THE CONFORMITY OF THE SUBURBS
Many young people who had grown up during the Great Depression and had come of age during World War II decided in the postwar era to move to the suburbs and to have families. It was decided by many that domesticity would be the avenue to happiness in the postwar world. As a result, the baby boom ensued, during which the birthrate soared beyond all expectations. The baby boom lasted from 1945 until 1962; during the peak of the baby boom, 1957, nearly 4 1/2 million babies were born.
The perfect place for large numbers of newly married couples to have these families was, as stated previously, in the suburbs. Many critics of the time noted the conformity of the suburbs: The houses looked much the same, everyone watched the same shows on TV, and because of TV advertising, everyone pretty much used the same appliances and wore the same clothes. Life (especially for women) was centered around their children, as there were endless rounds of PTA meetings, Little League practices, and Boy Scout meetings to get to. Social historians state that young people were using the comfort of the family and home as a buttress against any return to the disruptions they had felt earlier in their lives. William II. Whyte’s The Organizational Man, written in 1956, analyzed the conformity and conservatism of suburban life.
Many men felt dissatisfaction with their lives in the postwar years. Many who had served in the “good war,” World War II, found it difficult to return to civilian life. Many felt civilian jobs to be largely unrewarding; as the book and film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit emphasized, a man who had fought in combat in World War II might find a 9-to-5 job in an office utterly unrewarding. Many men took on hunting and fishing as hobbies; here they could at least symbolically duplicate the war experience. For men the most popular magazines of the 1950s were Field and Stream and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.
Women felt equal frustration during this era. Many continued to work; yet women’s magazines and other publications carried the clear message that now it was the woman’s patriotic duty to return to the home and remain a housewife. Doris Day was the star of many films of decade; she had a “girl-next-door” type of appeal, which was attractive to many women and men of the period. College women saw college as an avenue to meet potential husbands; many dropped out immediately after finding one. Many women did find fulfillment as mothers and by doing volunteer work in the community. Yet to others, family life was terribly unsatisfying. Women who felt dissatisfaction with their role in suburban life were routinely told by their doctors that they were neurotics; the sale of tranquilizers to women skyrocketed. Many, many suburban women experienced discontent with their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique maintained that the lack of fulfillment experienced by many housewives was the genesis of the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Friedan would found NOW (National Organization for Women) in 1966.
Stereotypically, 1950s teenagers were seen as the “silent generation,” interested in only hot rod cars, school mixers, and panty raids. There is a great deal of truth to this characterization. Teenagers in this era were the first teen generation to be targeted by advertisers; many teens wore the same styles and had similar tastes as a result. Adults spent a great deal of time in ensuring that teenagers did nothing in any way rebellious. Educational films in schools taught students to obey authority, to fit in with the group, to control one’s emotions, and to not even think about sex. Popular television shows of the era such as Ozzie and Harriet showed young people who acted in exactly that manner.
However, there was a youth rebellion in the 1950s. A few brave students would show it in their attitude and attire, using the main character played by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando in The Wild One as models. Jackson Pollock and other artists were also at the vanguard of another form of cultural rebellion; the significance of their giant “abstract expressionist” painting moved the center of the art world to New York City. Other young people would attempt to copy the writings and attitudes of the Beat Generation, a group of writers and artists who rejected an American society obsessed with the atomic bomb and with material culture. In rejecting conventional society, many Beats and their followers enjoyed jazz and drugs, and studied Eastern religious thought. Key works of the Beats include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in which the main characters travel simply for the joy of traveling, and Howl, a poem by Allen Ginsberg that outlines in graphic detail the evils of modern society and what that society does to those attempting to live decent lives in it. It should be emphasized that few young people were actual members of the Beat Generation; a larger number went to coffeehouses, dabbled in writing poetry, and sympathized with the plight of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye.
The mam form of 1950s rebellion for young people was through rock and roll. To many adults, rock and roll was immoral, was the “devil’s music,” and caused juvenile delinquency; a few even charged that it was sent to America by the communists as part of their plot to conquer the United States. Nevertheless, those who listened and danced to rock and roll were, at some level, rejecting the core values of 1950s America. Young people were told to “control their emotions”; it was very hard to do that when listening to “Good Golly Miss Molly” sung by Little Richard.
The connection in the minds of many adults between rock and roll and blackness accounts for the reaction of many to Elvis Presley. To many, Elvis was very, very dangerous: He covered many black songs, and exuded sex during his live and television performances. For many who feared rock and roll, the best thing that could have possibly happened was when Elvis went into the army in 1958. By the end of the decade, rock had lost much of the ferocity it possessed in 1956 to 1957.
The legacy of the cultural rebels of the 1950s would certainly have tremendous influence in the 1960s. The behavior of members of Beat Generation would be copied by the hippies. In addition, the rules that were so carefully taught to 1950s teenagers would be very intentionally broken by many teens in the 1960s.