February 19, 2013

Men paved the way out of the mid-century malaise

I don't think there's a strong received wisdom about women leading the charge out of the stultifying mid-century culture, or about men and women leaving at the same time. So this post isn't to "debunk" a standard story, but to show something you wouldn't notice without looking.

Our Millennial age is the re-incarnation of the mid-century, and we're a good ways into our falling-crime phase by now. We're 21 years past the 1992 peak in the crime rate, and 21 years past the previous 1933 peak in the crime rate was 1954. Within the next five years, then, we're going to see the culture open up and breathe a little more freely, just like the mid-late-'50s. That will set the stage for the mass exodus from private cocoon life during the next 1960s -- yeah, a lot of that time to come will be annoying, but it'll one of those gear-shifting times that will ultimately lead us into the neo-'80s.

In looking over the period of the mid-'50s through the early '60s, when you can see people starting to leave their cocoons, it's striking how different the timing was between men and women. Already by the mid-'50s men were growing discontent with the social role they were supposed to accept (that of the "company man"). This is summed up in the 1955 hit novel, and 1956 hit movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It wasn't until 1963 that the rough female counterpart came out, The Feminine Mystique.

Sloan Wilson and Betty Friedan were born just one year apart in the early 1920s. Belonging to the same generation, they should've heard similar rumblings among their same-sex peers at the same time, if men and women were growing equally tired. Yet Friedan didn't even get the idea to write the book until the late '50s, let alone publish it. By then, more than half a decade had gone by of discontented 30 and 40-something men revealing their grievances in public forums, such as pop culture. So, women felt that the trail blazed by men wasn't going to grow back over -- it had been trodden enough to be safe for female feet now too.

Related to the passivity and risk-aversion of the mid-century was a widespread acceptance and usage of amphetamines, barbiturates, and minor tranquilizers to help confine one's emotional ups and downs to a narrow, steady band. The backlash against that kind of "cosmetic pharmacology" first made an issue of men taking them -- the reformers portrayed them as emasculating and domesticating the more animal-driven nature of male users.

Only somewhat later did the more numerous female users come out about their problem, mainly suburban housewives popping Valium. By then I think the backlash took on something of the flavor of the Feminine Mystique -- they saw their drug addiction as the unwholesome extreme that they'd gone to in the quest to play the role of Supermommy.

I don't recall the dates off the top of my head, but they're in the Happy Pills book by Herzberg that I cited before. I want to say it was the late '50s / early '60s when men began to rebel against being emotionally medicated, and women around the mid-late-'60s.

The Billboard year-end singles charts show a fairly ho-hum procession of songs throughout the early half of the 1950s. Then all of a sudden, the 1956 charts show male performers unashamedly opening up, putting it all out there, and cutting loose -- mostly Elvis, but also the Teenagers with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". By '57, there are even more (there's a table with all the year-end charts at the bottom of the previous link). There's still Elvis, but now also the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly / the Crickets. And it just goes on from there through the last two years of the '50s -- even more Everly Brothers, Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, the Drifters, etc.

Those early songs are breaking away from the emotional restraint -- or perhaps lack of much emotion to begin with -- of songs about boys and girls from the mid-century. They're pointing the way toward the power ballad of the 1980s, after which emotional numbness and blandness would set in once more, lasting through today.

What about female performers? There's a noticeable lack of them altogether in the '50s. The most memorable ones were probably the Chordettes, but they don't sound like they're letting go -- it sounds more rehearsed and under-control than the songs by male performers of the same time. "Mr. Sandman" came out in '55, when "Rock Around the Clock" ushered in the rock era, and "Lollipop" came out in '58, the same year that saw "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Great Balls of Fire," "Peggy Sue," and the original recording of "Do You Want to Dance".

