The Permissive Society: America, 1941–1965, by Alan Petigny, New York: Cambridge University Press, 312 pages, $24.99
Was any movie of the 1990s as misunderstood as Pleasantville? A fantasy film about a pair of modern teens who enter the world of a 1950s suburban sitcom, the story was widely construed as a critique of the '50s themselves. The Pleasantville of Pleasantville seems perfect at first, but it turns out to be sterile and conformist. After the kids from the '90s arrive, the town is jarred into embracing the wider world of sex and self-expression.
The critics didn't agree as to whether the picture was any good, but they were nearly unanimous when it came to saying what the story was about. Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a tale of "the 90s bringing life and spirit to the 50s." Janet Maslin wrote that it featured "teens from the '90s…awakening the benighted '50s types from their slumber." Roger Ebert declared that it "encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent."
The trouble is, the apparently alien influences that gradually infect Pleasantville don't hail from the future. The townspeople encounter J.D. Salinger and D.H. Lawrence, civil rights oratory and modern art; on the soundtrack, we hear the rockabilly of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, the jazz of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, the soulful blues of Etta James. None of those were imported from the '90s. All were available, and in many cases created, in the '50s and early '60s, the very period that produced the sitcoms lampooned in the film. Pleasantville doesn't contrast the repressed '50s with the liberated '90s. It contrasts the faux '50s of our TV-fueled nostalgia with the social ferment that was actually taking place while those sanitized shows first aired.
Alan Petigny, a reporter turned historian who teaches at the University of Florida, examines how deep that ferment went in The Permissive Society, an important new study of the postwar period. The Truman and Eisenhower eras, he writes, were marked by "an unprecedented challenge to traditional moral restraints." Petigny isn't referring to a bohemian subculture or to rock 'n' roll rebellion: There are only a few scattered references to beatniks in this book, and its discussion of pop music devotes more space to Pat Boone than to Elvis Presley. Petigny is talking about the great American middle, whose values in areas ranging from child rearing to religious piety underwent a rapid and radical change long before the love-ins.
Take sex. Several statistics may initially seem to support a portrait of the '50s as a time of coital conservatism. The number of shotgun marriages increased while the number of divorces came down; women had more children and married at an earlier age. There are other numbers, though, that complicate this picture considerably, starting with the rate of single motherhood, which increased dramatically at the same time. Since this happened even as women were marrying younger and contraception was becoming more acceptable, the implication is, in Petigny's words, that "the overall frequency of premarital sex was rising so briskly during the Truman and Eisenhower years it was able to overcome the suppressive effects of birth control, and still force illegitimacy to soar."
Note that this shift began before it started to be reflected in popular culture. The debut of Playboy in 1953 may have been a watershed moment in the sexual revolution, but it didn't spark that revolution. "Placing changes in sexual behavior after those in the consumer culture—or, in other words, putting Elvis or Hefner before mass changes in behavior—essentially puts the cart before the horse," Petigny writes. "The crucial distinction between the fifties and sixties lay in word, not in deed. During the 1960s, Americans were simply more willing to acknowledge the extracurricular activities of their youth than they had been during the previous decade." (Journalists frequently cite the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 as the moment that made '60s sexuality possible, but Petigny makes a reasonable case that more time passed before the pill was widely used by unmarried women.)
Then there's the American family. Here again, the normal narrative claims the postwar years were marked by cultural conservatism. The period is bookended on one side by Rosie the Riveter, when the wartime shortage of manpower led to a proliferation of women in the workplace, and on the other side by the feminist movement of the late '60s and the '70s. It's easy to dismiss that space in-between as a time of resurgent male domination.
Petigny tells a different story. Citing a series of sociological studies and marketing surveys, he finds that families built around an "equalitarian" model, in which "each spouse was allotted roughly equal power in making family decisions," were about twice as common as families in which one person ruled the roost. (Where one spouse did wear the pants, the domestic dictator was as likely to be a woman as a man.) This pattern appeared in the working class as well as the middle class, in rural areas as well as cities. And it was on the rise, with couples increasingly likely to prefer partnership to patriarchy.
