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.