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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sexual Power Imbalances in the 1950s, Part 1


In the 1950s, Betty Page did a great job of visually representing women's power imbalances. People seemed to like her for it. (I don't count Estes Kefauver as a person.)


There's a scene in a 1955 Doris Day movie, "Love Me or Leave Me," that perfectly encapsulates the differences between Then And Now as far as the power balance between the sexes goes. In the movie, Doris plays jazz singer Ruth Etting, and to open their act, her revue's showgirls (of which she was one at that stage in her career), all of them scantily clad (for a 1950s movie) run from the back of the room to the stage, with plenty of tail-shaking going on in the process.

A drunken middle-aged man and his wife are sitting at a table near the stage, and as hottie Doris passes by, he makes a boozy grab for her.

The wife, of course, is outraged. She does the only proper thing. She slaps Doris and calls her a hussy. Doris goes running backstage, sobbing, cut to the quick by the accusation.

Now, at no time did Doris entice the man to make a grab at her. All she did was run from the rear of the room to the stage with her too young, too firm, too nubile body in it's too-sexy (for the 1950s) outfit.

All of the onus for the grab clearly belonged to the boozy letch. But But the wife slapped Doris, not her boozy letch of a husband. She had to slap someone for this affront to her wifehood, and she couldn't slap her husband, because he was her meal ticket, her financial security, her protector. Hell, she might even love him.

So she slapped Doris, and justified it by calling her a hussy.

In a modern movie, it would be clear and obvious to all that the wife's attack on Doris was blatantly hypociritical, if not extraordinarily hypocritical. But in the 1950s, this kind of hypocrisy was business as usual. Most women were homemakers, there weren't a lot of career paths for women other than "wife" and an attractive young hussy could post a great peril to your average well-to-do middle class housewife, who wouldn't have much "resale" value with her aging body on the marriage market, in comparison to nubile young hussies.

Because of these factors and others such as the sexist culture that made them possible, the 1950s were a time of great power imbalances between men and women.

This imbalance made it possible to produce romantic stories that dealt with power imbalances between the sexes in a matter-of-fact way, rather than as a social issue to be overcome. We'll look at such a film in the next post on this topic.

7 comments:

kdnpr said...

Bah! As they always reminded us, they did endure dustbowl-famine, depression, war and uncertainty. Quite afew were right off the farm.

Bashing their militant lifestyle back then is fun, but we should cut them some slack as it probably gave them security.

Who you should really get after is the people whom pull this crap today. What's their excuse?

kdnpr said...

"In a modern movie, it would be clear But in the 1950s, this kind of hypocrisy was business as usual."

See, this type of hypocrisy is still rampant.

I guess what I'm saying is I understand how the war & mobilisation got them horsing around, picking up STDs and getting caught etc etc, but I always felt the other big problem was they not allowed to divorce.

These days you can divorce. So what is the reason for being stuck in a marriage, resentful, hostile and jealous?

Actually, what's hypocritical? I used to love arguing with them about their militant lifestyle and now I kinda sticking up for them. Arrggg, they got to me! ;)

Pat Powers said...

Bah! As they always reminded us, they did endure dustbowl-famine, depression, war and uncertainty. Quite afew were right off the farm.

Bashing their militant lifestyle back then is fun, but we should cut them some slack as it probably gave them security.


I'm not sure what you mean here, Jay. I wasn't intending to bash anybody in this post. Who did you think I was bashing? Feminists? Sexist men. My point was that the hypocrisy that was prevalent back then was a product of the great power imbalances between the sexes. It wasn't that anyone was particularly responsible for it, it was the way society was organized back then. It was the way people, both men and women, thought. I was 'splaining thing because I think people who have neither studies that period in history nor lived through it can necessarily understand what was going on. I don't ascribe guilt to any party -- the woman who slapped Doris was doing about the only thing she thought she COULD do.

Who you should really get after is the people whom pull this crap today. What's their excuse?

Any candidates?

Pat Powers said...

"In a modern movie, it would be clear But in the 1950s, this kind of hypocrisy was business as usual."

See, this type of hypocrisy is still rampant.


I'm not sure where.

I guess what I'm saying is I understand how the war & mobilisation got them horsing around, picking up STDs and getting caught etc etc, but I always felt the other big problem was they not allowed to divorce.

Well, no, they WERE allowed to divorce. See "The Women," a film made in 1939 about wealthy divorced women. The key is "wealthy." Their husbands were wealthby, so they could divorce them and still have plenty of money. Women married to middle class guys were in a much more difficult position. With very few career options available to them, and most of them low paid (secretary, nurse, teacher) they COULD divorce, but it meant going from middle class to lower class in terms of income. Enough to make most women think twice, especially if kids were involved.

These days you can divorce. So what is the reason for being stuck in a marriage, resentful, hostile and jealous?

Kids. Fear of the unknown. Better the devil-man you know ...

Actually, what's hypocritical? I used to love arguing with them about their militant lifestyle and now I kinda sticking up for them. Arrggg, they got to me! ;)

I regard myself as being generally pro-feminist. I just have a problem with the ones who seek to censor and are intolerant of maledom/femsub relationships, even when they are completely consensual.

kdnpr said...

"Any candidates?"

Oh, too many to count.

So how about the CWL's ribbon campaign to get nudity off TV?

Work with me:

"All of the onus for the {Affair?} clearly belonged to the {cheating husband?}. But the wife {wants to crack down on other women being nude on TV, or scantily clad in public?} She had to {blame?} someone for this affront to her wifehood

You know how young some of these gals were with the petition? 30's and some late 20's

See what I'm saying?

kdnpr said...

"Well, no, they WERE allowed to divorce."

Maybe where you lived, not where I. Couples were told you'd be married once. That's it. The court will marry you a second time. So even up to the 80's, you'd argue with the Frères about these guys that would screw around trying to get the wife to give up. She'd never seem to want to, and liked the militant solutions about cracking down on the loose women blah blah blah

Could always catch the Frères with "didn't the Apostle say to tell the guy to leave?" The old bats would come back with all the demobilisation sexual free-for-all stories on why we needed order & discipline. I understand that. I got the Married once thing.

But that was how long ago and I recently got some young gal with a petition really, to crack down on other women doing their thing.

Can you see how similar the two are?

kdnpr said...

"I'm not sure what you mean here, Jay. I wasn't intending to bash anybody in this post. Who did you think I was bashing?"

Our militant Elders:
"a 1955 Doris Day movie...that perfectly encapsulates the differences between Then And Now"

I probably didn't catch your intended. I saw similar motives with women whom want to censor things today, with your film example. Trying to be fair.

"I regard myself as being generally pro-feminist."

Cool. Admit alittle more selfish reasons for myself. I spent my time trying to find say "one of our own"? to date. And leave the conservative gals to their own. But it was pretty darn difficult then with these women enforcing their code on other women, similar to your example. I later found out there was indeed "one of us". I'd avoided figuring they in agreement with the old bats. Oh well