Post–World War II America: 1945–1959

Popular Culture after World War II

Mass Culture and Conformity

The years after the war saw a return to traditional family values and conformity to social norms as the United States attempted to return to normal. Television reinforced these values and norms.

During World War II, life in the United States had not been business as usual. In the absence of white men, women and African Americans filled jobs previously denied to them. Gender roles and, to some extent, racial boundaries were blurred as the United States rallied to support the war effort. Following World War II there was a push to return to the prewar status quo regarding gender roles and racial norms. So-called "traditional family values" were reflected in the portrayal of the American family in advertising, on radio shows such as The Adventures of Superman, and on television programs like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Many women responded by staying home to keep house and care for the children while men went off to work to earn money for the family. This was especially true in the suburbs. In 1953 only 9 percent of suburban women worked outside the home (although a significant number of women living beyond the suburbs, mainly African American women, also worked outside the home).

Rather than expose viewers to the diversity of American families and communities, the onset of mass culture made popular by television reinforced the idea of traditional American families. This "traditional" image was composed of a white family with a working father and a mother who stayed home to take care of their clean-cut children. In the 1950s the most popular television situation comedy was I Love Lucy (1951–57). It focused on the family life of nightclub entertainer Ricky Ricardo and his stay-at-home wife, Lucy. Almost all episodes of the show center around Lucy trying to get a job, especially in show business. She is depicted as petulant and childish, and her plans generally end in disaster, leaving Ricky to swoop in and save the day. This depiction of the roles of husband and wife, although taken to the point of caricature for the sake of humor, reflects a notion that was pervasive in the 1950s, namely that women are not the intellectual equals of men. Those who did find work outside the home tended to be relegated to roles such as receptionist, file clerk, typist, or salesgirl. The perception of professions in which women predominated, including teaching and nursing, did not enjoy the prestige—or salaries—of professions dominated by men.

However, I Love Lucy was also nonconformist in one significant way: Ricky Ricardo was Latin American. The vast majority of television shows featured white people in the leading roles, whether situation comedies, variety shows, or the very popular westerns of the day. Whereas historically African Americans accounted for as many as 25 percent of cowboys, all television cowboys were white. Television was meant to portray normal American life, but in the 1950s what it portrayed was white Americans living according to middle-class values. This tainted how viewers perceived America and American society. This would not change until the 1970s, when televisions became cheap enough that poorer people could afford to own them and programming changed to accommodate the new viewership.

Youth Culture

A counterculture emerged after World War II, when young people in the United States rejected social norms.

The trend toward conformity in the 1950s led to a backlash in the adolescents and young adults of the time. Centered primarily on college campuses, members of the counterculture focused on social liberation and the rejection of the societal norms embraced by their parents' generation.

The Beat movement was a literary, artistic, and social movement that sought to free participants from the social and artistic norms of the time. The movement began on the college campuses and coffee houses of San Francisco, beach towns in Southern California, and Greenwich Village in New York City. Poets and writers engaged in experimental forms of expression, and poets especially sought to liberate poetry from the strict academic rules they felt made poetry inaccessible to the average person. The famous writer Jack Kerouac was a leading figure in the Beat movement, and his autobiographical novel On the Road summed up its ideology. He wrote in a stream of consciousness that attempted to engage the reader in the experience being written about.

The introduction of rock and roll music into the American mainstream marked a convergence of counterculture with mass culture. Early white American rock and roll artists of the 1950s, such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, borrowed heavily from African American musicians, such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. These African American artists had been performing and recording a fusion of gospel and rhythm and blues for years. White musicians offered a sanitized version of this music that was still scandalous to many Americans but appealed to rebellious teenagers and young adults. Popular movies of the time, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), mirrored the defiance of mainstream popular music. James Dean, an American actor who starred in Rebel Without a Cause, became an icon of the counterculture movement. This generation would come of age in the 1960s, an era of social changes that pushed racial, gender, and social norms with the civil rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution.
Singer Elvis Presley, whose music had African American roots, represented a rejection of the prudish entertainment norms of the time. Television's Ed Sullivan Show broadcast him only from the waist up because his signature pelvic thrust was considered "obscene."
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