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Gender in 1962 America

Gender in 1962 America

Examining representations from America in 1962 – including a range of advertisements and episodes of television sitcoms such as Leave it to BeaverThe Flintstones and The Jetsons – reveals a lot about the society in which they were produced. This was a pivotal time for gender roles in America. In the aftermath of World War II and the Great Depression, American society put a great deal of emphasis on the nature and structure of families because of the turbulence of the preceding decades: As noted in an article featured on the Organization of American Historians website: ”During the Depression, unemployment, lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric of family life. Many Americans were forced to share living quarter with relatives, delay marriage, and postpone having children. The divorce rate fell, since fewer people could afford one, but desertions soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married couples were living apart.” During the postwar period, the turbulence of the preceding decades and the affordable cost of housing led to an environment in which the nuclear family featuring a male breadwinner and female homemaker was particularly valued. By 1962, when these texts were produced, social values towards family and the role women in society was beginning to change.

VALUES TOWARDS GENDER IN 1962 AMERICA

So what did people think about gender roles in 1962 America? Fortunately, a study called ‘Changes in the sex role attitudes of women’, which was published in the American Sociological Review, reveals a great deal about what people thought about gender during this period and how these beliefs changed in subsequent years. In 1962, the study found:

• 68% of those surveyed agreed that most of the important decisions in the life of the family should be made by the man of the house.

• 54.2% of those surveyed agreed that a wife shouldn’t expect her husband to help around the house after he’s come home from a hard day’s work.

• 44.5% of those surveyed agreed that there is some work that is men’s and some work that is women’s, and they shouldn’t be doing each other’s.

Over the next fifteen years, values towards gender roles had changed substantially. In 1977, the same survey found:

• 32.7% of those surveyed agreed that most of the important decisions in the life of the family should be made by the man of the house.

• 37.9% of those surveyed agreed that a wife shouldn’t expect her husband to help around the house after he’s come home from a hard day’s work.

• 22.6% of those surveyed agreed that there is some work that is men’s and some work that is women’s, and they shouldn’t be doing each other’s.

According to James Poniewozik in his article titled ‘So long Huxtables and Nelsons’, programs like Leave it to Beaver were made during an era when “American pop culture was supposed to promote stability, peace and the effacement of discord at any cost.”

According to an article featured on the Organization of American Historians, a great deal of emphasis was place on families in the post war years because of the turbulence of the preceding decades: “During the Depression, unemployment, lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric of family life. Many Americans were forced to share living quarter with relatives, delay marriage, and postpone having children. The divorce rate fell, since fewer people could afford one, but desertions soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married couples were living apart.”

The article also notes: “The late 1940s and 1950s witnessed a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Depression and war. If any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family, it is the 1950s. The average age of marriage for women dropped to twenty; divorce rates stabilized; and the birthrate doubled. Yet the images of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only sixty percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner, female homemaker household. The democratization of the family ideals reflected social and economic circumstances that are unlikely to be duplicated: a reaction against Depression hardships and the upheavals of World War II; the affordability of single-family track homes in the booming suburbs; and rapidly rising real incomes.”

LIFE: BEHOLD THE WORLD’S BUSIEST SHORT-ORDER COOK

In November 1962, LIFE published an article about the hectic life of an everyday housewife titled ‘Behold the World’s Busiest Short-Order Cook‘. The article reflects a number of values towards gender roles in this period – principally the idea that men should be breadwinners while women take care of domestic duties.

“Virginia and the frantic activities that go inside her kitchen constitute America’s most compelling story,” the article says. “She spends 50 hours a week in her kitchen, thinks of herself less as the darling of a giant industry than as someone who unendingly must wipe it up, cook it quick and stuff it down.”

The article describes the ‘”endless routine” of cooking and cleaning for her family. “Sometimes I get awfully sick of this and tired and discourages,” she says, “but then I think of the kids and it’s all right again.”

Her husband is a trail lawyer who occasionally helps out by purchasing dinner from the local drive in and “supervising” Sunday breakfast.

ACTIVITIES

1. Read the article ‘Behold the World’s Busiest Short-Order Cook‘.

2. What does the article suggest about gender roles? Select quotes from the article to support your discussion.

3. Select three photographs from the article and describe how they have been constructed.

4. In the same edition of the magazine, there was also an article titled ‘Haute Cuisine Aprons‘ which featured a fashion spread of stylish aprons for women. Describe the representation and what it reflects about gender roles, making reference to the text and photographs.

REPRESENTATIONS OF GENDER IN ADVERTISING

The following print advertisements were taken from various editions of LIFE magazine all published in 1962.

