denominations had also eliminated it by that time. While there may well have been ultraconservative denominations which kept "obey" well after this, they can hardly be considered representative of mainstream thought in the US in the actual 1950's, an era in which the concept of "companionate marriage" was very much in vogue. But the imagery of "The Fifties" makes it easy to propagate a fiction that, in turn, is intended to shock and outrage the audience into adopting a particular point of view.

    It may be in both these cases that the speakers have themselves been manipulated into expressing the beliefs that they do. But the further back you work in tracing the origin of those beliefs, you'll eventually find the point where they were consciously worked out and tied into the imagery of "The Fifties" for maximum impact, regardless of truth or falsity. That's what I'm talking about, and that's how it works.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  7. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I'm not saying it is. I'm simply saying it wasn't the single, definitive image that modern culture wants it to be. When you say "The Fifties" or "The Sixties" certain images come to mind as defining the era which only, in fact, represented a portion of that era, and in many cases have been built up and exaggerated beyond anything they were in real life. If "The Sixties" are to be taken literally, every single person in America between the ages of 17 and 29 in 1969 was at Woodstock, when obviously this wasn't the case in the real world. There were many tens of millions of people in the United States in 1969 for whom "Woodstock" was a typewriter, not a defining event of mass culture.

    That's what I'm talking about -- the way in which the popular image engulfs the reality. "The Fifties" and "The Sixties" are caricatures, not realities.

    Every cultural stereotype at some point was triggered by a reality. But every stereotype is also a broad caricature of that reality, not the reality itself.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  8. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    Which is why it would behoove anyone who wanted to paint "The Fifties" as a model to either embrace or recoil from, to keep the model deliberately vague, a loose set of impressions based on a half-remembered childhood or old T.V. shows. When making an inductive argument of questionable water-holding ability, specificity is the last thing you want. Better to rely on the spongy associations we already have built-in to our consciousness to soak up that little ink jot of a statement and dilute it in our minds by capillary action.
     
  9. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    I like this description. If you want to sell one message, either politically or commercially, you use "The Fifties" ... a message of American expansion, confidence, the values of a large (usually European) middle class who are somehow supported by industry. It's a fun America where things might get a little "naughty" (hot rods, slightly funky hair, pouty James Dean) but they weren't rebellious or scary (like the Alabama National Guard or Kent State) and were utterly in denial of the Cold War.

    The same sort of message, updated slightly, appeals to a person on the other end of the social pole ... that message is of the "fun" 1960s. Lots of psychedelic rock, fun rebellion, being "different" from the establishment yet getting lauded by your peers for it, forcefully making a difference in the world without quite having to lay down your life in a real revolution. I'm struggling to come up with some more stuff that is tickling the edge of my mind but failing.

    Both are caricatures (well said!) used to sell products and ideas and politics ... just as many other eras have been mined for the same reason. In those same 1950s and '60s, "Westerns" were used to sell some myth about clear cut "values", the good guys and the bad guys ... the later 19th Century was actually a time of great moral subjectivity BECAUSE the frontier was a place you could escape to and start over. Recently, WWII has been popular to sell a time when "we all pulled together" and has been very useful for selling violence for a righteous cause ... The Good War. There are aspects of these caricatures being true. Character was valued on the frontier when it showed up because it rare and necessary. The Allies did fight the more evil Axis (though, on modern terms, we weren't such angels ourselves).

    It seems like every tool and every culture ever known to history is still in existence somewhere because there is a niche where it is still useful somewhere. Every era has many cultures that shift with the age of the population and the message an era sends. The message of "the '60s" was so seductive that it rapidly gathered up many who weren't really part of "that" generation. People take up these values and let go of them when it makes sense for them ... not on any timeline of decades.

    It's getting clearer. The decade of my childhood was the 1960s and it was spent traveling back and forth between psychedelic West Hollywood and a small town in Colorado. Now West Hollywood is fighting to make people remember it's role in '60s music culture and the Colorado town is full of want-to-be hippies who fundamentally misunderstand the original ethos ... and I'm not lauding that ethos, they are just playing at it without getting it at all!
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  10. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Exactly. Now, think about all the times you've heard exactly that being done.
     
  11. sheeplady

    sheeplady I'll Lock Up Bartender

    First of all, thank you for the compliment. :eek: I'm a bit embarrassed.

