The ’50’s Lie

Contemporary television varies from the mediocre to indecent.  I think of the plethora of reality shows.  A short while back Jerry Springer paraded the underbelly of society before us for entertainment.  Now we have Dr. Phil who makes a fortune parading seedy neurotics before our faces who seem to lack modesty as much as they do morality.  A new series is coming out which promised to air difficulties in newlywed couples before us for our entertainment.  The promo clip they keep showing depicts a man telling his spouse he wants a divorce.

I think of the television programs I grew up with in the ’50’s and early 60’s.  Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, Leave It to Beaver all depicted perfect families including housewives who wore dresses and pearl necklaces as they busied themselves with housework.  In cinema, Mary Poppins and Sound of Music showed stern fathers becoming child-friendly under the influence of odd governesses, both played by Julie Andrews.

So television in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s depicted wholesome content, in fact, uplifting content.  But an idealized kind of wholesomeness.  When I became a teen, we rebelled against the strictures of propriety that the ’50’s packaged and sold us.  We grew our hair long, participated in free-love, listened to acid-rock music, used drugs–all the the horror and chagrin of our parents.

But were the images television broadcast in the ’50’s and ’60’s accurate?  Clearly, the happy families were ideals and not real.  But the values of the television shows were actually enforced in society.  Men all wore short haircuts; girls skirts and dresses at school.  I remember when the controversial new policy was instituted which allowed girls to wear slacks to school.  Most of society went to church or temple.  Streets were clean and white in suburbia, which is where white people moved to, out of downtown.  That is how I remember society then.  I didn’t know then about the house parties my parents went to with neighborhood parents where drunkenness was widespread.  Or why one of my parents spent mornings bent over the toilet.  Or the bowling teams where adults also drank, taking an hour-and-a-half break at midnight to attend mass.

I don’t see a predominance of television depicting marriage, family, and suburbia these days.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  Now, instead of shows about families, more often they are about dating and meeting.  Single people dominate media.  While I feel disappointed at how insipid and scurrilous current programming is, I wouldn’t want the whitewashed shows of the ’50’s either.  We have much more freedom, today.  But with freedom comes responsibility.  That’s what seems missing from the mix today.  Society flails without a moral gravitas.  Even if Donna Reed was an ideal, at least it put forth a moral ethic.  Today, we have the Kardashians and Dr. Phil leading the way.  Yes, I believe it’s come to that.