I interviewed my Aunt who grew up in the Bay Area (California). When I asked her about her childhood media consumption she said that she mostly watched television––The Ed Sullivan Show and Leave it to Beaver were her favorites. In general, almost everything that she watched (or actively elected to watch) was a feel-good comedy. She watched television as often as she could; but, her older brother had priority and so sometimes she would forgo her viewing preferences and would watch whatever he wanted with him. Her brother was more interested in what she described as “more guy stuff” meaning war and combat centered programs.
Like most people, she looked to the media for role models and part of the reason she was so drawn to comedy was that it was in those shows where she found role models. Interestingly, both of her favorite shows––Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) and The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971) went off the air before the 1987 study that found “female characters to be most common in comedy programmes” (Gauntlett, 47) was published. However, the decade before that had about equal gender portrayal on comedy television which I am sure is more than what was featured in the war/combat programs that her brother watched.
She also added that Lucy, from I Love Lucy (1951-1957)served as some what of a role model because she was always “getting into mischievous and humorous situations.” She said, “humor was important to me in a role model and these shows were a way of coping with life.” While the war and combat centered programs that her brother enjoyed were more exciting, she was drawn to humor which provided an escape and often had strong female characters.
Another place that she found role models was in Nancy Drew novels. What my aunt said about her reasons for liking Nancy Drew was essentially the same as Honey and Leslie from the Hains piece, “Honey said she ‘lived through’ the ‘excitement’ of Nancy Drew, ‘because we didn’t have adventures like that. They were different.’ Additionally, ‘Leslie felt this [her love of Nancy Drew] was less because Drew was a girl than because of her own interest in solving puzzles and mysteries.” (Hains, 121). Retrospectively, my aunt adds that she should have been a private investigator because of her constant questioning and natural inquisitiveness.
I found it interesting that both my aunt and Rebecca Hains discussed the social aspect of media consumption in the past. Hains writes, “Interestingly, much media use was family centered––in particular listening to radio programs, watching early television programs, and movie-going…” (Hains, 119). In my aunt’s family, Sunday night was family television night where they would gather and have “family time” around the television. Even my mother whose family did not own a television would sometimes come over to my aunt’s house and gather with her family to take part in “family television time.” Those evenings were a big deal, they would all make a night of it––a nice dinner, dessert, and a sleepover––so basically an evening centered around watching television. Additionally, for my aunt her television watching was not something that dominated her conversations with friends it really was a family thing.
The final aspect of media that my aunt discussed was the portrayal of men and women in television when she was growing up. She said, “Early on in my television watching, the shows and sitcoms were very delineated in the gender roles. The father made money and work outside of the house while the woman ran the household.” David Gauntlett author of Media, Gender, Identity writes, “A study by McNeil (1975) concluded that the women’s movement had been largely ignored by television, with married housewives being the main female role shown. … Female characters were unlikely to work, especially not if they were wives or mothers…” (Gauntlett, 47). I find it interesting that even though the gender roles portrayed by the media were so confined, that my aunt was able to realize and understand that just because the media said women were less than men on (almost) every level that it was not necessarily true–– as demonstrated by her television preferences and role models.
In sum, based on everything that we have read about how gender was portrayed from about 1940 to 1970 would lead me to believe that women would be less likely to see the potential for women to be strong and independent, especially in such a male dominated society. Media definitely played a role in how my aunt saw gender norms; but, it does not sound like media was as intense or powerful as it is today––new fashion trends were not launched via television and the amount of product promotion was considerably less. For my aunt, television provided a space for family time, allowed her to have a “better” understanding of gender roles, find role models, and escape reality. Even though today we might be appalled or shocked by the gendered messages of the television programs of the 1940s-1970s, there were some good things that came from such shows.