The Fifties

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    /wiki/The Fiftieswork
    The father is gay, the mother wants a real job, the boy on the left listens to Rock and Roll, the boy on the right smokes weed, the little girl is dating a black man, the baby is a communist, and the unseen fifth child was institutionalized for having a birth defect. But for God's sake don't say anything!
    "The world was beige and the music was crap... then "Heartbreak Hotel" came along and saved us all."

    The Fabulous Fifties: An era of identical pink pressboard suburban houses filled with smiling, apron-clad housewives. All the men wear slippers and fedoras and smoke pipes, all the girls are teenaged and wear poodle skirts, and all the boys are cute, freckle faced scamps with slingshots in their pockets. Parents sleep in separate beds and only kiss each other on the cheek.

    Anyone who isn't any of these characters are either greasers, Beatniks, gas-station attendants, or Elvis (who, in this era, wouldn't be caught dead in a rhinestone jumpsuit). With the possible exception of the gas station attendants, everyone on that list is a direct threat to the upright morals and values of the era and will not be afforded a spot in the basement bomb shelter when the Reds drop The Big One. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement stride across America, slowed down only by the occasional Corrupt Hick. The birth of rock 'n' roll took place in this era, to the horror of Moral Guardians, which also showed a resurgence in popularity.

    At least that's the popular view of the real Fifties. In media, there are three versions of The Fifties. The first is the Fifties Fifties, i.e. how the time was portrayed in many works that were actually made then. In this version, The Fifties were a suburban paradise where everyone was always happy, either forgetting the bad events that happened during the last decade or reminiscing the prosperous times of previous decades, and there were no problems except for all those juvenile delinquents running around. Unless the local college had some commies spreading un-American values or the flying saucers are landing. The fifties uptightness was linked to real world social anxiety and atom-bomb jitters, after all. Don't expect the civil rights movement to show up. Hell, seeing actual black people is a bit of a crapshoot. The Fifties Fifties are now a popular subject of The Parody.

    The next version is the Nostalgic Fifties of The Seventies and The Eighties. By that time, there were a huge number of adults nostalgic for the "simple times" of their youth and Hollywood obliged. The biggest difference between this version and the Fifties Fifties is that the rebellious teenagers are now the heroes. We learn that all the teenagers back then liked to hang out at the local Malt Shop, where a jukebox played Nothing but Hits. The girls were only Seemingly Wholesome and both sexes were experiencing their own Coming Of Age Stories while necking down at the Drive-In Theater and watching Robot Monster.

    Finally, there are the Historical Fifties of The Nineties and the Present Day. The Nostalgic Fifties are now starting to die out, (although they've been replaced by The Eighties in spades; Tron: Legacy is a particularly good example of this) as there are becoming fewer and fewer writers in Hollywood who remember the Fifties... and many of these writers are the children of those former "rebellious teens", and take a somewhat more jaundiced view of their parents' upbringing. Therefore, the time period, as portrayed by Hollywood, is becoming more the textbook version. Films about The Fifties today tend more to deal with the political issues of that era (civil rights, McCarthyism, etc.) and less with its teen culture. Which is not to say it is necessarily any more accurate of course, merely that the decade is now filtered more through a political/ideological lens than a nostalgic one and teenagers aren't the only people that matter.

    For a glimpse of what (some) Americans actually living in the Fifties thought of their world, read the Time Travel stories of Jack Finney. His heroes are generally lonely, frustrated, unhappy bachelors eager to escape from their conformist gray-flannel-suited world, usually into The Gay Nineties.

    Note that Film Noir was a major genre during the Fifties (though more so in the late 40s/early 50s) that doesn't easily fit in with any of the mainstream versions of the decade listed above. This includes modern noir set during the Fifties like L.A. Confidential or The Black Dahlia.

    One of the longest cultural "decades"- in many ways its tropes cover the period from V-J Day to the Kennedy assassination, 1945-63, with a shift in trappings in about 1955-57 as TV ownership reached a tipping point, tailfin cars got REALLY wild, Rock and Roll started getting serious radio play and the first wave of Baby Boomers reached Junior High.

    Interestingly, the decade has triggered highly contradictory reactions among people who do not remember it well since the 1970s. Fifties cars are still admired aesthetically (in some areas, you can still find them on the street), Fifties clothes are enormously popular for costume parties, and Fifties music (at least, the sort that doesn't sound like holdovers from the Forties) will probably never be thought unfashionable. In addition, many seem to view the decade, with much sadness, as a forever-vanished idyllic time that was infinitely more conservative and family-friendly (although this is not what people actually living through the decade necessarily thought). At the same time, the 1950s is often treated as a sort of historical Butt Monkey - an all-purpose dartboard on which anyone who is irritated by social repression - especially if it concerns sex - can feel free to take out their frustrations. (Whenever you hear of someone described as having "Fifties values," it usually isn't a compliment.)

