Thursday, March 24, 2005

The 1950s

One myth I have been wanting to explode for some time is that of the 1950s as a sweet, innocent, moral time. A TIME magazine article about the state of TV today that I read last week commented that some people on both sides of the debate longed for "the moral standards of the 1950s." This made me shake my head at the writer's lack of perspective and his naive rebloviation of one of our silliest cultural cliches.

The moral standards of the 1950s included racism, segregation, sexism, hysteria about communism, the Korean war, and the escapades of the Beat generation. You can't tell too much about a nation's culture at any given time by looking only at its TV shows. I will absolutely grant that the TV of the 1950s was pristine compared to the TV of 2005--I just don't see that anything significant follows from that. People were having sex, doing drugs and killing each other in the 1950s: it just wasn't reflected in the pop culture of the time as much as it is now. You can argue that this represents a moral decline, or that it represents honesty. I would argue the latter.

People also assume that young people were having far less sex (of any kind) in the 1950s than they are now. While I would reiterate that even if this is true it doesn't mean too much, there are reasons to doubt that the generational situations are what the Golden Days people make them out to be. Women were engaged and married at far younger ages back then. Since the period between puberty and marriage was so short, there just wasn't much of an opportunity for pre-marital sex. Depending on what source you look at, the average age at which women got married in 1950 was between 4 and 9 years younger than it is now. Looking at 'sexual activity among 18-year old women across all demographics' would seem to me a much better transom than 'sexual activity among young unmarried white women.'

Since the 1950s a number of factors, including increased education for all groups, longer life spans, a rising divorce rate, rising incomes, declining birth rates, female participation in the labor force, civil rights, and gay rights have made the landscape drastically different today. Cohabitation is on the rise: so what? Some middle schoolers are having oral sex: so what? They always were. Deal with it.

13 Comments:

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Mair said...

Ok - here's where I lay down the sociological line for you. First of all, I disagree with your contention that the "moral climate" hasn't changed since the 1950's. I agree that people were engaging in "bad things" for all of time, no exception. However, you mention that we can't infer the moral climate from what's on tv in a particular era. I disagree. The fac that tv shows in 1950 reflected stable, two-parent families with behaved, respectful children shows that that is what was expected at the time. The reason 1950's tv wasn't sex, drugs, and deviance is because it was largely unacceptable at the time. Thus, the moral climate was such that the public discussion of the deviant was not permitted or condoned. Everyone knew that a certain segment of the population were engaging in morally iffy behavior, but culture at large frowned on this and thought it unsuitable for public discussion. The fact that today, TV shows sex, drug use, foul language, etc. is an indicator that culture at large is more accepting of such behavior. I mean, Elvis had to be shown from the waist up during live performances in the 1960's because the public was disgusted at his "sexually explicit" dancing sytle. Today, however, prime time tv shows half dressed teenagers provactively "dancing' on the Grammy's and no one is outraged. As any sociologist of culture will tell you, things like television, music, art, literature, etc are HUGE indicators of what is culturally acceptable (and often, unacceptable). TV is a sociological DREAM! So, the public moral climate has changed since the 1950's, my friend, and it has changed substantially.

I would also like to point out a significant change that reflects the changing moral climate. You mentioned teenage sex rate and birth rate, etc. Well, in the 1970's, the climate shifted such that when teenage girls became pregnant, it was now acceptable for them to KEEP their children, whereas in times past, it was disgraceful for an unwed mother to keep her child. Teen pregnancy most often ended in adoptions in the earlier times, whereas today the result is either abortion or teenage single motherhood. This demographic shift allows is evidence of the changing moral climate.

Finally, as a marriage and family sociologist, your contumelious remark about the rise of cohabitation rubbed me the wrong way. The consequences of the rise in cohabitation are FAR too many to cite and elucidate here and now.

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

I agree with the basic point you're making: things weren't perfect in the 50's, and the world isn't going to hell in a hand basket now. Beyond that I can't really back you up.

