News & Politics

The Soul-Crushing Malaise of the 1950s Killed the American Dream

Barren suburban yards, drunk dads, dowdy moms, strained frivolity, deep depression -- let's hope the '50s don't make a comeback.

My parents have been dead for years, but Hollywood has recently resurrected them. Last week I saw the new film "Revolutionary Road" and then came home and watched reruns of the television show "Mad Men." I confess that I was a little freaked out finally to see an accurate portrayal of my 1950s baby boomer childhood, one that was neither "Father Knows Best" nor "The Twilight Zone". Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Frank Wheeler, and Jon Hamm's Don Draper are so much like my father that it hurts to watch them. Like my father, each live lives of quiet desperation as upwardly mobile white-collar executives commuting to unsatisfying jobs in which they've traded passion for privilege. And, like my father, each left behind wives vainly struggling to find meaning in domesticity. Although Mrs. Wheeler (Kate Winslett) self-destructs and Mrs. Draper (January Jones) files for divorce, while my mother merely became bitter and depressed, all three struggled with the combination of emptiness and isolation that Betty Friedan called "the problem with no name." Seeing it depicted so perfectly was unsettling.

Behind the exuberance of post-WWII consumption, suburban expansion, upward mobility, and a Good Housekeeping vision of family life lay a psychic misery that couldn't be articulated but that damaged everyone involved. Whatever one thinks of the excesses and distortions of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s, they did manage to express the healthy determination of boys like me to avoid the lot of Don Draper and of girls to escape the fate of April Wheeler. The reason these productions are so disturbing to many people my age is that they depict with brutal and tragic clarity how our parents made a bad deal when they traded their higher aspirations for economic security. And perhaps they make us wonder if we're in danger of doing the same thing.

Long after they divorced and shortly before each of them died, my parents told me a story about their courtship that captured the essence of this "bad deal." My mother was a popular girl growing up and, immediately following the war, got a series of office jobs that she enjoyed immensely. She fell in love with my father just as WWII was ending because he was "different" from other boys. He had dreams. He was smart. In fact, when they first met, my father aspired to be a radio announcer or actor. The son of German immigrants, he rebelled against his strict and dour family and saw in my mother the type of sexy vitality and buoyancy missing at home. In the midst of post-war American exuberance, my parents entered a life together full of possibility.

The week before their wedding my mother told my father that she was quitting her job because it was now his job to support her, and that her mother had told her that "women don't work." This was, in fact, true. The concept of the "family wage" in the 1950s meant that men would be paid enough to support their families. So my mother quit her job, my father gave up his dreams of radio and went to work in the corporate world, and together they started a family in a new suburb. Unfortunately, both my parents privately enjoyed the independence that working had given my mother and were disappointed when she gave it up. While my father accepted my mother's pronouncement readily, he was secretly resentful. The weight on his shoulders began to grow. He started drinking more and began to see other women on the side. My mother became a martyr, burdened and frustrated in domesticity. And yet neither could have possibly chosen otherwise. Like the Drapers and the Wheelers, they gave up their dreams for the American Dream.

When I look at family pictures from those years, I see barren suburban yards dotted with recently planted saplings, fathers with a drink in their hands and the beginnings of a paunch, dowdy mothers with cats eye glasses, everyone smoking, boys with crew cuts and girls with pig tails -- but most of all, I see the strained frivolity and veneer of success barely concealing the strangled anxieties of people who are supposed to be happy but aren't, who are supposed to be making it but privately feel they're losing it. These scenes remind me that when the public and private self are so radically in conflict, the result is a special type of suffering all the more corrosive because it can't be expressed.

What’s depressing to me is that, in today's climate, the 1950s start to look pretty good. I find myself wondering: did the hypocrisy we challenged and the changes we championed in the 60s never happen? Nowadays, merely having a secure, decent-paying job seems more important than having one that provides genuine fulfillment. The question now is how to get any leisure time, not how to spend it engaged in something meaningful. That women should work is no longer a liberating choice, but a bread-and-butter necessity. And given the high number of single-parent households and a 50% divorce rate, nuclear families -- even the oppressive kind in which my parents, the Drapers, and the Wheelers were trapped -- start to seem like islands of safety.

The current economic climate is only the most recent of a serious of blows to our rebellions of the ‘60s. First, our idealism became corroded under the weight of the greed and rabid individualism of the late 1980s. Next, our political hopes were dashed by the disappointments and betrayals of the Clinton years, and finally, at the start of the new millennium, our remaining energy was cynically stolen by what felt at the time like a right-wing coup. The "deals" made between husbands and wives and mothers and fathers in the 1950s in which spontaneity, authenticity and passion were swept under the rug of economic growth seem to be on the table again today in the current conditions of insecurity in which we find ourselves.

Perhaps the political tide of hope and passion that swept Obama into office will change all this. Maybe it will provide the context again in which we can revisit some of the values inherent in our opposition to the ethos of the 1950s -- values like caring for each other, the belief that workers should derive meaning from their work, that isolated nuclear families are bad for our mental health, that women should be able to fulfill themselves in the public as well as the private world, that play and spontaneity ought to be incorporated into everyday life, not just relegated to the rare vacation, and that people experience their highest selves when they're part of communities, not isolated from each other. It seems to me that only then the Wheelers and Drapers that lie inside all of us will finally be exorcised.
 

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies" and "Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either." He has written extensively about psychology and politics.
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