Masculinity, Gender Roles, and T.V. Shows from the 1950s
The 1950s nuclear family emerged in the post WWII era, as Americans faced the imminent threat of destruction from their Cold War enemies. The ideal nuclear family turned inward, hoping to make their home front safe, even if the world was not. The image that we recall, largely as a result of the American television shows of the time period, is the picture perfect family consisting of the bread-winning, rule-making middle-class father, the doting housewife who was thrilled to wake up every single day and clean the house and cook all of the meals, and their children who never seemed to get into any sort of trouble that could not be fixed.
For those Americans who sought reassurance of the role of the family in the Cold War era, television showed them exactly that.“…Television projected a vision of American life into the home that could easily be emulated, in part at least, in those places in society that already resembled the ideal…” (Gilbert 141). Though millions of Americans did not have the lifestyle depicted on the small screen, television show families from the 1950s reflected idealized gender roles of the time period, which set an aspirational norm, even if it did not reflect reality.
Past scholarship has been generally uncritical of the psychological impact of these idealized images. This paper considers recent scholarship in gender and psychology, to theorize about the ways that highly masculinized norms perpetuated by television during the 1950s may have contributed to violent development in boys and young men.
Strict Gender Roles
During the 1950s, television gender roles were stricter and more rigid than they ever had been. The men put on their business suits every morning, went to their conforming jobs, became part of the American rat race, and then were expected to come home and be a father figure and a husband. These were oftentimes the same men that had fought on battlefields of WWII or the Korean War, and now their duties had changed, so that they had to fight Communism at home by being the perfect American man. “…now it is time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought – I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit” (Wilson 98).
Recent scholarship in gender and psychology has addressed strict gender roles, and concluded that they influence the future behavior of children. During the 1950’s, it was of the utmost importance to socialize boys strictly as boys. Through these television shows, boys were shown how “real men” were supposed to act. These shows display clear differences between men and women, with women as subordinate. For boys in the 1950s, “being a man” and never doing anything that anyone could consider feminine was a lesson taught to them by their fathers and by the popular culture of the time.
Gender Role Conflict
Researchers study the link between masculinity and violence to determine how even a non-violent show, as most shows were during the 1950s, could promote violence and the devaluation of women. Psychologist Felix Amato theorized about “Gender Role Conflict” in young males who did not grow up in violent homes and were not predisposed to an excessive amount of violence. Gender Role Conflict can be defined for these purposes as the negative consequences that occur when not adhering strictly to one’s gender role. The young males in this experiment were asked to rate themselves on a Gender Role Conflict Scale from one to ten, one being the least amount of conflict and ten being the most amount of conflict.
The results of the experiment that Amato performed are discussed in his article, The Relationship of Violence to Gender Role Conflict and Conformity to Masculine Norms in a Forensic Sample, and are concluded as such: men who score higher on the Gender Role Conflict scale are more likely to be violent, and violent tendencies are more common in men who have stricter views of gender roles (Amato 190). Trying to over-fulfill one’s manliness because of the fear of not being manly enough often times leads to violence.
Women as Subordinate
Boys during the 1950s were surrounded by this rigidity of manhood. This hyper-masculine mold that they were supposed to fit into consequently meant devaluing the role of women. It is possible that such television expectations contributed to the development of violent tendencies, because these boys growing up watching the men of the 1950s were not raised to value women, but rather to devalue them to make themselves seem more masculine. The repetitive exposure to these television shows, alongside with the patriarchal society that was solidified even more during the post-WWII years, created a highly constructed identity for men in America.
The television shows of the 1950s may have encouraged such violent outcomes. There was a lot of pressure on the boys to grow up as men, being ridiculed for any behavior that was not masculine and knowing that they would one day be the primary breadwinner for their family. There was also a clear gender difference growing up as boys in the 1950s, and since they were raised in a way to devalue “women’s work” they did not see girls and women as important parts of society. The television shows of the 1950s may not have shown violence to boys but it shows that subordination of women and hyper-masculinity are normal, which is the exact mindset that can lead to violent tendencies.
Men of the 1950s
Through the 1950s television shows, boys were shown that to be real men, they had to follow rigid norms. These shows display clear differences between men and women, with women as subordinate. Some of the most popular television shows during the 1950s were The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy. The plot lines were never dramatic and the issues were mundane. There was never any stress and problems could be fixed fairly easily. Things seemed to run smoothly in the lives of these Hollywood families, because they all had a role to play. The father was a workingman who left in the morning and came back at night, ready for his wife to serve him dinner. The fathers were not depicted as frequently as the rest of the family, because the storylines centered on the home. Since men spent the majority of their lives outside of the home, and were not involved with household chores, the dominant screen space was reserved for women and children.
In the show Leave it to Beaver, the story comes from the children’s point of view and the father, Ward Cleaver, is only depicted before he leaves for work, when he comes home for dinner, or when he is solving the problems of his two sons. It is the absence of the men in the home in these television shows that reinforces that boys and men simply do not belong there. On the other hand, the mother/wife figure, who stayed at home, figured prominently. These women, such as Lucy, Harriet, and June, “Portrayed the same general character – ‘a woman with a smile on her face and a trick up her sleeve, who is submissive yet controlling’” (Gilbert 138). These were the women who knew their place in the home. On the occasion that they tried to experiment with work, it was a comedic episode, because it wasn’t the her “place.” When young boys turned on their television sets, they would have seen the outline for what a men and women are supposed to do. It is this mindset that there is no fluidity between the two gender roles that can have negative consequences to the socialization of children.
How This Leads to Violence (Potentially)
The gender roles presented in the popular culture of the 1950s, if viewed enough by young boys, could have led to the subordination and violence against women, even in the home. While hyper-masculinity correlates with violent behaviors, there is also support for the same correlative between these rigid gender roles and violence against women, specifically. Stephanie Coontz describes the households of the 1950s in her book titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She describes the rates of unhappy marriages that would likely have led to divorce, had that option been acceptable and accessible at the time, and she presents us with shocking information about abuse in 1950s households. Coontz theorizes that the pressure for perfection in the postwar home was too much pressure for each family member to handle and that this time period brought about sexual abuse, incest, alcoholism, and wife battering (Coontz 279).
Violence against women is directly connected to hyper-masculine socialization. If a man during the 1950s felt that he did not live up this “ideal” type, then this failure could have led to the use of violence toward his wife, or other women. Violence and abuse makes these men feel as though they are dominant, as their gender role prescribes that they should be. Even if this dominance is through violence, it is an act that makes the man feel “more manly” to make up for the dominance he is lacking in his life outside of the home (Pleck 4). Men who believe that the male is the more valued gender in society, and that females are subordinate, are more likely to use violence against women, not only to reassert their own dominance but because they simply do not value femininity (Hatty 69).
Amato, Felix J. “The Relationship Of Violence To Gender Role Conflict And Conformity To Masculine Norms In A Forensic Sample.” Journal Of Men’s Studies 20.3 (2012): 187-208. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 May 2013.
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York, NY: Basic, 1992. Print.
Gilbert, James Burkhart. Men In the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Hatty, Suzanne. Masculinities, Violence and Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000. Print.
McDermott, Ryon C., and Frederick G. Lopez. “College Men’s Intimate Partner Violence Attitudes: Contributions Of Adult Attachment And Gender Role Stress.” Journal Of Counseling Psychology 60.1 (2013): 127-136. PsycINFO. Web. 8 May 2013.
Miedzian, Myriam. Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. New York: Doubleday, 1991. Print.
Pleck, Joseph H. The Myth of Masculinity. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1981. Print.
Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955. Print.
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