Middle schoolers were NOT having oral sex in the 1950's. Even if they were, we shouldn't say "so what?" Cohabitation is not healthy, even if it is culturally acceptable. And even if stastics only prove that people got married earlier in the 50's, I think we can make the simple statement that it is better to be married than not married to the person you're having sex with.

I think we're right to be upset about the way people behave and the way our culture reacts to it. I think you're right to say that we should start taking other factors into consideration, such as racism and sexism, and not blindly vindicate everything the country took part of the 1950's because it was a "morally superior time". But longing for the moral stability in the country's perspective on drugs, sex and violence that pervaded the 50's doesn't mean we can't simultaneously crticize their view of civil rights and celebrate the advances we've made in similar areas since.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I agree that maybe I pushed too far in my argument, but I still can't roll with some of the claims that mair and redhurt made. For example, mair claims "Culture at large frowned on" (presumably) 'immoral behavior in the 1950s.' I fail to see how we in 2005 can speak for what 'culture at large' was thinking! Elvis was censored by people who were completely out of step with what was actually happening in America, just as wives who were unaware that people like Thomas Jefferson were having children with slaves and were 'shocked' when it was revealed were naive about the reality and sexual politics of the time. I don't agree that 'culture' is more accepting of such behavior, because I can't speak for 'culture.' One of our most promiscuous presidents was JFK, who would arrange trysts for himself both before and after speeches. The Washington bureau chiefs of newspapers who kept it hushed up--were they frowning on it? I never said the moral climate wasn't different--I just think it's different in different ways than most people mean when they say it's different. And redhurt--no middle schoolers had oral sex in the 1950s? Talk to the Jets and the Sharks about that one. It's just not true.

 
At 4:01 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

This is not to say that cohabitation and oral sex among 12 year olds are not bad things--I just think we have more pressing concerns.

 
At 4:32 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

Since you retracted the "deal with it" line, I would say there is a lot to agree with in your original post. A broad point first: the general tendency in this blog to assert "It's happened before; we've seen it before but we think we haven't" (with or without "deal with it" added) is more useful in popping the balloons of bloviators than in talking about what's right and what's wrong. That's not a negative critique, just an observation of the general tenor here inside Pragmaticism.

"The moral standards of the 50s" IS a stupid line. The tendency of the contemporary right to collapse morality to sexual morality, and then to point to a time when sexual acting out was less overt, as a more moral time--while ignoring the moral status of war and racism, just to name two--is dumb.

I have more to say, down a different track; for the next post.

 
At 5:05 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

What's really going on with this "moral climate of the 50s" deal? Without trying to do chapter and verse here, part of what I think is going on is this: the morality of the intact, relatively healthy family has not changed all that much between the 1950s and now. That is to say, the respect and care people have for one another in a family, the kinds of dreams parents have for their children, the nightly meeting and conversation at the dinner table: maybe not that different between 1959 and 2005. Why would they be? Children of the 1950s grew up to raise their kids as they were raised.

What has changed, maybe, is that it is understood now that the ethics and morality of the relatively healthy family is not the norm for the culture as a whole. Maybe, perhaps, probably, it only SEEMED to be the norm for the culture as a whole in the 1950s. But now we KNOW it is not the norm.

A relatively healthy family does not crush a family member because of what he or she might be planning. But a nation/state like the USA does invade another nation/state because of what might be being planned.

A relatively healthy family can deal with a lot of stress with its own resources. But the grandstanding right-wingers of the Bush administration have chosen to try to prevent Michael Schiavo from exercising a medical proxy for his wife, while at the same time saying they put marriage on the highest pedestal.

It may be that the moral cognitive dissonance all of us in this thread are struggling with is the dissonance between what goes on between husband and wife and parents and children in a relatively happy family (keeping in mind that no one is perfect) and what goes on in the wider world, and how the last forty or fifty years have made that more apparent.