1. Describe the above representations. What do they suggest about gender roles in the production period?

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

The episode of Leave it to Beaver titled ‘The Younger Brother’, which was broadcast on April 14, 1962, reflects dominant values towards gender roles during its production period, principally that men should be breadwinners and women should take care of domestic duties.

June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.

June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.

The opening sequence of Leave it to Beaver is a representation of a family in 1962 America, reflecting values towards gender roles during this time. The title dissolves and the camera dollies in on the front door of the house, the door swings open revealing June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley). This shot reflects beliefs towards gender roles during the production period, the social value that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties. The acting and the mise en scène contribute to this representation of gender. June Cleaver appears holding a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and several glasses, she is dressed in feminine attire suited to domestic duties. She raises the tray slightly, motioning towards someone off screen. There is a cut to a midshot of Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) who is clipping a small shrub in the garden. This acting, in combination with the editing, reveals a great deal about gender roles during the production period. There is a contrast between the way Ward and June are represented. Ward, in his outdoor clothes with the hedge clippers, is undertaking hard, masculine work; whereas June has been undertaking domestic duties. This reflects values towards gender roles during this period. In a study published in the American Sociological Review in 1962, 44.5 per cent of women agreed that there is some work that is men’s and some work that is women’s and they shouldn’t be doing each other’s. This social value, although in decline, is reflected in the construction of this representation.After the credit, there is a fade in which reveals the family eating breakfast. June is leaning over, serving coffee for her husband. The mise en scène in shot reflects dominant values towards the role of women in the family and society. The rest of the family are eating breakfast that she has prepared. Barbara Billingsley’s acting contributes significantly to this representation of gender roles. She only sits down after she has finished serving her husband breakfast. In this shot, Ward is wearing a suit, implying that he’s heading to work to earn money for the family – this, again, reflects the dominant social value that men should be breadwinners.

According to an article featured on the Organization of American Historians, a great deal of emphasis was placed on family and traditional gender roles in the post war years because of the turbulence of the preceding decades: “The late 1940s and 1950s witnessed a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Depression and war. If any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family, it is the 1950s. The average age of marriage for women dropped to twenty; divorce rates stabilized; and the birthrate doubled. Yet the images of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only sixty percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner, female homemaker household. The democratization of the family ideals reflected social and economic circumstances that are unlikely to be duplicated: a reaction against Depression hardships and the upheavals of World War II; the affordability of single-family track homes in the booming suburbs; and rapidly rising real incomes.” This is reflected in the opening sequence of the episode through its representation of gender roles.

At the end of this scene, Ward walks towards the door, picks up his briefcase and June kisses him goodbye. The acting and dialogue in this representation reflect the dominant social value that men should support the family while women complete domestic duties.

The subsequent scene once again reflects values towards gender roles in the family, the notion that men should support the family while women take care of domestic duties. There is a cross dissolve to June Cleaver standing over the stove preparing dinner for the family. She is stirring one of several saucepans that are simmering. The acting and dialogue in this scene reflect the dominant social value that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties. Wally walks into frame and lifts a lid off one of the saucepans. “Hey, Mom! When are we going to have dinner?” he asks, “I’m starved.” She responds by saying, “Well, if you keep taking the lids off things, it may not be ‘til midnight.” At this point the audience laughs, Wally’s ignorance of meal preparation is clearly seen as a source of humour. Sound editing contributes to this representation of gender roles, Beaver leans across and lifts a lid off one of the pots. The audience laughs because he clearly doesn’t understand what’s involved in meal preparation. At the end of the scene, before Ward walks out of shot, he lifts a lid from one of the pots. June stares at him in exasperation with her head tilted to one side. Once again, the audience laughs. This sequence, through its use of dialogue, acting and sound editing, reflects the dominant value that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties.

Later in the episode, when Beaver returns home after basketball practice, June suggests that the boys get ‘washed up’ because dinner is ‘almost ready’. This reflects the dominant social value held during this period that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. This is reinforced by Ward who replies by saying, “With two athletes in the family you’ll have to start setting a training table.”

The following scene opens with a shot of June, standing on a chair, adjusting a curtain. She calls out for assistance from her husband. He responds, “Lady in distress?” Her response: “I’m having a time getting this curtain rod back in place. Could you help me?…Seems I knock that down every time I dust that window sill.” This exchange of dialogue reflects the dominant social value that women should take responsibility for domestic duties. As he is helping her, Ward says, “Yeah…I remember the same thing happened about six months ago.” The sound of the audience laughing is mixed into the soundtrack, laughing at Ward’s suggestion that she doesn’t keep up with the cleaning. This also reflects dominant social values towards gender roles, that women should perform domestic duties. It also reflects the value that men should be the principal breadwinner for the family when she says, “I know you had a bad day at the office and you couldn’t wait to come home and take it out on me.”

