Book Essay: Mark Bernhardt

17 May 2023 3:42 AM | Autumn Lorimer Linford (Administrator)

By Mark Bernhardt

My book project American Opportunity, American Hospitality: Marginalized Peoples’ Access to the Middle Class in 1950s Sitcoms as Cold War Propaganda explores how during the 1950s television executives and corporate sponsors used situation comedies to address Cold War critiques of capitalism through portrayals of those outside the white, Anglo-Saxon, married middle-class norm. They constructed a narrative that rebuffed claims that prosperity was not available to all in the ways they dealt with class, gender, race, and ethnicity, attempting to alleviate lingering concerns from the Great Depression about individuals’ susceptibility to poverty and oppose Soviet attribution of economic inequality to oppression of specific social groups. In looking at sitcoms from this perspective, I document the ways they offered messages that served to reassure viewers capitalism was fair and Soviet assertions erroneous by offering palatable explanations for why some did not attain middle-class status in that the poor had only themselves to blame for their state and dismissing systemic causes for why poverty persisted, such as failed political policy, gender inequality, or racism.

Originally, I intended to conduct my research in 2021 at the UCLA Film and Television archive to view rare episodes only available on film from the series Beulah, The Jack Benny Show, The Goldbergs, and Mr. Peepers. However, because of COVID restrictions, which remained in place through summer 2022, I had to change my plans. Instead, I went to the Library of Congress in May 2022, where I viewed 23 episodes of The Gale Storm Show and 38 episodes of My Little Margie in the library’s special collections that are only available on film.

The episodes of The Gale Storm Show and My Little Margie provide material for my discussion of gender. For women in the 1950s, the societal ideal was that they marry young and become housewives who care for their children. Some sitcoms did portray single young women in the period before marriage who held jobs to support themselves. These women typically did not make much money though, making it clear that joining the middle class required finding a husband who could provide a more financially stable life. Such television messages glossed over women’s limited job prospects and pay inequality by normalizing their financial struggles as a brief stage women went through before finding a husband. Such messaging also stands in contrast to series with lead male characters who are bachelor that benefit from male economic privilege.

The Gale Storm Show addresses this employment situation. Gale, however, benefits from not having to pay for housing because she works on a cruise ship. As such, her income allows her to easily support herself. Still, marriage is the goal, and she has relationships with various men on the ship throughout the series.

My Little Margie offers a different take on how single women in sitcoms bided their time until marriage in that Margie lives with her wealthy father. Receiving an allowance from him, Margie is not obligated to work. A point of contention between Margie and her father though is that Margie’s regular boyfriend is not particularly bright and cannot keep a job, spending more time in the unemployment office than working. Periodically she does date more economically successful men, but her father fears she will make a bad marriage decision and end up poor if he does not continue to support her.

What I was able to glean from the episodes available at the Library of Congress helps complete my viewing of these two series. I have also looked at many other series that depict the economic status of women in the 1950s: Bachelor Father, Beulah, The Great Gildersleeve, Hey Jeannie, It’s Always Jan, Our Miss Brooks, Ann Sothern Show, Betty Hutton Show, Eve Arden Show, Meet Millie, My Friend Irma, and Private Secretary. Together, these series paint a complex picture of social expectations for single women, how single women support themselves (or are supported), and the importance of marrying the right man.

Dr. Mark Bernhardt is a professor in the History Department at Jackson State University. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Riverside. His research examines how media engage in public discourse about imperialism and its legacy in the transnational North American West, U.S. involvement in wars, social and cultural issues surrounding crime, and representations of marginalized peoples.

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