    Second of all, we might be talking a bit at cross-purposes for this discussion, as my familiarity of British history is weak- but I think there are enough similarities with U.S. history we can have this discussion.

    I'll start by saying that although there are similarities between boomers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, but they are not exactly the same. I think that's important to say. I also think it is important to say that all generations have their downfalls and pluses. But to understand why I think the boomer's are the dreamers, I have to start with talking about the generation born slightly before them.

    There is a theorist named Carlson who wrote a book called "The Lucky Few." It examines the men and women born between 1925 and 1945 in the United States, using demographic data. These are essentially depression and war babies. They are a very small generation- dwarfed by those who were old enough to fight WWII (the generation before) and those boomers who were born post-war (the generation following). I studied these individual's in my dissertation, and I am a huge follower and believer in Carlson's theories about generational change and influences on generations.

    Carlson proposes that there are advantages and disadvantages to being born in a small versus a large generation. In a large generation, like the boomers, there are many networking connections. A large generation can get things done simply by numbers. If most of a large generation wants something, they are a force to be reckoned with. And I do believe that the baby boomers *did* get things done- because they were such a large generation they were a *force to be reckoned with.*

    One of the advantages of a smaller generation like the lucky few, is that they tend to have a lot of opportunity for advancement. When leadership positions open up, because there are fewer competing for those positions at the same levels, you are more likely to advance. In addition, you benefit from the structural advantages created for previous generations. You get more attention in school because your classes are smaller- classrooms bought and teachers hired often to teach the larger generation before. In the United States, the Lucky Few benefited from things created for the World War II Warrior Generation- the G.I. bill that provided free college-level education for servicemen, for instance. (But unlike the WWII Generation, they were more likely to serve during peacetime to reap these benefits- a distinct advantage to serving during wartime for various reasons.)

    Because of these advantages to a small generation, many many leaders in the United States emerged from the Lucky Few generation. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gloria Steinem, Malcom X- they are all members of the Lucky Few generation. Carlson says that their advancement was due in part to the size of their generation and opportunity for advancement. These leaders of the civil rights movement and the feminist movements are not boomers. I would argue that these were the ones that led and incised the Baby Boomers to uptake these goals of equal rights and fairness. These were fights that started long before the boomers and continue to this day.

    That's not to discount the role of the baby boomer. I believe that the baby boomer was fundamental to making things happen. The boomers are dreamers, and they took these dreams and absolutely ran with them. They were the brawn to making many things happen. They weren't the only generation that led to change, but they were integral- just as the Lucky Few and the Warriors before them.

    However, I see many of the dreams that were dreamed during that time period as falling extremely short of their goals. For instance, while we have little "formal" segregation, in the United States we have increasing socially segregated neighborhoods and cities. We have vast differences afforded to those who are poor and working class versus those who are middle and upper class in regards to education, employment, and even receiving adequate healthcare. We still do not have equal pay for equal work. We saw the epidemics of cocaine grip our society in the 1980s, along with the Greed is Good philosophy. We have a sense now that our politicians are corrupt and believe we can't anything about it- something that I believe started with Watergate and has permeated our society ever since. (I understand some of this is U.S. based, but it is what I am familiar with and what informs my opinion.) This is what I mean by the dreams being lost. The boomers shot really high with their dreams- kind of like "shoot for the moon, if you fail you end up in the stars." I totally agree with you that these generations did change society, in many ways for the better (and I don't argue with any of your examples of good change).

    But I think as it became apparent that the boomer generation had reached the point that their goals were not going any further. They also slowly lost their leaders one-by-one from the silent generation. Because there were so many boomers, the stage was too crowded to allow boomer leaders to emerge in the same way the Lucky Few generation's smallness allowed leaders to emerge. The boomers also grew up and the demands of life took them away from being able to massively put their bulk towards societal change. I also feel that Martin Luther King Jr's assassination and Watergate hit the boomer generation very hard and in many ways represented the start to the end to many of the early dreams of the generation. It took a couple of years for these events to sink in, but I do believe they started a ripple signaling the beginning of the end when they happened. Interestingly enough, this ripple seems to have started at the same time as "the fifties" concept started according to the article.