Throughout the episode, June is frequently shown in the kitchen. Here, Ward is seen at work – the mise en scène contributes to his role as a business man and breadwinner for the family. The desk has several important papers, books and pens which contribute to his representation as the male breadwinner of the family.

The following scene shows Wally drinking soda while his mother is at the kitchen sink preparing dinner. This scene reflects dominant social values towards gender roles and the role of teenagers in society. Wally finishes drinking a bottle of soda and puts it down on the kitchen bench, sauntering away before his mother interrupts: “Wally, is that  where we keep the empty bottles?” Wally responds politely, realising his mistake, the audience laughs as moves the bottle to the kitchen sink. She removes an empty carton of bottles from beneath the sink and asks, “Wally, will you do me a favour and put that out in the garage while you’re at it?” Wally agrees happily, quipping, “Boy, it’d sure save a lot of walking around here if I just drank water.” The construction of June as a character in this scene reflects dominant social values towards gender roles during this period, reflecting the belief that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties. Throughout the scene, warn is standing at the kitchen sink, dressed in an apron, peeling potatoes for the family’s dinner.

Leave it to Beaver reflects many dominant social values that existed in 1962 America. Although the United States was on the brink of massive social change, Leave it to Beaver omits emerging social values towards feminism and gender roles. It supports dominant values and does not challenge the status quo. The text reflects dominant social values towards the role of women in society, reflecting the belief that women should be housewives and take primary responsibility for domestic duties. In a study published in the American Sociological Review in 1962, 55.5 per cent of women disagreed that there is some work that is men’s and some work that is women’s and they shouldn’t be doing each other’s. By 1977, this value had increased to 77.4 per cent. This research highlights the fact that despite significant change occurring in social values towards gender roles, Leave it to Beaver did not challenge these beliefs and assumptions because the formula for this sitcom had not changed significantly since the program’s inception in 1957.

THE JETSONS

Jane Jetson preparing breakfast for her family in the first episode.

Jane Jetson preparing breakfast for her family in the first episode.

The Jetsons, an animated television sitcom about a family living in the distant future which first aired in 1962, reflects values towards gender during this period. The first episode, titled ‘Rosie the Robot’, the family take on a robotic maid to help around the house. Although the episode is set in the distant future, it reflects values from the period in which it was produced.

In the opening sequence of this episode, Jane Jetson is represented performing many of the roles undertaken by a typical housewife. When her daughter says she might be going swimming after school, Jane warns that she might not be “home in time for dinner”. This line reflects the value that women should take primary responsibility for domestic duties. She ultimately agrees that Judy can go swimming if her father says yes, deferring to the patriarchal head of the family. She also prepares breakfast for her son Elroy. “What would you like for breakfast?” she asks, punching information into the breakfast machine. “The usual coming up.” This line of dialogue infers that she is usually responsible for preparing breakfast for the family and reflects values towards gender roles in the production period. Similarly, when George finally gets out of bed, she announces that breakfast is ready in a cheerful voice. “When we first got married you could punch out a breakfast like mother used to make,” George says to his wife when he realises the breakfast machine is malfunctioning. “Now you’re all thumbs.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t have upset George,” she says to herself after George leaves for work. “But if he only knew how I hate washing, ironing, vacuuming…” She calls her mother for advice explaining that housework “gets her down”.

Later in the episode, when George goes to ask his boss Mr Spacely for a raise, there is another representaiton of a female character. Although she is in the workplaces, she’s in a secretarial position. After an argument with his wife because she won’t be home to cook his dinner, Mr Spacely reflects that he only married her “because she could cook”.

Mr Spacely: Does you wife cook, Jetson?

George: Oh yes, sir.

Mr Spacely: What does she cook? Hm? Like what?

George: Mash, meatloaf, soup, bones, beans…

Mr Spacely: Ah, good old fashioned home cooking.

When June visits U-Rent A Maid to hire a maid to help around the house, all of the maids are – not surprisingly – female and voiced by women. Later in the episode, when George is driving home in peak hour traffic. This shot is telling about the values towards gender in 1962 America. Most of the characters are men dressed in business suits with briefcases. There is one woman in this frame but she is evidently driving her children home from school. When George does return home, he absentmindedly walks through the front door and kisses Rosie on the cheek. “Hello, dear,” he says, not noticing that he’s kissed the robot instead of his wife.

Links

The Jetsons, ‘Rosie the Robot’, broadcast September 23, 1962.

THE FLINTSTONES

Wilma cooks up a storm on ‘The Happy Housewife Show’.

Wilma cooks up a storm on ‘The Happy Housewife Show’.