At the same time, more women went to college. Religious groups were more receptive to female leadership. Even politics, that eternally lagging indicator, saw women elected to office in greater numbers. All this came before—indeed, paved the way for—the feminist revolts of the subsequent decades. "The primary challenge to the subservience of women came not from the culture's periphery but from its very core," Petigny argues, "not from pockets of resistance but from the larger culture," with "conservative, churchgoing, and, not infrequently, suburban" ladies in the lead. Throw in Dr. Spock's extremely influential 1946 book of child rearing advice, with its push for parents to respect the autonomy of their children, and you had a full-fledged familial revolution in the age of Father Knows Best.
The changes extended to religious faith as well. Over the course of the '50s, American churches grew more tolerant of gambling, dancing, filmgoing, and failing to honor the Sabbath. Pastors increasingly turned to psychologists and psychiatrists for lessons in guiding their flocks, and in the process let a host of humanist ideas enter their churches.
How far did the secular influence go? "For a minister or minister-in-training to graduate from the [Council for Clinical Training's] pastoral counseling program," Petigny points out, "an independent, secular psychiatric institute first had to certify that the student had acquired some measure of proficiency in the fundamentals of modern psychiatry. In practical terms, this meant a para-religious organization had granted secular experts the prerogative to prevent aspiring clerics from advancing in their studies."
Meanwhile, with the rise of ecumenicism, abstract piety took precedence over the prescriptions of particular denominations. The early outlines of the modern Church of Oprah, the feel-good faith in doing what works for you, can be seen in this period. As President Eisenhower himself put it, "Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."
Then as now, many churchmen fought such trends, but it's revealing to see just how much the right-wing resistance was willing to accept even as it drew lines in the sand. The religious conservatives of the '30s and '40s, Petigny notes, would react with "shock and disapproval" to figures such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, "whose universities boast departments of psychology, whose ministries speak of the persistent consumption of pornography as 'addictions,' and in the case of Robertson, whose school's shops are wide open for business on Sunday."
For the most part, Petigny is persuasive. As revisionist as his account might appear today, many conservatives sounded similar notes as the changes were happening around them. When the media hyped hippies in the late 1960s, for example, National Review, the flagship organ of the right, observed that "society does not aggrandize that which truly threatens it." Denying that the counterculture was really a rebellion against the dominant American ethos, the magazine declared that "bigotry, prurience and authoritarianism no longer characterize the American middle class; it is on the contrary more likely to be college-bred, progressive and dogmatically broad-minded." Petigny deepens our understanding of this change, and he puts it in a larger historical context, arguing that the social transformation began in the 19th century, quickened after World War II, and continued after the '60s were through.
That said, his portrait of a steady shift toward greater social tolerance conceals some complications. For example, as he briefly observes, the '50s saw a Cold War–fueled crackdown on homosexuality. Petigny notes some countervailing trends—the growth of gay enclaves, the earliest stirrings of the modern gay rights movement—but by focusing on the '50s he misses a larger truth: The status of sexual minorities actually regressed in the middle of the 20th century. George Chauncey's 1994 book Gay New York describes a lively and visible urban homosexual subculture that flourished a century ago but went into decline in the Depression years, as the authorities enforced a new wave of repressive rules. In Chauncey's words, "the state built a closet in the 1930s and forced gay people to hide in it."
What's more, the repression of gay sexuality was driven not merely by religious intolerance but by psychiatry, one of the forces Petigny credits for the move toward the permissive society. Gay Americans faced the risk not just of being jailed for their orientation but of undergoing electroshock, nausea-inducing "aversion therapy," even lobotomy. With time, of course, mainstream psychiatry and psychology would radically revise their beliefs about homosexual behavior. You can make a case that this turn, like so many others, began in the '50s. But the important point isn't the state of homophobia in the Eisenhower era. It's the fact that secular authorities can be coercive too.
