Thursday, January 24, 2013

Television in Post-War Period

Television in Post-War Period
            It is a box and it has been called many things, but for almost a century television has been a part of the home.  It is still a new technology that always seems to have room for improvement. As always, whenever something new is introduced into lives, a culture has to determine its place. The television came at a time when new technologies were just starting in their integration into the home. Many new changes were occurring in the 1950s, and television was a topic of debate. 
            Coming back from the war to the home, the modern homemaker was told to conform to the role of a homemaker once again. With the new innovations came new questions about how to handle new situations.  As one maybe can predict, televisions did not fit with the décor or layout that was traditional in homes up to this time. Portraits and paintings had center spotlight in the home for quite some time. This led to all sorts of questions about where to put this fairly alien object. Should the children have easy access to it through wheels or in their bedrooms? Should it have furniture designed for the purpose of hiding this new object? Should it have central importance in a room such as a fireplace or the radio? Is it okay for the bedroom? These were the questions that the post war housewife dealt with on a consistent basis. At one point a magazine subscription might say something malicious about television such as in the case of Better Homes and Gardens who suggested that it would cause bad habits in hygiene, nutrition, decorum, as well as physical, mental, and social disorders[1]. Although the year before the very same magazine claimed that it was not television’s fault it was a sign of deeper issues rooted in the family as well as just children growing up[2]. With viewpoints changing nearly every year within even the same magazine it is easy to see the inner conflict the family had when dealing with television. Many families developed their own solutions on how they had a healthy relationship with the television and their family. Sometimes this little box was arranged to have the family’s full attention, and sometimes the décor was designed specifically to hide the television[3] The television started to take the role the fireplace in years past, as a place to gather and watch as a family. This observation was apparent by television viewers so much so at the time that in the Christmas season there were some television stations that would play a fire burning in the fireplace[4]. Fireplaces and pianos were replaced by entertainment centers that included the television along with the radio and phonograph[5].
            Not only were pianos and fireplaces replaced by the television, some men felt like the television was also replacing them. According to the plots on television the woman’s role was to follow the man. Suddenly “the man” was not giving the orders though; his children relied on an object other than him for entertainment and companionship. Not only did his children not seek his time as much but they took orders from the man in the television set better than they took orders from their parents. Milton Berle was in fact, so popular, with children that he would tell them to go to bed [6].  It was a problem that was worrisome to many, how men felt they had lost their drive to achieve. A new hero emerged, the television repairman, which could solve the problem of a broken television set. In an episode of Fireside Theater, the television repairman discovers that Bruce was an old western film star who decided to live the simple life with a family on a farm[7]. This image of him in the present contrasts with his past glory, making him less of an admiration for a spectator as his masculinity has almost vanished from the almost forgotten past era. There is no doubt that television altered the way women were presented to the world. Women as homemakers were presented as women who looked perfect, had a wise head but were still reliant on the man of the house. June Cleaver always wears pearls, gets extremely focused when busy with housework or cooking, she is sensitive, and always follows her husband’s lead.[8] In Leave it to Beaver, Wally Cleaver is shocked to see any woman that is a wife looking less than perfect. June Cleaver is often put at odds with her family due to the fact that she is the only female, she may have a brush off with a typical “you wouldn’t understand; it’s a guy thing.” The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, is a show that offers a good summary of the changing roles of the sexes. Through George and Gracie’s faults, husbands may see Gracie and identify her as their wives at certain times.[9] George could easily have qualities of an average husband who loses an argument and although the man of the house is also reliant on Gracie.[10]  Although Gracie may have caused trouble she still upheld a certain model of the typical housewife talking about cleaning and shown cooking. [11] There was considerable pressure from television to attain perfect housewife status with June Cleaver as a shining example. A wife was expected to work but look like a model when her husband came home and she was to greet him at the door much like in Father Knows Best. [12] With these women and their partners becoming different examples of what a home should look like; the rise of celebrity took place.[13] With this, it is easy to understand how celebrities became a topic of interest as they were the models of how society should look like according to television. People such as “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle, rose to the public eye and coming in visually through the television invited a certain type of intimacy to a celebrity, seemingly becoming part of the family, especially with television’s portrayal as a family affair.[14] Even children were starting to have their own celebrities they looked to for entertainment.
            People were sorting out how their lives were going to fit together with all these changes and what changes exactly would they accept. A parent could use television for punishment by taking away television time, or as a reward by giving more television time. It could serve as a tool for pushing the kids into the background while the adults socialized, so it served as a babysitter as well. It made some people think that it was bad because their children acted out more or that it was good because it was a chance for more family time. Even the advertisements of the time suggested that the family was so close in nature that everyone contributed in the consumer choices of the family, including the television which had images of families gathered around the television[15]. This was true, many families would watch television together; also many children preferred their parents’ favorite television programs[16] .Knowing that children were set in front of the television when there is relatively little to no programming designed for kids it’s easy to see how their kids develop tastes for their shows even if families did not want to admit it. Puppeteers such as Edgar Bergen, were on many adult programs.[17] Even so these celebrities were not as entertaining as a visually exciting show such as The Milton Berle Show where Milton was called “Uncle Miltie” and yes puppets/dummies even appeared on his show. [18]
            Television was also seen as a force that would keep families indoors; the theaters saw television as a threat just as movies were considered a threat to radio back in the 1930s. Now the theaters offered bigger screens and color pictures; this was something movies had that in television would not become mainstream until the late 1960s. For that reasons movies did not respond with positive action towards television. The movie companies wanted their audiences to keep coming to the theaters so for that reasons movies did not respond with positive action towards television. The movie companies wanted their audiences to keep coming to the theaters so the either never showed a television or offered a warning that television watchers would never socialize with society. Even television sometimes had an unconfident air about the future of television, as even Johnny Carson who became a television god to many people on television now, had some derogatory views on television.[19][20] Life with Elizabeth was a local television program in Los Angeles that starred Betty White, there is an episode where Betty White is scared of the television because she is afraid it will explode; this fear was not solely Betty’s sentiments toward television; practically everyone was a novice when it came to this box with the moving images. Trying to fix a television became a normal part of home life and it is vital to keep in mind that as this was new technology, everyone was learning how to work with electronics. Betty White described the television screen in Life with Elizabeth as a zebra racing across the screen instead of just calling it static. However there were some innovators such as George Burns who was one of the first on television to break the fourth wall, and sometime he did this with his television. His television was located in his den and sometimes it was present in the living room[21]. However with his television he watches his own show making himself the spectator along with the audience which was an interesting viewpoint. At this point in television’s history George Burns states that if an actor burped onstage it was considered innovative. Before this point it was assumed that although monologue was permissible, the fourth wall was generally kept up for the purpose of storytelling but with this way of communicating through television is inviting the audience to have a personal interest on the two screens.
            The post war period was a turning point in technology which meant for this era, that it was a turning point socially and economically. Everyone was scrambling to find out how television as well as other appliances fit into their lives so they could achieve a healthy balance in life. One thing seemed clear, that the family as a unit would determine how this technology would fit into their lives. The issues that arose were at a family level including the battle of the sexes. Television defined boundaries for females while criticizing males. Together husband, wife, and the innocent children would determine how television would affect them.

