March 19, 2014

How superficial and bratty were the Silent Gen as youngsters?

A recent post looked at how Millennials (the females anyway, but probably also the males) have a shocking level of superficiality regarding the opposite sex. Girls don't want a guy because he's "cool" but because he's "hot." I attributed this to the helicopter parenting and cocooning environment that they grew up in -- social avoidance and distance lead you to only notice and value people's appearances.

Did something like this happen during the previous heyday of cocooning?

The Mid-century was part of the Great Compression, when competitiveness and squeaky-wheel entitled-ness were steadily falling. So, young people back then -- the Silent Generation -- did not live by a social code of dog-eat-dog. And yet, their formative years were part of the Dr. Spock / smothering mothers approach to treating children, which seems to be a feature of cocooning and falling-crime times (cocoon the children for their safety, no matter what it turns them into).

Hence, we expect them to look like Millennials, only in a way where everything is not a status contest.

Recall this post about how Mid-century singers and actors / actresses were required to be quite attractive. Throw in the election of JFK, and even politicians fit into that pattern, to a lesser extent. That had totally changed by the Eighties, when major entertainers looked more like Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Phil Collins, and Ann Wilson from Heart. And our President looked like Ronald Reagan.

Since the '90s, it's swung back toward the Mid-century norm of superficiality, with Justin Bieber and Katy Perry as today's major entertainers (or attractive TV news readers, or attractive sideline reporter chicks, or attractive spokeswomen for breast cancer, or...). I don't know how good-looking Obama is perceived, but he was elected on superficial grounds -- he's got dark skin, so it'd be like My Cool Black Friend running the country! Don't bother checking the individual in question to see if he really is the cool-black-friend type or not... And Republicans are no different, with Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin being much better looking than major aspiring politicians from the '70s or '80s.

What about brattiness among Silents? I haven't gone through all the major hits of the Mid-century, but I can think of two just off the top of my head: Lesley Gore's back-to-back hits of 1963, "It's My Party" ("and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to") and "Judy's Turn to Cry". The first hit #1, the second #5, and both made the year-end Billboard charts.

You might object that these were for 14 year-olds, who would've been early Boomers, not Silents. True, but I'm talking about young people during the Mid-century more than a specific generation. If that included some early Boomers toward the end, that doesn't change the focus.

Finally, check out this sit-com / product placement special from 1952, "Young Man's Fancy". The Silent Gen daughter, Judy (that name again), acts like a spoiled brat toward her mother, though her callous and dismissive attitude is more calm and carefree than the hostile tone that her Millennial descendant would take.

When she hears that her brother's friend from college is coming over for dinner, she gets all disgusted by the sound of his name (Alexander Phipps) -- with a name like that, he's bound to be an ugly geek! He turns out to be good-looking, so she naturally responds by cursing her brother for not warning her that he was bringing home a hot guy (or whatever she calls him). Now she has to make herself up with no time. When she yaks on the phone with her friend about him, it's only his cuteness (or whatever the slang was) that she spazzes out about.

That spastic reaction reminded me so much of how Millennial girls respond to the Random Hot Guy type. His appearance is the only thing they notice, not his character or other appeal. They only want to get noticed and thereby ego-validated by the Random Hot Guy, not actually open up to, get close to, or do anything with him. And they flip out when they see one, as though they hardly get to enjoy the opportunity. Because everyone is so sheltered and doesn't run into each other so often? Or because by choosing only based on looks, there just aren't as many who make them feel butterflies in the stomach? Beats me.

Eighties babes were more collected around guys, whether because it wasn't such a rare thing to be next to and interacting with them, or because all sorts of guys appealed to them. It was also ultimately uncool to be seen as a spazz, so they must have developed greater skill at composing themselves around others.

I realize that the Fifties sit-com is not the best acting, not a documentary, and produced more for product placement. (Gee, how neat is it to be watching the program on an ELECTRIC computer screen?) Yet, the character type they were going for to portray "kids these days" was a callous, superficial airhead. And I'm sure the actress had experience with that type of person, at least from observing and interacting with her peers, and perhaps personal inclination too.

Teenagers in the Eighties were not shown that way -- they were more concerned, thoughtful, and interested in getting to know what made someone tick. I get a similar impression of youngsters from the Twenties based on Fitzgerald's short stories, and plot synopses of silent films about the Flaming Youth of the time.

In both eras, they had an anti-authoritarian kind of attitude, but that is not callous dismissiveness directed toward all people who are not hot. And in both eras, young people were all about having fun and living life -- and good looks may only get you so far along that path. Wanting to have fun in a social setting makes young people focus more on what others are like inside -- are they an instigator or a killjoy?

Clearly, "further research is needed" in the matter, but even this cursory look has turned up more evidence that you would've expected for a superficial and bratty mindset among young people during the Mid-century.


  1. unrelated, "The OverProtected Kid" - from the Atlantic.

  2. No doubt their hardscrabble grandparents thought they were spoiled rotten.


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