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Beyond Pleasantville

Permissiveness wasn’t born in the ’60s

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.

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  • TallDave||

    One of the most fascinating economics statistics around is that today's poverty line is slightly higher than the average income of the 1950s.

    I haven't seen any numbers for the proportion of people in 2009 who live at 1950s poverty levels, but I bet it's less than 1%.

  • TallDave||

    (And yes, this is after adjusting for inflation.)

  • ||

    I wish more people knew this. By historical and international standards, there is virtually no poverty in America.

  • ||

    Of course there is. "Poverty" is really a relative measure of social status, not an absolute measure of material wealth. Which is why Jesus was correct.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Do we still have to help the poor?

  • ||

    There's more to social status than money, and not all of it is good.

    It's entirely possible be a money-less, high-social-status, asshole. I've known lots.

  • ||

    right, and that sort of person is not "poor."

  • ||

    "Wealth" means you have investments which pay you a plentiful income and that can't fire you. Poverty means the absence of wealth, even if you earn a lot of wage income.

    By that definition, the overwhelming majority of Americans qualify as paupers, even if they have salaries over $100,000 a year from contingent work situations. (Just read all the stories of formerly high earners who wind up destitute weeks or months after their bosses tell them to clean out their desks and leave the premises.) Refer to Ferdinand Lundberg's book "The Rich and the Super-Rich" (1968 or so) for an explanation of what wealth and poverty really mean.

  • ||

    Generally interesting points. One quibble--there were a lot of single moms in the fifties not because of an increase of pre-marital sex, but because many men were dying young from heart attacks and work-related illnesses and accidents.

  • ||

    What caused the increase in heart attacks?

  • ||

    Well, smoking was good for you, heart disease was treated by not doing any strenuous exercise and by eating lots of red meat - iron is good for the blood, you know.

  • ||

    Right, but was there an increase from the 30's, 40's, to the 50's?

    There has to be a reason why these young guys just started having heart attacks starting in the 50's...

  • Mary Stack||

    I was told it was because after leaving the farm men continued with the no longer required a high protein/caloric diet. I use to I walk/run six miles a day and ate 6 eggs for breakfast. I think it is funny now that we pay a fortune to join a boot camp when we could all just drop by a farm to milk the cows at dawn.

  • Rimfax||

    That would seem to require a reference. The idea that men were dying younger from factory work than they did from farm work doesn't seem very likely. Even WWII wouldn't account for a continued rise of single motherhood into the '50s.

  • ||

    I withold comment out of respect for feministing and any anti-religion sites.

  • ||

    I will say that I enjoyed the article very much.

  • ||

    (And yes, this is after adjusting for inflation.)

    Official "inflation" only. Our dads' $3000 Ferraris object.

  • ||

    Enough of this 'insightful book review' stuff: I demand clips of protesters dressed like polar bears being beaten up by Copenhagen police. Pleeeeeeeeeze? I wants. I needs.

  • T||

    Can't search YouTube on your own?

  • ||

  • ||

    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.

    Then those pesky deniers went and upset the settled science.

  • ||

    Well the conclusion that homosexuality was an illness was based on computer models, so duh.

  • LarryA||

    In the 1950s? Abacus models maybe.

  • Mary Stack||

    The American Psychiatric Association decreed homosexuality as a mental disorder till the 1973 DSM. The good news was after 1973 you were declassified as crazy.

  • ||

    The point of the 50s is that it WAS more socially repressive than the 1920s-1940s. At least people who lived at the time certainly perceived it that way.

  • ||

    Please explain your contention.

  • ||

    It's possible that television tended to reinforce the moralizing of traditional social norms. The 1950s was the main people when the general population bought television sets, and you started seeing one in every household. Television broadcasts were then much more strictly censored, which tended to present a more conservative portrait of the country than actually existed. And that may have contributed to a social phenoenon of reinforcing those norms.

  • Urkobold™||

    WHO HERE WOULDN'T DO JUNE CLEAVER? THE URKOBOLD WOULD. HOUSEKEEPING IN THAT HOT DRESS WITH THOSE PEARLS. . .OH, YEAH. NO WONDER THE WARD NAMED ONE OF HIS CHILDREN "BEAVER."

  • Robert||

    Do you hear it with echo chamber?

  • ||

    Urk, June was the type of gal who liked REAL pearl necklaces. I don't think you would be her type.

  • ||

    Ah, Urkobold, you so raise the standard of debate..

  • ||

    It’s the fact that secular authorities can be coercive too.

    Uh, yeah, like exponentially more so.

  • LarryA||

    And with guns.

  • ||

    I always thought Pleasantville was about the transformative power of change as well as human, especially female sexuality.

  • Rimfax||

    Yeah, I saw it as more of a commentary on the idea of the '50s presented in popular media than of the actual '50s. I didn't realize that anyone thought that "Leave It to Beaver" was anything other than candy-coated light dramatic comedy. Does this mean that many folks think that C. S. Forester was a historian?

  • ||

    What are you suggesting? I like the Hornblower novels!

  • ||

    "I didn't realize that anyone thought that "Leave It to Beaver" was anything other than candy-coated light dramatic comedy"

    Nonsense!
    You probably doubt that The Brady Bunch was a documentary about average american families circa 1973.

  • ||

    Exactly. Gary Ross, the writer, producer and director of the film, even said so himself. This is what he said about it:

    "This movie is about the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression...That when we're afraid of certain things in ourselves or we're afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop."

  • Rimfax||

    I know that this is just a book review, but I'm inclined to give Jesse Walker the James Lipton analingus treatment for his writing. His historical pieces are some of the most consistently interesting and readable articles from Reason.

  • ||

    I agree. Jesse and Nick's cultural articles are reasons to subscribe to Reason by themselves, whatever your political leanings.

  • ||

    I'm inclined to give Jesse Walker the James Lipton analingus treatment for his writing.

    Don't get so excited MNG
    Rimfax(snicker) was speaking metaphorically.

  • ||

    News Flash: TV sitcoms are and always have been bullshit!
    Unless you think a guy who looks like Neil Patrick Harris could bone a chick whenever he wants.

  • LarryA||

    What I remember from the 1950s is that crawling under a school desk will protect you from an atom bomb.

  • ||

    Well, don't they tell you to stand in doorways and stuff during an earthquake?

    Never really understood why teaching kids to get under their desk is any different from "stop drop and roll". Or getting into a ditch in a tornado, or don't stand next to trees in a lightning storm.

  • ||

    The former is good advice, wrapped up in a monolithic, coercive government program. The latter is just good advice.

  • ||

    Or getting into a ditch in a tornado

    I've often wondered about this piece of advice seeing how tornadoes are often accompanied by thunderstorms producing flash floods.

  • ||

    It's more about not being in a car and not being directly exposed to any of the shit that the wind might be blowing around. You're chances of survival are much greater if you aren't directly in the path of debris being hurled at hundreds of miles an hour.

  • ||

    I knew the 50's. And you, sir, are no 50's

    ... Hobbit

  • ||

    there are still drugstores that sell cigarettes!

  • ||

    And I, for one, miss them.

  • ||

    Reason took money from Big Permissiveness to write this puff-piece article! I'm calling my congressman!

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