For my interview I spoke with with Lorena Welch, my feisty feminist grandmother-in-law from coastal Washington. The eldest of four children, Lorena was born in Seattle but moved to Whidbey Island, WA, in 1964 as a freshman in high school.
During her young girlhood in the late 50s, Lorena recalls watching the occasional Saturday morning cartoon and watching TV during dinner now and then, as a special treat. But, like the women interviewed by Hains, Stern, and Mazzarella, Lorena and her friends spent most of their childhood outside playing, and much less time watching television or interacting with media. It wasn’t until junior high and high school that television became a large part of her social life.
“In high school there was this show Dark Shadows, a soap, that was on right after school. My friends and I would all go over to each others’ houses after school to watch it together.”
60s girls were also into vampires with weird hair
The other big social show for Lorena was American Bandstand. “We would watch it together and trying to dance and fix each other’s hair like the hip girls on the show.” Other than the one show, Lorena can’t recall consciously trying to look, dress or act like any girls on television—likely due to the lack of both girl culture and realistic females in television, which Hains, Stern, and Mazzarella point out.
Again like the women interviewed by Hain, Stern, and Mazzarella, there were very few female role models that she looked up to and identified strongly with as a girl. “I loved Carol Burnett,” Lorena told me, who she could occasionally manage to watch if she was babysitting and her parents were out late. “She was so funny,” Lorena remembers, and when it came to society’s rules, “she tore all those down.” Aside from that, though, she couldn’t think of any actresses, characters, or singers that she loved or admired as a girl.
As for the rest of the women on television, Lorena remembers a highly specific representation of femininity, very much in line with the Hains, Thiel-Stern, and Mazzarella’s observation that “girls were more likely to be portrayed in domestic situations only” (116). The only role portrayed by women, Lorena says, was the mother figure. “She would be a good mother that always acquiesced to the father, always told the children ‘go discuss that with your father’ if they came to her with big questions.” Even with frequent television watching, Lorena can’t remember ever being exposed to an archetypal “bad” woman until high school when she began watching soap operas. “They showed very fake families, very fake,” Lorena recalls. Women on television, she says, were mostly all like the mother in Leave it to Beaver, a show she watched a lot as a child: “the mother went around in high heels, stockings, and a dress that had a tightly cinched belt and petticoats, every day and all day.” Lorena told me that in the 50s, keeping up appearances was an incredibly important part of life. “You had to look, and I say this in quotes, ‘decent.’ There were much stricter rules.”
I’m pretty sure everyone in our generation is familiar with this stereotypical 50s image of prim and proper housewives, but I was definitely surprised by how slowly that image apparently changed. The study Gauntlett cites which “concluded that the women’s movement had been largely ignored by television, with married housewives being the main female role shown,” even well into the 1970s, caught me by surprise. It surprised me, too, when Lorena reminded me that before college, she could never wear pants to school. Women couldn’t play sports either, at her high school on Whidbey Island, and when she once led a petition to allow girls to take wood shop, she was refuse by the administration. “We just accepted this role because it was what was shown all around us,” Lorena reminds me. “Once I wore a skourt to school and was sent home, and this was well into the 60s.”
It was different for boys, though. There were a myriad of roles and figures men occupied on television, reflecting the wider parameters that marked acceptable male behavior in real life. I asked Lorena for the stereotypical 1950s man depicted on television.
“There were many more options—there was the father, who was always wise even if he got flustered sometimes. There was the studly guy, and there was the doofus, the guy that was kind of dumb but a funny sidekick to the good guy or the hero. There were many.”
More than television or the occasional movie, high school was all about the music. “I had my own phonograph, my brother had one too, and we each had our own record collection. My friends and I talked about music a lot, we shared records and bought each other records as gifts.” Lorena also played violin and was a part of three different orchestras, but she had to hide her interest in classical music to avoid getting teased. Unlike television, music was not something the family listened to together; they all had their own tastes, and Lorena, as a teenage girl, was an independent music consumer. Like most girls in the 60s, she listened to rock, which almost exclusively meant male rock bands. “Janis Joplin was really the only singer I can remember who broke the mold of gorgeous lounge singer. Everyone else was like a California beachgirl, or a holleywood starlet.”
That caught my attention- rock ‘n’ roll, a rebellious, progressive, teen-filled movement…but there were no women? I asked if Lorena felt that gender roles changed at all during her youth, along with the new social rebelliousness of the 60s, but she didn’t thing so.
“The gender roles didn’t change, we were defying society, but always within gender roles. Some women were leaders, but more often they were just there, adoring the men who were leading. It was still ‘burn your bra! You don’t have to wear your bra anymore’ but you still have to bow down to the guy.”
In classic counterculture movies of the time, like Easy Rider, Lorena notes it was always “the male rebel doing his thing, not caring very much about the women along the way.” Not only had the media “masculinized the teenager,” as Hains, Stern & Mazzarella note, but it seems that the youth-lead social rebelliousness of the 60s was masculinized as well.