Nope, the first year with a clear breakthrough by emotional females, akin to Elvis in '56, was 1961 when the Shirelles took the world by storm as the first "girl group" -- i.e., the just-go-with-it, boy-crazy type. Whereas the late '50s saw the male rock explosion, it took until 1963 for female singers to join in the excitement -- just about every classic early song came out in that single year: "Be My Baby," "Then He Kissed Me," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Just One Look," "One Fine Day," and so on. They were pointing the way toward the Pointer Sisters and Bananarama, who perfected the genre in the '80s. Again we see females trailing males by about five years.

Finally, there's clothing, another obvious difference between the drab mid-century and the upbeat '60s - '80s period that followed. The main shift seems to have involved variety of colors and the presence of patterns, both of which make clothing look more striking and signal the willingness of the wearer to put themselves out there and get noticed, trusting that others aren't going to ridicule them, or perhaps feeling too carefree to pay them any mind if they did.

In an earlier post on Christmas sweaters, I detailed how men were the first to re-adopt them after their more or less disappearance during the mid-century, after having been so popular during the Jazz Age. The Sears Christmas catalog ("wish book") shows sweaters with multiple colors and winter-themed patterns for men starting in the 1956 edition, when women's sweaters are still uniform in color and lacking in patterns. Multiple colors and bold patterns don't show up for women's winter sweaters until the early '60s -- they're definitely in the '62 edition, and perhaps in the '60 or '61 editions, though neither is online for me to check.

Outside of seasonal clothing, everyday shirts showed the same timing. By the mid-'50s, the Sears catalogs have lots of what we'd call "flannel shirts," with their bold all-over pattern and contrasting colors. (Sounds more fun than a gray t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and brown sandals.) Not until the early '60s do we see a similar profusion of multi-colored and patterned shirts for women. Once again, men led the way out of drabness by a good five years or so.

There are surely other examples, but these are diverse enough to make the point. A falling-crime era selects for more feminized traits, so naturally men will be the first to grow restless and try to pave the way out toward a somewhat more dangerous but ultimately more fulfilling way of life.

By the same logic, when the outgoing zeitgeist grinds to a halt and swings back toward the cocooning side -- most recently, circa 1990 -- women seem to be the first to drop out of public spaces and to withdraw trust in the opposite sex, while men stick it out for a little longer before closing themselves off as well. But that's for another post.


  1. Looking at the charts gives a distorted view of the gender breakdown of popular performers. Female singers from the previous era were still a strong presence in the late 50 and early sixties -- including powerhouse personalities like Judy Garland, Doris Day, DInah Shore, Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee. You could argue that what actually happened in the 1950s was the feminization of male pop stars, beginning with weepy Johnny Ray (arrested for public restroom hanky panky after several number one hits and appearances on major TV variety shows), the swishy mama's boy Elvis, wimpy and bespectacled Buddy Holly, not to mention out and out homosexuals like Neil Sedaka and Liberace (with his hit TV show) - and the whole raft of early male rockers with their eye shadow and hair fetishes. It was really the females who led the way in assertiveness in 1960s show business -- and the Negroes both male and female.

  2. I still disagree.
    Men adopt certain fashions in order to attract women. So something about a change in women's behavior - which happens first - caused men to change their fashion.

    I would also disagree that low crime selects for feminine traits. the media 1930-1960 shows a very patriarchal, patronizing culture. as were the themes portrayed in movies. A man had to be a "man's man" who didn't fall in love. Romantic plots consisted of the lead putting the woman in her place. Watch any John Wayne movie - there is one where he chases the female lead through the town square and then spanks her(in a non-sexual way).

    but the most important point is that women hate low crime a lot more than men do. improved fashions only prove this, as it is women who dictate fashion choice, as they choose who to sleep with.

    there is much confusion about what "masculinity" is. is Top Gun a masculine movie, for instance? most would say yes, except for the little problem that Tom Cruise looks like a woman. what about Karate Kid? Ralph Macchio has a recessive chin. the "masculine" themes in those movies are really just normal behavior that, in a healthy society, everybody does. for instance, standnig up for yourself, going after your dreams, and defending the homeland.

    testosterone causes social dominance. yet men actually have *less* power during a crime wave. better fashion only demonstrates this, as it is generally women who have a fashion sense. the average guy doesn't have the faintest clue what good fashion looks like. therefore, if men start dressing better, it is because women are making higher demands on them - therefore, women have more power.

    you may be an exception. some men with high estrogen(biggest indicator is high, prominent cheekbones) have aesthetic sense, so they are the ones who dictate fashion sense to neotenous, childlike women. this may be your personal experience, but in America, in general, it is women who guide the fashion.

