What is popular culture? How did television affect the social mores of the 1950s?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Popular culture, or "pop culture," refers to commonly acknowledged trends and social references inspired or influenced by the myriad forms of mass media, including film, television, radio, social networking, and books.  It is indivisible from mass media, as the wide-spread dissemination of images, phrases, and concepts become part of the daily jargon of the lives of many people, especially those of younger ages, such as teenagers.  Popular television shows, in particular, have been responsible for spreading imagery and ideas that found a niche with segments of the viewing public that grew into social phenomena. Phrases first uttered by popular characters on a television program are repeated among viewers until they become part of the lexicon.  During the 1970s, television shows like Good Times, Happy Days, and others spawned phrases that became a part of the popular culture of the time, such as the former program's character of J.J., who regularly employed the phrase "Dy-no-mite!" that began to show up on t-shirts and be orally repeated around offices and in classrooms. As the years passed, more and more programs similarly injected catchphrases into American culture.

Contemporary series of novels that have succeeded in becoming a part of the popular culture like the Hunger Games and Twilight novels, as well as Fifty Shades of Grey have all become a part of the popular culture because of their obvious appeal to young and older adults.  Television, however, definitely had the most direct impact on popular culture during the 1950s.  The medium was in its infancy and everything about it was considered new and exciting to a population previously dependent on books, magazines and radio for at-home entertainment.  Prominent programming like Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, and many others were all enormously popular and all contributed to the culture in their own way.  Leave it to Beaver, in particular, became a part of the popular culture through its idealized depiction of an American family in which the mother, June, was always well-dressed with her hair made-up and ear rings dangling from her ears even when doing housework.  That show and Father Knows Best depicted the father, the dominant male, as a wise, understanding and always calm influence on his family.  In contrast, The Honeymooners presented a dysfunctional married couple living on the edge of the financial abyss, always arguing, with the wife the rational, thoughtful partner to the immature, braggart and eminently dishonest bus-driver husband played by comedy legend Jackie Gleason.  Bonanza and Gunsmoke both portrayed the Old West, with strong, honest and capable men prevailing over evil, the former show though focusing more on the family dynamics of the father, Ben Cartwright, and his grown sons.  All of these shows retain faithful viewers today for their more innocent depiction of everyday life, and they are all a part of the popular culture, with Ralph Cramden's ubiquitous threat to send his wife, Alice, "to the moon."  

Because of their visual imagery and the enormous viewership these and other programs enjoyed, they were highly influential in shaping popular culture during the 1950s.  That the lives depicted were generally well-divorced from reality may have explained some of their popularity during the tense years of the Red Scare and the Cold War.  The innovation itself, however, certainly played a role.

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