Gender and my Grandma

For this blog post, I interviewed my grandma on my mom’s side. She was born in 1936 in the Bronx in New York City. My grandma came from a very conservative Irish Catholic family. Her father worked for the electric company and her mother was the homemaker. Both of her parents immigrated from Ireland when they were in their late teens.  After attending a Catholic high school, my grandma went to work at the FBI as a secretary when she was 17. She met my grandpa and was married by 19. My first question was “How did the media affect your childhood?” It was interesting because she was said “The media? The media was not really a part of my childhood” which basically matched Maggie and Elizabeth in the “Girlhood, Popular Culture, and Mass Media in the 1940s and 1950s” article (119).  I got more specific and asked about the radio. As a child, my grandma loved listening to the radio. The radio was a tall console and everyone would sit around it, like people today sit around and watch the television. She said her family mostly listened to the news, especially Gabriel Heatter, one of the main news announcers. Her dad was especially fond of the news, while her mother listened to soaps, such as Stella Dallas. My grandma said “Now I don’t remember much about the show because I was so young, but I knew my mother loved hearing about the trials and tribulations of Stella.” The beginning of the program gave a short summary of the drama: “We give you now Stella Dallas, a continuation on the air of the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice, in which Stella Dallas saw her own beloved daughter marry into wealth and society and, realizing the differences in their tastes and worlds, went out of Laurel’s life.”

When my grandma was 17, her family got their first TV. She remembers the Ed Sullivan Show, which would bring in acts, such as singers and people “who could juggle.” She would watch the “Honeymooners” with Jackie Gleason. She described the husband being quite “loud” and wanting to “boss everyone around, but his wife wouldn’t let him”. This show showed the dynamics between husband and wife. Here is a link to the opening credits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHqq0WVXiEE. Jackie Gleason, the husband is the main character and has his face on a moon. My grandma did not remember any of the other names of the characters besides the male lead.  From this we went on a tangent because I asked my grandma if she noticed that “only 20 to 35 percent of characters were female” (47) or if she thought it was unfair that women had less time air time compared to men (47). She got somewhat defensive and said “we didn’t get into that.” Both the “we” and the “that” are very vague here. It was as if my grandma was trying to speak for her generation and that gender differences were not something to be talked about. My grandma went on to explain to me that men made the living, they were the breadwinners, while the women were responsible for the home, “everyone had a role and that was the way it was.” She went on to say that is was a “nice routine” when the husband would come home to work to a home cooked meal by the mother. This reminded me of the Feminine mystique, but my grandma seemed to be totally fine with the culture she lived in and merely accepted her role as homemaker.  

I asked my grandma what her thoughts were on today’s media and how women and men are portrayed. She did not say anything about men, but jumped straight to the women and how they “show too much chest” and use foul language. She thought it would be nice to go back to “innocent times where everything was easier” When I asked my grandma to explain the word “easier” My grandma stumbled on what to say. She finally said that people knew what was right and wrong. Again my grandma was super vague. I think this goes back to her conservative upbringing, which also came along with the absence of talking about uncomfortable things, such as gender disparity.  When I asked my grandma if she had any closing thoughts, she said that she still thinks it is best if the woman stays in the home and takes care of the children even though she understands that some mothers need to work.

As my grandma told me her stories, it was hard for me to get frustrated with some of her answers. I wondered why she wasn’t more outraged that women were not shown as independent women with their own shows instead of housewives or the fact that women were constantly portrayed as inferior with a lack of assertiveness. But as I wrote this blog post, I understood where my grandma was coming from. Her family set the norm. In the Lenses of Gender book for my Psychology of Women and Gender class, Charlotte Perkins Gilman explains, “What we see immediately around us, what we are born into and grow up with….we assume to be the order of nature” (41). The shows she watched and the radio she listened to reflected her own family. She worked for two years before getting married and having children. From that point on, she stayed at home and cooked for her husband and her children. She believed in these roles, because it is all she has ever known and wanted to know.

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4 thoughts on “Gender and my Grandma

  1. I *LOVE* this post — in part because I love Stella Dallas. You also make excellent points concerning the way we’re conditioned to accept the situations in which we grow up — it doesn’t seem oppressive if it’s what you’ve always known.

  2. I enjoyed the points that you made about how your grandma got defensive when you asked if it was fair that women got less air time. My aunt who is in her mid/late fifties did a similar thing when I asked her about gender roles. She very firmly told me “no, it wasn’t like that back then” and then continued to try to defend the rationale of women in the house and men outside of the house. I find it very interesting that my aunt who is a little younger and from the west coast your grandma who is older and from the east coast had very similar responses to those questions. I also think that your points about the role of family is spot on–both our readings and my conversation with my aunt suggest that watching television was a family activity so it makes sense that the shows watched would support/influence the values of the family.

  3. I noticed some of the same defensiveness concerning the past portrayal of women in the media in the interview I did with my aunt. While she didn’t talk about subservient or traditional female roles, she did remember seeing many “sexy” images of women in the media. When I asked her if she thought they affected her she said that she was sure it affected her to some degree but less than many people were affected. This sort of defensive response suggested that there was a firm line drawn between the femininity that she expressed and questionable and unreal “sexy” femininity. She also mentioned that her view of sexualized women as not real was influenced by her family.

  4. Claire I thought two things about this interview were especially intriguing! Both quotes from your grandma of “no we didn’t get into that” and “innocent times where everything was easier” sparked a lot of similarities between the women we read about in the article and my mom’s mindset. Like you highlighted in your article you talk about a routine, or pattern that people are in and thus don’t question what’s going on. My mom’s upbringing was very similar to your grandma’s (even though she is 14 years younger and grew up half way around the world). By taking one of your grandma’s quotes, the sentence “innocent times where everything was easier” can be broken down to analyze. What made your grandma’s time growing up so “innocent” compared to today? Was it the portrayal of women, or because women today show too much of their chest like your grandma noted? How were things “easier”, because no one rebelled and obeyed the social norm?

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