Laying aside my Bush-bashing club, it works like this: "sex, drugs and deviance" weren't acceptable in RHFs (keeping in mind that no one is perfect) in the 1950s, and they are not acceptable in them now. What's coming clear is how countercultural the RHF (KIMTNOIP) is.

 
At 12:13 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Mair: "TV tells us a lot about culture."
Redhurt: "No one ever had oral sex. Ever. None."
Charles: "I stand by my point - we can't say the 50's were a more moral time."
Dadman: "The Bush administration is nothing like a healthy family. Thusly, the 50's were immoral, and John Kerry is great."

I don't see what the Bush administration not treating other countries like brothers and sisters has to do with any of this, but I'll roll with it for a second. If my brother started asking my other brother for weapons and then publically said he was going to kill me, rape my wife and burn my house down, I think my reaction, even if it's a preeminant attack, can't be judged by the rules of normal family interaction.

Maybe what all of those 50's dreamers are really saying is this: there was a time when our cultural ideal was something purer than it is now, and we want that sort of idealism back. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'm not going to treat my neighbors who cohabitate as anything less than great people trying their best to make their relationship work, but that doesn't mean I can't wish that cohabitation weren't socially acceptable.

I agree that the things you've quoted are ridiculous. I just think we should acknowledge that there's something worth listening to at the core of what they're saying.

 
At 9:30 AM, Anonymous dadman said...

Bringing in the invasion was kind of loopy, I admit. But think about it, redhurt: if your brother made all those threats you'd move away or call the cops, but would you go into his house, wrap him duct tape and hold a gun to his head?

I am NOT saying that nation/states CAN or SHOULD act like families. What I am saying, is that the ethics/morality of a nation/state is different from that of a family. The ethics/morality of mass media entertainment is different from that of a family.

And so I am saying maybe families are not all that different, but we have started to see how much everything else is not like them. We pretended JFK was a good family man. We freaked when we found out Bill Clinton wasn't.

This is just something that occurred to me because of how part of this thread started with 1950s TV shows, and the families portrayed on them. I think I'm right about families having continuity with the 1950s; my broader point may be mistaken.

 
At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more comment, not too tied in. There was definitely a LID on things in the 1950s. For example: WW2 veterans were as emotionally scarred as Viet Nam vets (this from reading about and personally knowing them), but it was not talked about. They could be toxic to themselves and others, though. Part of the "moral climate" of the 1950s and early sixties was keepings tamped down, suppressed. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that as a coping mechanism, but, then again, sometimes there is.

 
At 9:40 AM, Anonymous dadman said...

Sorry about the typos. That should be "wrap him in duct tape" and "keeping things tamped down."

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Ok, sounds good, I can agree with all of that. I like the way Chuck put it in the latest post much better.

 
At 11:42 PM, Blogger zoel123 said...

well im sorry to disagree with you but i think the 1950s were one of the most civilized times sure they were having war and people were killling other people but when has that not happend ? you have to focus on the good things in life not only in the 1950s but all the time. and so what if they got married younger they loved each other and almost all of them wouldn't get divorced like people do now . and i think the foul language has gotten worse .i think the 1950s were one of the most happiest time no computers just fun playing outside being with friends listening to the radio and just laughing and being happy . <3 - Zoe l

 
At 4:39 PM, Blogger Destructus86 said...

We should also keep in mind that just because something wasn't spoken of doesn't mean it wasn't happening. Take marriage for example. The 50's and 60's had a high amount of infidelity. Mainly on the men side of things due to sexism. Except the wife would rarely divorce for risk of being a pariah in their neighborhood.

I would argue that people haven't really changed. They are just more honest about things now.

Sex and other things on TV isn't an indication of moral decline...that sort of thing has been a constant for centuries. Rome had it's version, various societies through out time had theirs. Again, just because TV in the 50's didn't include sexual content doesn't mean it wasn't in the hearts of the people. TV doesn't make people have affairs, sleep around or take drugs. People do that because we have always done that. It's just in the 50's we didn't talk about it. That again doesn't indicate moral decline.

 

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