The Culture and Conformity of the 1950’s
Homogenizing conformity characterized the years of the 1950’s. Following the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the end of World War II, war-weary Americans above all desired stability and prosperity. The exodus of middle-class citizens from the cities, the growth of suburbia, the popularity of television, and the Cold War and communist paranoia all contributed to the overwhelming need to conform during this era. At times, however, festering social unrest threatened to betray this superficial veneer of normality and eventually culminated in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Beat culture. While the decade of the 1950’s was overwhelmingly conformist, some aspects betrayed an underlying rejection of this society that would carry through into later decades.
The necessity of compliance pervaded nearly every aspect of American life. The Cold War elicited a profound, deep-rooted fear of a perceived communist threat. The duality of this conflict polarized the population and established a mentality of “us” versus “them”. Principally, Americans pursued consensus. Those who failed to follow, or differed in any manner, from social norms were deemed dangerous and a threat to society. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s vehement political attacks on supposed Communists, although mostly unsubstantiated, fostered a cultural climate in which any evidence against capitalism was unacceptable and aberrations from “normal” society were Communist-inspired. At the height of the Second Red Scare, Communist Party members Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage and executed, although evidence of their involvement in passing along atomic secrets was tenuous at best (Linder). Even an intimation of communist-related activities was cause for suspicion; many organizations, such as unions, received a reputation as communist fronts. Extensive press coverage that incited fear, coupled with the threat of at best neighbors’ gossip, or at worst their betrayal, forced compliance on many. The Cold War generated an era of paranoia that resulted in the conformity of those who desired to fit into mainstream life.
The ubiquity of television and increased advertising only reinforced this homogeneity. The media exposed Americans to the same ideals and accepted social standards; Hollywood portrayed the typical citizens as suburban, middle-class whites with distinct gender roles, such as in Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver. Advertising agencies as well supported white American lifestyles and values, fueled by the consumerism of the decade. Legislation such as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act allowed veterans to purchase a house in the suburbs with no money down, which tempted many to move away from urban areas in search of cheaper properties and better living conditions (“Suburbs”). Other laws, such as the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, allowed for the construction of 40,000 miles of highway and further contributed to suburban sprawl. However, wage earners still commuted to the cities, and many became discontented with the uniformity and bureaucracy of their work. Writer Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit depicts one man’s disenchantment with material culture and the conformity of his workplace.
However, strenuous efforts to establish a consensus belied elements of discontent and rebellion that would come to shape the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960’s. Despite the opposition of parents, the Beat Generation surfaced, consisting of writers and artists that criticized contemporary American life and culture. The contents of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, containing references to drugs and homosexuality, offered a scathing critique of modern society; police deemed it obscene and arrested Ginsberg’s publisher (“Culture”, Reynolds). A counter began to emerge, however, when in 1957 Judge Clayton court ruled that work had “redeeming social importance” as it was “an indictment of… materialism, conformity, and mechanization” (People). As an echo of Beat culture, teenagers began to adopt new hairstyles and wear shorter clothing as a way to display a mounting dissatisfaction with the status quo.
A rejection of this conformity is evident in the musical styles developing during the 1950’s as well. Rock and roll, with its origins in rhythm and blues, jazz, and gospel, grew to popularity and singer Elvis Presley quickly became a cultural icon (despite, or perhaps because of, parental condemnation that the music would loosen morals and corrupt the youth). The movie Rebel Without a Cause dramatized the struggles of middle-class teenagers, reflecting fears of “juvenile delinquency”, and quickly launched James Dean to stardom (Yahnke). The backlash against conformity provided young adults with an outlet and a way to reject expectations imposed upon them.
Additionally, other events betrayed the social tension of the era. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling to end “separate but equal” education under Justice Thurgood Marshall sparked a wide social and political debate on integration; nothing before had so tangibly forced Americans to reevaluate their preconceptions on the role of minorities in society. As a result of the ruling, nine black students attempted to attend a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas; Eisenhower overruled segregationist governor Orval Faubus and sent in troops to uphold the decision (“Civil Rights”). Segregationists, although still influential during this time period, were beginning to be confronted by those who believed past laws such as “separate but equal” were simply justifications for racial discrimination. During the same time, the arrest of Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery bus boycott to desegregate municipal buses. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, enacted under Eisenhower, shattered years of inaction; it was the first civil rights legislation passed since the years following the Civil War. Those working for the Civil Rights Movement began their fight for equality during this decade and refused to adjust themselves to submit to white ideals.
Ultimately, it is undeniable that the political, social, and cultural climate of the 1950’s was characterized by paranoia and conformity. However, underlying controversies such as civil rights for African Americans, the restlessness of youth culture, and the popularity of “inappropriate” music at times threatened to destroy the illusory ideals of homogeneity and compliance. Eventually, the conformity of the 1950’s would give way in later decades to the counterculture movement and the rebellion against societal constructs.