November 7, 2012

TV and the Cold War, part 2: exporting the American Dream

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're wondering why I'm perhaps the only blogger in America not writing about yesterday's election returns.  Well, I don't really want to alienate my audience, about half of which (statistically speaking) should be pretty torqued no matter how things turned out.  Besides, how topical can a blog devoted to 50s and 60s TV be?  I think we covered the whole TV-election angle pretty well over the last few weeks, considering what we had at hand.. 

However, that doesn't mean we're abandoning politics altogether, so I hope you’ll indulge me a little while I return to that piece from last month (how time flies when you're having fun) about spy shows and the Cold War.* I want to continue that thought, but this time in a slightly different direction.

*If you found that to be slightly pedantic and perhaps even a little boring, by the way, you can go ahead and skip this one right now and come back on Saturday for the new TV Guide bit. (Pauses, waiting.)

For those of you still reading. . .

You remember that the point of that piece was how the plots of popular spy shows of the 60s might have influenced viewers’ opinions in the Cold War against Communism. Since the charge of this blog is to look at the role TV played in the development of 50s and 60s American culture, you can see how this might be something I’d be interested in.

Suppose now that we take it a step further and look at TV not in terms of what the characters are doing, but who those characters are, and where and how they live?

Until I couple of years ago I’d never given this much (if any) thought, until I went to this lecture at the Minnesota Historical Society. Entitled “The 1950s Sitcom - Guide to American Life” and presented by University of Minnesota pop culture historian Melissa Williams, the lecture took a look at what might be called the flip side of Barnouw’s analysis of programming content during the Cold War.

Recall that Barnouw looked at spy shows and saw in them a (subconscious) justification of American actions in the fight against Communism and a reinforcement of Americans’ confidence in their government. I’d take this to mean that the primary impact of such shows was on an American, or domestic, audience.*

*Indeed, as Barnouw pointed out, foreign viewers might well think that Americans were telling them how to run their country – as indeed we occasionally were.

Williams, on the other hand, would seem to point primarily to the effect that American sitcoms had on the steadily growing audience abroad, specifically in the countries where the Cold War could be seen as a battle for hearts and minds, by promoting the ideal of America as the Land of Opportunity for all. As Williams puts it in the abstract of her Masters dissertation*, “television used middle- and working-class family sitcoms to promote the commodities necessary for middle-class assimilation, but also to position working-class characters as stern object lessons in the battle to promote a ‘classless’ American post–World War II idyll.” Specifically, television became a new weapon in the Cold War battle against communism.

Two key elements to American “success” over communism—a supposed end to racism (which, for all practical purposes, translated to a widening of the accepted definition of whiteness and a willingness to legislate incremental increases in rights for African Americans) and an increase in economic stability and upward mobility for Americans—were the cornerstones of American thought in the 1940s. An immense propaganda campaign ensued, striving to, as Elaine Tyler May has put it, “[promote] the American way of life as the triumph of capitalism, allegedly available to all who believed in its values. This way of life was characterized by affluence, located in suburbia, and epitomized by white middle-class nuclear families.”

*All of the following quotes come from that document, linked above, © Melissa Williams 2009.

This could be done effectively through the use of television, and especially the ways in which sitcom families came to exemplify the success of the American Dream.

It would be easy to see how shows such as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet fit into this dynamic, featuring as they did successful husbands, fulfilled wives, and a house full of children who, while occasionally getting into minor scrapes, were “good kids.” But what about the other shows, the popular sitcoms that weren’t “exclusively middle class”?

Programs like The Goldbergs, The O’Neills, The Life of Riley, Mama, Life With Luigi, and The Honeymooners dotted the primetime landscape and frequently made appearances in the Nielsen Top 20 ratings. How, then, can we explain the popularity—indeed, even the existence in this era—of programs in which the protagonists were emphatically NOT middle-class? What purpose would images of families who have not achieved the American Dream play in a medium designed specifically to sell that dream to consumers?

The main reason, according to Williams, might well have been what Fredric Jameson called “the symbolic fulfillment of the repressed wish.” Shows on television needed to maintain a certain degree of realism in order to make them accessible to the average viewer. Programs such as those above had to offer something worth striving for, something that the average family could reasonably hope to achieve if they worked hard and (especially in the case of ethic families) adhered to American values and the American way of life. Thus successfully assimilated, the Jewish family of The Goldbergs, the Italians in Life With Luigi, and the Scandinavians who populated Mama had every reason to hope that they, too, could become part of the American Dream. This assimilation wasn’t limited to emigrants, either; rural folk could succeed as well, as shown in program like The Andy Griffith Show, in which “the clear appeal and influence of urban consumption was present but small town life was also hailed, as long as the core values of the Cold War era—education, hard work, and commitment to the nuclear family—were foregrounded.

See how this becomes a weapon against communism? For European viewers watching the imported American shows (and a lot of them were), that valued Dream became something to which they too could aspire. Economic mobility provided a two-for-one benefit: not only did it give international viewers a positive impression of capitalism (in stark contrast to the shortages and deprivations that could be found in postwar Eastern Europe), it also created a demand for the consumer goods that were part of that upward mobility, thereby acting as an economic stimulus in both domestic and foreign markets, which in turn helped to stimulate the domestic economy and make possible the very mobility portrayed in those shows.

Williams goes on to illustrate the changing role of television in the late 60s and 70s in what she calls “The Politics of Class on Television,” when programs such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H begin to challenge those very definitions of success, and question not only the accessibility of the American Dream but whether or not in fact it’s even desirable. And with that came increased challenges to the established Cold War narrative, and the subversive suggestion that capitalism was not only not superior to communism, but that it might even be inferior.

That is, of course, a completely different era, and it would be hard to trace its development and fallout in a book-length manuscript, let alone a blog post. Suffice it to say that, far from being content-free, the television of the 50s and 60s* was teeming with underlying currents of tension, reinforcement of values, ideological justification, and subconscious support of America’s role in the world. And, like so many conflicts, television’s Cold War was fought on two fronts: conscious and subconscious, economic and political, comedic and dramatic. I shant belabor the point, but it is something to keep in the back of your mind next time you’re tuned to MeTV - might make you want to treat them with a little more respect, huh?

*The early 60s were in many ways an extension of the 50s, resembling them far more than they did the late 60s, even as The New Frontier signaled a decisive break with the perceived inertia of the 50s.

Before we're done, I wanted to show you that I'm not the only person warped enough to suggest a link between sitcoms and the Cold War.  Check out this truly bizarre (and wonderful) website.  As its authors point out, "Every genre on [television] was effected by the Bomb (the anthology genre actually dealt with it in a mostly direct fashion. As you can see elsewhere on this site, shows like 'The Twilight Zone' and 'The Outer Limits' devoted many episodes to atomic issues), but none so bizarrely as the family sitcom."

And this is why we love television.

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