From Fernando Lamas to Roy Rogers: Media Consumption in the ’50s

Jan Aichele, a part-time receptionist at the Walla Walla Odd Fellows Home, smiles as she timidly accepts our (Natasha Hibgee and I co-interviewed her) request to ask her about her childhood. You see, Jan is a child of the ‘50s. She was born and raised in Walla Walla and grew up on a home on 1st Street. Jan lived with her older brother, Bob, who was five years her senior, as well as with her mother and father. Both of her parents worked, and so Jan had every weekday afternoon and Saturday to herself. The focus of this interview is primarily what Jan did with her free time and what those choices say about the era in which she grew up.

For Jan, the ‘50s – her teenage years and early 20s – were the best years of her life. To romanticize them, they were the days of the cowboy (for an apt ambiance, listen to the attached Lone Ranger Theme Song YouTube video), Elvis Presley, and the comic book. When asked, Jan believed that she was “absolutely one of the boys.” This statement aligned with Sean Griffen’s article, Kings of the Wild Backyard: Davy Crockett and Children’s Space, who noted, “female children seemed to be using the ‘Crocket Craze’ to break out of their engendered roles and spaces” (115). She also loved Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club and looked forward to watching them every day after school. Yet Jan’s media consumption in the ‘50s extended way beyond television. It included comic books such as Superman, Dick Tracey, and Richie, Veronica, and Jughead. Moreover, Jan, her brother, and her parents spent their evenings listening to the radio, in particular the programs The Shadow and 20 Questions. (It is noteworthy that neither of these programs had a lead female character.) Jan doesn’t really remember commercials, nor did she read magazines because there were no books in the house.

Jan’s relationship with the media speaks both to aspects of her personal life as well as to those of white, middle-to-lower-class 1950s America. On an individual level, the media provided a topic of socialization. For instance, the day after watching the Red Skelton Show, Jan and her friends talked about nothing else. More importantly, Jan seemed to look to these outlets as a means of escape. Her parents were extremely strict. Her father was violent and her mother was passive, complacent, and docile. Both of them drank and fought frequently. Not surprisingly, Jan preferred to talk about her favorite shows, movies, games, and comic books. The message is subtle: For teenagers of the 1950s, means self-identification no longer had to come from immediate peers; they could also be derived from the personas on TV or the radio.

On a broader level, the media boom of the ‘50s provided the people of Jan’s generation with a sense of adventure and individuality that, based upon Jan’s description of her everyday life, was distinctly lacking. As Griffen explained, the post-WWII ‘50s emphasized the protection of innocence, and with that mass-paranoia came a nation-wide effort to monitor and restrict children. Games such as Cowboys and Indians were a way to temporarily disregard that mentality. This media also partially reoriented Jan’s peers’ future aspirations: Instead of becoming housewives, they wanted to be movie stars and marry actors such as Fernando Lamas. That women were restricted to passive and secondary roles did not seem to bother Jan. When asked about this striking discrepancy, one Jan openly acknowledged, she replied, “let them take care of me!” This mindset is of particular interest and warrants further investigation.

fernando-lamas-4-sized

[Fernando Lamas was an Argentinian actor who generally played “Latin Lover” roles.]

At the same time as the media revolutionized the younger generations by making popular culture more accessible and personal, it reinscribed traditional gender roles. Thanks to television and the radio, affirmation of women’s docility was available not only in everyday life, but also via roles such as Dale Evans, Roy Rogers’ wife and faithful sidekick. This messaging was equally present in the distinct absence of strong lead, independent female characters. While Evans’ character did indeed go adventuring, she only did so as a companion to Rogers. Her existence in the show, then, was contingent upon her husband’s presence and heroism. If anything, Evans’ role seemed to be to get trapped and then rescued by her husband. After all, it was called the Roy Rogers Show, not the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show.

As a final note, it is important to remember that the consumers dictated which products were successful and which ones flopped. Although the choices were limited compared to today, they nevertheless existed. Therefore, while such media did not necessarily advocate for the restructuring of gendered society, they provided teenage girls such as Jan with a voice, albeit a relatively small one. Such a facet of empowerment in an otherwise comparatively (compared to modern day) and openly oppressive society allowed teenagers such as Jan to escape home lives that might border on abusive and enter an environment in which they were on an equal playing fields to their male counterparts. The contribution that the media made to this effort is frequently overlooked.

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2 thoughts on “From Fernando Lamas to Roy Rogers: Media Consumption in the ’50s

  1. You make excellent points concerning the liberating potential of media during this time — points that extend, I’d argue, to your interviewee’s consumption of radio. One of the things I really love about radio programming from this time is that while the voices were gendered, the listener was free to imagine the participants in any way he or she would like…much like a book. In that way, it was much easier for girls, for example, to identify with masculine characters. Great interview!

  2. Interesting point about teens having the ability to draw self-identification from media figures. It’s hard for me (an avid bookworm since childhood) to imagine not having the ability to look to characters for that purpose.
    I also found Jan’s “Let them take care of me” comment really interesting- especially in context. I had asked (something about) if there were any female characters she remembers particularly liking or idolizing. The answer was no, which she explained by the fact that the women were always just damsels in distress, always being rescued by the more-exciting heroes. Which she didn’t have any problem with, “Let them take care of me!” It seems that she identified more with the male heroes as a child, which makes an interesting contrast to her good-natured acceptance of the more passive feminine gender construct.

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