90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.

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