At the beginning of the book, Petigny mentions one way America has changed in the last half-century: Where once a man might "walk into a drugstore to buy a pack of cigarettes—and timidly ask to be slipped a pack of prophylactics," these days "the procedure is precisely the reverse." In effect, The Permissive Society tells the tale of the condoms while neglecting the cigarettes. But the descent of a new social taboo—and, along with it, new legal restrictions—suggests that permissiveness is not the same thing as liberty. The term suggests a master loosening a leash, not an individual charting his own course. At one point Petigny argues that the rise of the disease model of addiction reflected the rise of permissiveness, since the perspective's proponents "viewed the self as essentially innocent, the victim of a disease process beyond its own control and causation." But the idea also suggests a loss of personal responsibility, and a government's right to forcibly liberate its subjects from the habits that enslave them.
Petigny challenges the idea that the 1950s were a time of moral panics, arguing that the mass phobias historians find in the decade—McCarthyism, the crusade against comic books, the heightened fear of "sex deviants," the exaggerated threat of juvenile delinquency—were not "the product of mass paranoia" because "the social crusaders who sought to uphold the traditional moral order seemed to have a greater awareness of moral change than the majority of scholars who write about the 1950s today." He has a point, but he takes it too far: The scares may have been rooted in real social changes, but that doesn't mean people weren't paranoid or panicking. As Petigny himself acknowledges, the people who embraced such scapegoat theories were "boxing at shadows," swinging "wildly—even blindly—praying that someway, somehow, something would connect."
More important, it wasn't just conservatives who were paranoid. Petigny calls the efforts to censor comic books "clumsy responses to the rise of progressive parenting and the decline of patriarchal authority." But the chief crusader against comics, Fredric Wertham, wasn't a reactionary. He was a left-wing psychiatrist with feminist sympathies. Like the doctors who offered modern, secular, supposedly rational reasons to mutilate gay patients' brains, Wertham was a sign that the new order was still quite capable of moral authoritarianism.
Not that you needed to be a moral authoritarian to participate in the paranoia of the period. Petigny shows that the '50s saw a "new emphasis on the self," an idea that surfaced as a celebration of spontaneity and authenticity and a deep distrust of conformity. The flipside of this individualist ideal was the fear of an anthill society, an uneasiness so pervasive that it infected both the supporters and the opponents of the Cold War. It's often said that the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers—one of the central pop-culture texts of the decade, a picture that spawned countless imitations—can be read as a critique of either communism or McCarthyism. Fewer people note the corollary: that the opposition to both communism and McCarthyism fed on the same dread that animated the movie, a horror at the thought of being swallowed by the conformist collective. The same individualist anxiety surfaced in the work of writers as diverse as William Burroughs, Ayn Rand, and Jean-Paul Sartre; it appeared in intellectual critiques of "mass man" and in worries that suburbia would become a Pleasantville-style dystopia. If America was becoming more tolerant and permissive, one reason was that Americans were increasingly afraid of the alternative.
A similar set of fears and hopes was present in humanist psychology, an individualist and egalitarian approach to therapy that was influential in the postwar years. The humanists were analysts seeing voluntary clients, not asylum keepers administering snake pits; their legacy was much more libertarian than, say, Fredric Wertham's. But you can't always disentangle those authoritarian and anti-authoritarian threads in the real world. Both sets of ideas mixed freely in the great American mainstream, as ordinary people absorbed different lessons from different places and applied them in their lives. The result was a vast cultural transformation, both for better and for worse, with effects everywhere from the pulpit to the movie screen.
It even surfaced in sitcoms. Petigny mentions an episode of Leave It to Beaver in which June Cleaver frets about her older son's new hairstyle. She doesn't force him to change his hair, and the school principal refuses to intervene, telling the mom that the way a kid combs his hair is "one of the first forms of self-expression." In the end, the boy rejects the style on his own.
"The most notable feature" of the episode, Petigny concludes, is "the nonauthoritarian approach of the adults." Even in Pleasantville, there was more to life than Pleasantville.
Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is the managing editor of reason.