The 1962 episode of The Flintstones titled ‘The Happy Housewife Show’ is a more complex, satirical representation of gender roles in the production period. Although Fred Flintstone’s archaic, caveman attitude is lampooned in the program, it still reflects many of the values towards gender roles reflected in programs like Leave it to Beaver. Like society, the program seems to be grappling with changing gender roles. According to M Keith Brooker in Drawn to Television, Wilma and Betty area  good fit for the “mold of the idealised housewives promoted by such 1950s sitcoms as Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show.” He also notes that The Flintstones differed from these programs because gender roles were “potentially unstable and open to revision”.

The episode begins with Wilma and Betty are leaving the Bedrock Shopping Centre. It’s a small detail but an important decision in the construction of this representation which reveals a great deal about the values of this period. “I’m lucky that Barney isn’t too fussy,” says Betty. “I’ll warm up some leftovers.” Wilma says that, as a husband, Fred is far more demanding. “Fred expects a hot meal plonked down in front of him the minute he gets home,” she tells Wilma. Both of the women hope they make it home before their husbands to ensure that dinner is on the table.

In the next scene, Fred and Barney are at home waiting for their wives. “How about that, Barney,” he asks. “We make an effort to get home a little early, just so we can have dinner sooner so the girls’d be finished washing the dishes earlier.” Although the humour in this scene comes from Fred’s selfishness, the implication is clear: women are responsible for domestic duties like meal preparation and cleaning.

In this episode, Fred is angry he can’t make money faster than Wilma can spend it. Although the episode is poking fun at Fred’s anger, it’s also a reflection the values that existed in the time that it was produced when it was still commonly accepted that men should be breadwinners and women should take care of domestic duties.

“All you think about it how to get rid of my hard earned money,” he says.

“I work hard around here and I’m willing to do more,” she counters. “If necessary, I’ll get a job to earn some extra money.”

When Wilma reveals that she’s thinking about getting a job, Betty tells her that she “has a job keeping house.” They both resolve to find a job to earn a little extra money. Although this episode depicts both of these characters getting jobs, it doesn’t significantly challenge the status quo. At the Bedrock Employment Agency, they are assured they will be able to get secretarial jobs. Betty and Wilma end up working for a television company and find themselves starring in The Happy Housewife Show.

Wilma finds her new job on The Happy Housewife Show conflicts with her housekeeping duties. “Betty, I’ll write a note to Fred, you leave it on the table with one of your frozen TV dinners. He’s never had one before but it’s the best I can do.”

“Fred, I’m sorry, it looks like Wilma deserted you. I can’t say I blame her.”

In some ways, The Flintstones – particularly ‘The Happy Housewife Show’ – acknowledges changing values to the role of women in society by satirising Fred’s ‘caveman’ attitude. At the same time, it still seems to support the status quo.

As Brooker notes: “Both The Honeymooners and The Flintstones were early enough that the husbands were still expected to be the breadwinners while the wives were expected to stay home, preparing that bread and having it on the dinner table ready to be consumed when the husbands arrived from work. Meanwhile, the wives were still labeled as ‘girls’.”

When Wilma makes it onto The Happy Housewife Show, she’s held up as the perfect housewife. “Your husband will be happy, too, when he’s greeted with a nice, roast loin of Rockenschpeel Brontosaurus,” she says. “All you wives know how important it is to have a nice hot meal waiting for that hungry man of yours.”

On the program, she sings a song about the role of housewives:

Make your hobby hubby
Keep your hubby happy
When he’s a little chubby
He’s a happy pappy

Although it is quite satirical, the resolution of the episode seems to support the status quo.

Fred is incensed that Wilma has another job apart from looking after him. “How many times have I told you a woman’s place is in the home?” he bellows. He takes his case to the television station and unsuccessfully tries to get Wilma out of her contract. Again, Fred is represented as the authoritative, patriarchal head of the family. In 1962, a survey later published in the American Sociological Review revealed that 68% of those surveyed agreed that most of the important decisions in the life of the family should be made by the man of the house. By 1977, this figure had dropped to 32.7% which reveals that traditional notions of gender – the idea of a male breadwinner and female homemaker – were changing significantly.

Realising that Wilma must continue doing the program, Fred starts to eat his meals at Betty and Barney’s house. When he arrives at the house, Betty has been illustrated as the idea housewife, slaving over a meal for her husband and her guest.

Wilma is ultimately taken off the air when a rival network threatens to start airing a program starring Fred Flintstone called “Neglected Husband”. Wilma returns home where she spends her time “cooking all day”. She serves up a feast for Fred who declares, “I hope all you wives out there are taking notes!” They laugh and the credits roll.

Although there are some aspects of this episode that seem to challenge dominant social values towards gender roles, the possibilities for women remain limited and, at the resolution of the narrative, the program resoundingly reinforces dominant values.