    Also, Higher promiscuity doesn't denote higher masculinity(look at gays, for instance).


  3. Here's the John Wayne spanking scene:



  4. "The backlash against that kind of "cosmetic pharmacology" first made an issue of men taking them -- the reformers portrayed them as emasculating and domesticating the more animal-driven nature of male users".

    It was women doing the criticizing, angry that their husbands had become dysfunctional.

    C'mon, you really think that a bunch of men just got up and said "you know, let's stop taking drugs and start dressing appropriately."


  5. "Female singers from the previous era were still a strong presence in the late 50 and early sixties"

    It's not whether there were females or not, but did they play a role in breaking out of the mid-century stultification. By and large, those '50s females did not open up and let it all out. That was more the '60s girl groups.

    '60s males stars were more masculinized, not feminized. Women are meek, afraid of lots of eyeballs turned their way all at once, and to the extent that they welcome crowd attention, it's to whore for attention.

    The male stars starting in the '60s ramped up their stage presence and charisma. It takes guts to get over stage fright (or not have it to begin with), and it takes an other-oriented attitude to see their job as getting the crowd worked up and resonating on the same wavelength, rather than worship the pop idol.

  6. "It was women doing the criticizing, angry that their husbands had become dysfunctional."

    No, it was men. There was a widespread recognition that the "postwar" culture had begun to feminize men, mothers were smothering their coddled bratty children, the drone army of company men had lost their masculine ambition and drive to achieve, and so on.

    They really did voice these criticisms themselves -- what in the female case would be called "consciousness-raising". Their wives wouldn't dare criticize them -- they preferred men not to rock the boat and risk upsetting the family's harmony.

  7. "Men adopt certain fashions in order to attract women. So something about a change in women's behavior - which happens first - caused men to change their fashion."

    Men also dress to signal things to other men, whether as an expression of being cool and laid-back, or as a sign of dominance (business suits), etc. By the mid-late 1950s, men had just had enough of the drabness and decided to wear more fun-looking shirts, more in a fraternal spirit than in a skirt-chasing spirit.

    "the media 1930-1960 shows a very patriarchal, patronizing culture."

    Well that's just escapist fantasy. Men generally agreed at the time that women had gotten loose somehow -- hence the desire to put them back in their place.

    Look at the horror crime comic books -- those are the height of male fantasies about dominating women (the criminal tying up the sex bomb), and being dominated by them (in the Amazon kind of comics). Yet the guys reading those things were sheltered sexless dorks.

    Look at all the "man"-branded culture of the past 20 years, from Home Improvement to Burger King to man-caves, etc. That doesn't reflect a patriarchal culture -- rather, a pussy-whipped culture that tries to symbolically strike back at female control.

  8. "except for the little problem that Tom Cruise looks like a woman"

    Could a woman stare you down like Maverick could? Does a woman have that level of ambition and competitiveness?

    "better fashion only demonstrates this"

    I didn't say men got better fashion sense in the mid-'50s, but that they chose to wear clothes that looked bolder, showing that they weren't afraid to stand out and get noticed. They didn't look any more fastidious or carefully designed than before -- they just looked more striking instead of retiring.

    "it is women who guide the fashion"

    Not for the re-adoption of winter-themed sweaters or sweaters with multi-colors and bold patterns. The more I look, the more I question the female-driven-ness of fashion changes. Back in the Jazz Age, it was the Prince of Wales who popularized the Fair Isle sweater, not a woman.

    Men don't borrow women's clothing, but women do borrow men's. That again suggests that men make the change first, since they're not afraid to rock the boat, and then more conformist-minded women follow in their footsteps.

  9. Wheels within wheels!


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