    So.... that is why I think the dream's fell short. It isn't that they didn't accomplish anything- it is that their dreams were so big that I am not sure if they could be met under any circumstance. Many of the events that came towards the end of the boomer's movement were traumatic and brought into question if more could be done than what was already achieved.

    Again, this is not a criticism of any generation. We all have our downfalls.
     
  12. sheeplady

    sheeplady I'll Lock Up Bartender

    No, but I think there is a good question as to why the fifties focuses so much on the former rather than the latter as our cultural representation of the 1950s.

    When we commonly think of the 1960s, we think of things like the Beatles, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Kent State (occurred in 1970, but in most of the popular imagination that was "still" the sixties), Kennedy's and later King's assassination, and the "I have a dream" speech. Some of those things are seen as "good things" but some of those aren't in our popular imagination.

    So why is the witch-hunting of the McCarthy era and the duck and cover left out of the 1950s? While I can buy that McCarthy was an early 1950's event and therefore might be left out of the popular discussion of the decade, Duck and Cover was something that permeated the entire 1950s. I've never met anyone who went to school in the 1950s who doesn't remember some version of Duck and Cover. Even the dark parts of the civil right's movement seem to have been taken out of the 1950s and put collectively in our memory of the 1960s.

    Why do we seem to remember the bad things that happened in the 1960s and 1970s as parts of those decades, but not in our cultural interpretation of the 1950s? Why is the fifties represented as the generation of the status quo rather than the dramatic sweeping change it actually was?
     
  13. Fading Fast

    Fading Fast

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    LM,

    It took me awhile (and all the further explanations and back and forth you had with others) for me to understand your point on the 50s and I think I got it, but then I think it applies to every other decade as well.

    Some view and promulgate the 1960s as a time of positive youth rebellion breaking down an old, prejudice society while emboldening government to expand its social net to the most vulnerable in our society. Others see and promulgate the idea that the 1960s saw a spoiled generation of over-educated and coddled young people break down many of the traditions, values and ideals that made society civil ("We never had to lock our doors until the radical 60s came along') while engendering a bloated set of government programs that didn't solve the problems they said they would but have left us with massive government debt to this day.

    Advocates of each view, and many, many more like them, will pick and choose their examples and cultural references to support their argument and then promote that view as "the 1960s."

    I believe you are saying there is something different and unique to how this is being down to the 1950s - with great respect for your views (and incredible wealth of knowledge) and thoughtfulness, I am still struggling to see that there is something unique to the marketing of the 50s versus, say, the 60s. But let me acknowledge that I recognize that I might still be missing your nuance or argument as, again, I respect how thoughtful you approach these topics.
     
  14. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    It's simply been going on longer with "The Fifties," and is used more aggressively in modern discourse. "The Sixties" are pretty much one of two things -- you're either a hippie or a hardhat in terms of how they're discussed. But "The Fifties" have a bizarre, chameleonlike property of being anything to anyone, and can be used to prove or disprove just about any point of view about American society over the last half century. I don't believe there's any other period -- again, aside from the Civil War era -- which has been used in that particular way.

    It's interesting that nobody ever uses "The Thirties" or "The Forties" that way -- with the possible exception of the whole "Greatest Generation" thing, which didn't really appear as a cohesive "meme" until Tom Brokaw gave it expression in the '90s. "The Thirties" ought to be seen as even more revolutionary in many respects than just about any other decade in the twentieth century, not excepting "The Sixties," but they aren't -- perhaps because the Boomers weren't around then to claim them.
     
  15. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    I'll actually float a corollary notion here, latching on the notions of "The Sixties." The youth counter/culture movement of the 1960s was something participated in by only a small minority of Americans. The trappings of that movement--long hair/hippie print shirts and dresses/music defined by loud electric guitars--I get the feeling didn't start seeping into mainstream acceptance until around the time of my own birth ('72), at which point the actual "movement" was effectively over. But those who participated or even grew up then almost immediately began mythologizing "The Sixties." Whether or not "The Sixties" happened where you lived, one could see the aesthetic residue of it on T.V., in ads, in the clothing styles of the 70s. So I posit that "The Sixties" was a distilled, cultivated impression, even before "The Fifties." If the "The Sixties," was an ideal, then "The Fifties" must have been, by implication, hopelessly square, the dark ages from which we had emerged. I therefore posit that this notion of "The Fifties," actually coalesced in response to the equally inaccurate ideal of "The Sixties." How you felt about either one, and which was your cup of tea was a matter of personal belief.