Works Cited
Burns, George. Gracie: A Love Story. New York: Putnam, 1988. Print.
Carroll, Carroll. "The Johnny Carson Show." The Johnny Carson Show. CBS. N.d. Television.
Helm, Harvey, Keith Fowler, Norman Paul, and William Burns. "Let's Dance." The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. CBS. 9 Jan. 1956. Television.
Kahn, Milt, and George Tibbles. "Life with Elizabeth." Life with Elizabeth. KCOP. KCLA, Los Angeles, California, n.d. Television.
Spigel, Lynn. "Chapter Two: Television in the Family Circle." Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. 36-72. Print.

[1] Lynn Spigel, Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, 1992, page 51
[2] Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, page 58
[3]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, page 49
[4]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America,  page 38
[5]  Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, page 38
[6]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, page 60
[7]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, 64
[8] Barbra Billingsley actually had a scar, so in order to cover up her imperfect skin the show wanted her to wear pearls on every show.
[9] George Burn’s tried to portray the average American husband while countless of men wrote in or told George that Gracie reminded them of their wife. More information about that is available through Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns.
[10] In the “Dance Lesson” episode, the Mortons comment on how before Gracie, George did not have a dime and he uses Gracie for explotation, but Harry argues that George has to deal with Gracie’s crazy logic. George insults both of them and all of a sudden they see the good in each other.
[11] She even added some glamour to the job; George recalls that Gracie would receive letters from ladies that were excited to see what apron she had on each episode.
[12] In both Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, the father is central while the mother looks gorgeous standing next to her husband while the kids are all gathered together as if to say that this show is supposed to include them as well as revolve around the children as well.
[13] There were differences in models of families such as an older family versus a family still raising young children, as well as normal economic status. The Burns’ lived in Beverly Hills and able to afford fur coats, and the Cleavers lived in Mayfield and could live comfortably.
[14] Milton Berle was called “Mr. Television” because he possessed the highest Nielsen ratings for many years, he still has the highest Nielsen ratings of all time. It is said that he helped contribute to many people buying televisions.
[15]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America , page 40
[16]Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, page 57
[17] Edgar Bergen appeared on Disney programs such as Fun and Fancy Free but appeared on shows such as The Milton Berle Show and The Jack Benny Show.
[18] Spigel refers to Milton Berle’s show as burlesque but as kids often did watch it he developed the nickname “Uncle Miltie”, and had an occasional blip in his program for children.
[19] Through his short lived program The Johnny Carson Show, he did sketches about traditions common before television such as riddle parties, but also did sketches that showed the shallow end of television such as making fun of how commercials are known by their jingle instead of their content, as well as a comedy sketch about the future displaying robots as servants that do everything, including having an affair.
[20] Johnny Carson is mentioned often in late night primetime television network programming because many of the comedians have adopted his style. For further reading about one late night comedian who claims every late night television star wants to be Johnny Carson read Craig Ferguson’s biography American on Purpose.
[21] A den was what a man often called his work office and a room all of his own, it usually contained things like books, brandy, and cigars.