September 05, 2009

1950's Documentaries: Doing Gender Well

Okay, so I read my last entry, Girl At Mirror, and fessed up to my self-indulgence whining about a simpler time. An easier time. A time when sex determined a person's future and if you wanted to fit in and be happy, you'd best memorize your gender lessons well. Sexual stereotyping was easy for me, though. I was a heterosexual, white, middle-classed, intelligent, cute, and a definitely feminine female. Therein lies my freedom to wax nostalgic about a 1950's childhood while denying the bitter reality of oppression.

For those young'uns reading my memoirs, (you poor dears!) maybe you're curious about the brainwashing we 50's folks accepted as the gospel truth. Girls like myself were devoted to doing our gender appropriately. After all, you didn't wanna make father, who knows best, uncomfortable.

This ten-minute movie typifies the educational films we were subjected to during my grade school education. We were also taught to duck-and-cover should a nuclear bomb explode in our town, not to mention the terrifying drills interrupting classroom lectures. Without warning, a central alarm blasted loudly enough and repetitively enough for a first-grader to develop PTSD by the time she made it to fifth grade. But that's beside the point. Although maybe there is a connection to having THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS scared out of you and then assuming a girl needed a protector, like a man, to keep her safe from bad people. We all knew that should a bomb land on our school, boys would take off their coats and shelter girls huddled like bunny rabbits under their desks.

Anyway, being a teacher's-pet-type of student, I dutifully paid strict attention to the minutest of details in every film on how to please the man of the house and thus do family 'right'. Why oh why wasn't I blessed with ADHD like other siblings?

But NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I was taking notes.

I shoulda been drawing rude pictures of the teacher, or shooting spit balls at snickering boys with boogers on their fingertips.

But NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I got straight A's in home economics, cake decorating, and floral design. I was even crowned FFA Queen in high school because I could roll out a flaky crust and milk a cow while the cherry pie was cooling on a window sill.

As a result of my dedicated earnestness to do everything God had supposedly ordained as the Plan for Familial Happiness, I can tell you why fudge turns to sugar, and I can shake a fine butter from a fresh quart of milk. I can arrange a bouquet cut from my own perennial garden and then artfully center it on a table mannerly set for a five-course meal ensuring a balanced variety of nutrients keeping my children healthy and strong.

And I can feed a husband properly.

I can select the perfect background music to enhance a family's dinner experience, having recovered dining chairs myself to save money and deftly co-ordinating the upholstery to walls that had been custom faux-painted by none other than yours truly. I can create an environment in which my family feels regal and blessed and safe, all on a budget that would make most people cringe. Why, I can even whip up a Baked Alaska in the summertime while Potatoes Dauphinoise are browning in the oven. Idaho potatoes, bien sur.

And I can speak French. French being such a romantic and intellectual language, don't you know. Having a wife who speaks French is beaucoup impressive to a husband's business associates and anyone else who's never actually lived in France. Et Voila.

But what I cannot do is earn my right to be seen as a human being instead of a human doing.

I was a full-bodied, good-hearted woman, trapped in a strip of 16mm black and white perforated film stock, losing my luster as movies do over time.

We can keep doing and doing and doing in the childish belief that every screenplay scripted by tradition will have a predictably happy ending. Maturation, I am thinking this morning, requires unlearning memorized scripts so we can rescue the Self from self-less-ness and therein claim our right to be 3-D human.

If life has her way with us (and she's a willful force, isn't she?) we'll come to realize we are more than what we do for others. A pivotal realization, to be sure! At this moment in our lives when we claim our full humanity as human beings, not doings, a decision must be made:

The leading lady can take a deep breath and feel her way out of a two-dimensional film. Or, she can remain in her place on freeze-frame, continually being burnt each time the projector gets stuck.

And projectors get stuck...a lot.



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  2. I have no doubt some of the younger readers are looking at this with a sense of disbelief as in HUH? But that WAS the socialization, the role models which were proffered and insisted upon during the '50s. I also remember them well.
    However, our dining room table/dinners LOOKED like this but the reality is, it was a War Zone. It was the only time my Psychob "Mother", Dad, Nsis and I were "together." It was Psychob's "opportunity" to set loose all the nastiness and rage at her command: No one was "exempt." Fights at the dinner table were common and it was horribly anxiety provoking for me. I had been knocked off my chair, slapped, sent to my room for such "transgressions" as using my left hand as my primary hand-I'm a "lefty". My goal was to eat as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. It was nearly impossible to fly under the radar with Psychob. (Unless she started a battle with Dad who would attempt to placate her to the extent possible.)
    That woman HATED being a wife, a mother, a "housewife"-we had "Help" so it's not as if she slaved all day cleaning, cooking, doing laundry etc. I don't believe she enjoyed a single aspect of her life and you know the expression, "If momma ain't happy, ain't NOONE happy?" Peace, calm, respect, humor-none of those were present despite the appearance of a lovely setting. I was NOT "allowed" to have food preferences and to this day I can not stand liver. Kids have different taste buds than adults. I went from a high-chair to brussel sprouts and that horrid liver. Didn't matter if I liked it or not-and gawd help me if I tried to hide some under the mashed potatoes.
    To this day, people often remark about how I set a table, serve and "eat so quickly and neatly." (I am the Queen of "inhale-the-food" and leave not a crumb.)They even laugh about how I immediately put the napkin in my lap as soon as I sit down. Years of dinner table terrorism have left their mark.
    But this little movie above is loaded with meaning and memories for me. Brother studies, sister learns her "role" as "Mother's Little Helper" with the goal of turning out "Appropriate Wife Material." Gawd forbid a girl should also study seriously and desire to continue her education post HS. College (one of the Seven Sisters, of course) was acceptable. After all, it exposed them to suitable mates from Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc. at "Mixers."
    When DH was alive, I enjoyed preparing meals-nothing exotic and eating together was relaxed, telling each other about our day etc. He would tell me not to go to so "much trouble" but I enjoyed cooking, and he always helped clean up etc. Now as the Widow-With-The-Geriatric cat I commit all kinds of "atrocities:" I graze more than prepare "meals" and horror of horrors, nosh on what ever, when ever, laying on the couch and reading. Trouble the cat is in her usual position above my right shoulder, snoozing and wakes up long enough for a bite of whatever-a piece of turkey from my sandwich is her "favorite."
    No doubt, I'm now condemned to domestic "hell" and have flunked "Home Ec" with flying colors! ;)

    1. hahaha! I love reading your replies! I'm so glad you found my blog and started talking with me. A lot of readers appear to be younger, like my daughter's age. She can't (even though she tries) relate to the industrial-sized social conditioning we boomer girls suffered.

      The sad thing about me though, TW, is that I was taking notes during Coronet Films.

      Dinner at our home today is very different from dinner with narcissists. I cross my legs like a Bodhisattva and nobody fusses if elbows are on the table. It's better for eating with fingers anyway.

      My mother was a real stickler for proper manners. she says, even to this day, that she does not eat dinner. She DINES. The first time my daughter heard that, she laughed herself silly...

      Say "HI" to your geriatric cat for cat bonded to my nephew and pretty much ignores me unless I'm feeling sad. Then he shoots his tail in the air and parades around the house like my X-husbaNd used to do and then I'm so damn happy to be divorced that attitude changes to gratitude. And the cat gets treats.

      I love cats.


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