    This may be, as anything I say here, a perception tinted by my own age and background.
     
  16. herringbonekid

    herringbonekid I'll Lock Up

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    exactly. people always make sweeping generalisations (highlighting some facts, ignoring others) when it suits their particular agenda. nothing new there, or specific to the 50s (or the 60s).
     
  17. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I think there's a good point in that -- "The Sixties" *need* "The Fifties" in order for the whole concept of "The Sixties" to work. But "The Fifties" *don't* really need "The Sixties" that way -- it's certainly useful to have them around to hold up either as an ideal or a punching bag. But ultimately, the real value of "The Fifties" in the American discourse is as a "Not Now." The period becomes the point of comparison for everything one either likes or dislikes about the current period, because "The Fifties" are, from whichever side you approach them, seen as the apotheosis of mid-century stability and prosperity. "The Sixties" rebelled against the constricting conformity of the period, but even the most radical white-middle-class hippie will concede that there was "stability and prosperity" thru that period.

    Never mind that there were three significant economic recessions during the historical 1950s, and never mind the constant rumble of social unrest thruout the decade -- the Red Scare, the fallout of Brown vs. Board of Education, the rise of the Jean Shepherd-like critics of "meatball culture", the Beatniks, the panic of the "Rocket Gap" and how America was falling behind in the quality of its schools. None of that matters to the illusion of "The Fifties," whether or not "The Sixties" happen, because "The Fifties" above all means an unchanging status-quo point of reference against which any era can be compared. And it's the only decade in recent memory that can be used that way -- because of how successfully that image has been created, manipulated, and marketed.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  18. sheeplady

    sheeplady I'll Lock Up Bartender

    I know that this is addressed to Lizzie, but I'd like to answer it from my own perspective.

    When you think of the sixties, you tend to think of sweeping social change (as the proponents argue) and social un-rest (the opponents argue). When you think of the fifties, you think of stability (as the proponents argue) and the status quo (as the opponents argue).

    In shorthand, the dramatic changes of the 1950s are often swept under the rug in favor of a white-bread, suburbian, middle class, conformist/ wholesome values vision of the fifities. I don't think there's any decade that has been done to in our popular culture than the 1950s where it is so inaccurately represented. It is as if entire social movements- the civil rights movement as an example- have been entirely transplanted into other decades. If civil rights are mentioned at all in the description of the fifties, it is typically represented as individuals having no rights at all- as opposed to the momentous changes that were happening in that area. (In fact, I just typed "Civil rights in" into my browser using Google as a search engine and the first completion was "Civil Rights in the 1960s.")

    I'm not arguing that a certain amount of revision hasn't happened with other decades. For instance, former President Kennedy is often portrayed as a figure of the sixties and part of the youth movement (something which he was definitely not- not from a policy or personal standpoint). That is revisionist history. But the extent to which it has been done with the 1950s is extreme. That's my opinion, but it is curious.
     
  19. The same reason people around here talk about the 1930's as some sort of "Golden Era" rather than the abject misery it was for most people. No one wants to reminded of the bad times.
     
  20. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Most of us here are well aware that the Era (note how I refer to it) was not art-deco splendor with Fred and Ginger tipping cocktails on a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke wafting out over a glittering Manhattan skyline. Most of us know that the real 1930s were a time of frowsy, unpainted houses, half-finished abandoned construction projects, mobs dragging foreclosure judges into the street, MacArthur gassing unemployed veterans, and economic royalists claiming prosperity was just around the corner if all those shiftless poor people would just spit on their hands and work a little harder. It was also a time when ordinary working people stood up to fight for their rights -- and *won.* Not without shedding blood, not without many setbacks -- but in the end, they *won.* Whatever prosperity came out of "The Fifties" was built with the blood and the sweat and the rage of "The Thirties."

    Small wonder, then, that we find something deeply admirable in the character of the people who endured that period. If there's anything "Golden" about the Era, that's what it is. That's not idealization, that's simple observation.

    We, however, who feel this way, are a very small minority. Mention "The Thirties" to Joe Blow in the street and you'll likely get a blank, gaping yawp. The 1930s have sunken to the bottom of the public consciousness like a stone, completely eclipsed in the public mindset by "The Fifties."
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014

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