Much, if not most, television in the 1950s did present a vanilla, whitewashed picture of American life in which family settings were ideal and untroubled. Sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and Father Knows Best were typical. Parents were shown as wise and forgiving, gentle...
Much, if not most, television in the 1950s did present a vanilla, whitewashed picture of American life in which family settings were ideal and untroubled. Sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and Father Knows Best were typical. Parents were shown as wise and forgiving, gentle and non-critical.
Though these shows had merit on their own terms, their falseness was dangerous because it encouraged children of that decade—baby boomers—to think all of this was "normal." Under these conditions and by these standards, real domestic life was impossibly flawed. The reality was that parents of that time were men and women who had grown up during the Depression of the 1930s and reached adulthood then or during the following decade when World War II took place. Their parents had generally been strict and harshly critical of those who fell short of their standards. Many of them—the grandparents of baby boomers—were first-generation Americans, having been born in Europe and other parts of the world in which old-world values of unquestioning obedience and perfectionism were still considered valid, and these were the values in which Greatest Generation was brought up.
Baby boomers could not reconcile the actual conditions of life (which their Greatest Generation parents attempted to inculcate) with the artificiality of this television world. The result was that many baby boomers grew up with feelings of resentment and anger toward their parents. It's an oversimplification, but the rebelliousness of young people during the 1960s was at least partly due to the disconnect between the older and imperfect ideas (and behavior) of the parents on the one hand and, on the other, the homogenized and idealized picture of life presented on television. Though the outward message of TV was to encourage conformity, the result was often the opposite.
It was not merely this dichotomy between the actual world and the seemingly perfect television world that led to generation gap problems and misunderstandings. Television showed alternative presentations of life almost in spite of itself. The Ed Sullivan Show, though hosted by a man who seemed to represent the conformist side of America, was in the forefront of presenting new music that shattered the somnolent post-war cultural norms. In the mid 1950s, Elvis Presley was introduced to millions of Americans by Sullivan, as were, later on, the Beatles, the Motown artists, and practically everyone else who was to transform the world through popular music. On the Sullivan show, rock'n'roll appeared alongside acts that represented conservative America, and a picture of diversity was created that we may say either reflected or helped to create the changes that were to transform the country and produce a new America.
Many sitcoms in the 1950s featured middle class white families whose values and ways of life were conformist and traditional. An example is Father Knows Best with Robert Young, which features a family with two parents and three children, all of whom were conformist in their attitudes and pursuits. For example, the mother stays at home, and the children have problems that are not serious in nature. These types of shows encouraged conformity but also made some segments of the population feel rebellious, as they knew that these TV portrayals of American life were not realistic or desirable.
In addition, other types of programs on TV encouraged rebellion. An example is American Bandstand, in which teens watched live performances of bands. This show was expressly for teenagers and encouraged a teenage culture separate from that of adults. TV news, with its broadcast of events such as the protests involved in the Civil Rights movement, also encouraged people's desire for change. Televised coverage of the news increased the immediacy of the events that were covered and made people more aware of what was going on and what parts of their society needed to be changed.
Television programs in the 1950s encouraged an exploding and newly prosperous white suburban class to adopt normative social behavior. Leave It to Beaver is a prime example of a television show that included a moral lesson about proper behavior in almost every episode. It also presented parents Ward and June as exemplary models of middle class virtue. Viewers were implicitly encouraged to imitate their lifestyle: Ward always kept the lawn mowed, and June, always perfectly groomed, baked layer cakes while maintaining a sparklingly clean house. Such gaffes as Beaver wanting to wear a piece of clothing that might embarrass the family were harshly condemned, while conformity was praised. Through this, people, especially new entrants to the middle class, were taught how to behave and encouraged to conform: series like Leave It to Beaver did not offer a diversity of ways to live but showed the supposed "right way." While it is useful for a culture to have a cohesive social vision, these programs excluded too many social groups, such as minorities, and offered a range of behavior so narrow that the conformity urged threatened to become restrictive.
On the other hand, television in the 1950s also sparked desire for change through news shows. People could see first hand, on a daily basis, such breaking events as Southern authorities turning powerful hoses on peaceful black protesters. This helped, for example, to ignite widespread support for the Civil Rights movement, leading to positive changes for blacks in the next decade.
Television during the 1950s encouraged conformity by giving everyone a common experience and by the fact that many of the shows promoted traditional values. Because there were so few channels, many people watched the same shows, most of which (like Leave It To Beaver) promoted traditional values.
On the other hand, TV also showed things like American Bandstand. This type of show showed teens a new way of life. It was centered around rock and roll music, which was new in the '50s and was a serious concern to many parents. By showing teens such things, it can be said to have helped promote rebellion.