    But those who wish to Flanderize an entire decade should know that the 1950s were actually marked by great strides forward in social progress, sexual and otherwise. And in any case, they were a lot less repressed than the eras that preceded them. The decade was also a period of relative stability and unprecedented optimism, both probably enhanced by comparison since the period was bracketed by the horrors of World War II and the upcoming turbulence of The Sixties. This was particularly prevalent in the US, which had not only triumphed in the war but, more importantly, was just about the only major nation to come out of the conflict with its infrastructure intact. With no rebuilding to do, the focus was on innovation; there was a strong belief in the prospect of limitless progress through science and industry, which led to a lot of gee-whiz science fiction that's now covered with Zeerust. It's no coincidence that the ultimate embodiment of optimism, Disneyland, opened in 1955, with its cornerstone of Tomorrowland, promising a "great big beautiful tomorrow." Compare Aluminum Christmas Trees.

    For more information, see our handy swell Useful Notes page.

    See Also: The Roaring Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, Turn of the Millennium and The New Tens.


    Fifties slang. If you want to talk like it's the Fifties, be sure to use these words:
    • "Swell" - Say this a lot, especially if you're a teenage girl and you're talking about something you like (usually a boy). Be sure to say it in an extra cutesy and/or sweet way. The more affected it sounds, the better. ("Oh, that's just swell!")
    • If you get tired of "swell" try "keen" or "neat" instead, but don't say "neat-o" or "cool" unless you're a beatnik.
    • "Gee whiz" - Be sure to say this every two seconds if you're a boy under twelve. It can be used in any situation since it doesn't really mean anything.
      • "Golly" can essentially serve the same purpose.
    • "Square" - Someone dull, out of it or otherwise not "in". Usually used to refer to a Nerd, since the Fifties were before Nerds Became Sexy and long before nerds were hardcore.
    • "Dreamboat" - If you're a girl, use this word to refer to your crush.
    • "Baby" - If you're a guy, this is what you call your girlfriend. Be sure to add the word "hey" before it whenever you address her, or start with "hello", but the second syllable should be of much lower tone. If you're The Big Bopper you can elongate both words. This is a great way to cover up if you can't remember her name (after all, all girls back then seemed to have names like Peggy Sue or Mary Lou, so it's easy to get them mixed up). If that doesn't work, call her the name of a candy, confection or anything else that tastes sweet. Fifties girls like to think that they remind you of what causes cavities.
    • "Dolls/Dames" - Girls/women collectively. If you happen to be a private detective, use it whenever you can justify it.
    • "Get with it, kid" - What you say to a square.
    • If you're a dad, call your teenaged daughter "Kitten" and your preteen son "Sport".

    The Fifties provides examples of the following tropes:

    Examples of The Fifties include:

    Examples of the "Fifties" Fifties[edit | hide | hide all]

    Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

    Comic Books[edit | hide]

    • Tintin. Series started in 1929.
    • Piet Pienter en Bert Bibber. First appeared in 1950.
    • Disney Ducks Comic Universe
      • The Junior Woodchucks. First appeared in February, 1951.
      • The Beagle Boys. First appeared in November, 1952.
      • Gyro Gearloose. First appeared in May, 1952.
      • April, May and June. First appeared in February, 1953.
      • Glittering Goldie O'Gilt. First appeared in March, 1953.
      • Flintheart Glomgold. First appeared in September, 1956.
      • Little Helper. First appeared in September, 1956.
      • Argus McSwine. First appeared in July, 1957.
      • Grandpa Beagle/Blackheart Beagle. Composite Character based on two different depictions of the Beagle Boys' founder.
        • Blackheart Beagle. First appeared in August, 1957.
        • Grandpa Beagle. First appeared in March, 1958.
      • General Snozzie. First appeared in June, 1958.
    • Dennis the Menace UK. First appeared in March, 1951.
    • Archie Comics
      • Midge Klump. First appeared in April, 1951.
      • Miss Bernice Beazley. Appeared c. 1957.
      • Mr. Svenson. First appeared in July, 1958.
    • Mad originally started as a comic book, with it's first issue debuting in August, 1952. It later converted to a magazine format by issue twenty-four in order to appease Harvey Kurtzman and keep him on as editor.
    • The Phantom Stranger. First appeared in August-September, 1952.
    • Richie Rich. First appeared in September, 1953.
    • Red Skull/Albert Malik is established as a Communist agent. First appeared (in this role) in December, 1953.
    • Mickey Mouse Comic Universe
      • Gilbert. First appeared in May, 1954.
      • Scuttle/Weasel. First appeared in February, 1957.
    • Krypto the Superdog. First appeared in March, 1955.
    • Jommeke. First appeared in October 30, 1955.
    • Martian Manhunter. First appeared in November, 1955.
    • The Beezer. Magazine launched in January, 1956.
    • Batwoman/Kathy Kane. First appeared in July, 1956.
    • The Flash
      • Flash/Bartholomew "Barry" Allen. First appeared in October, 1956.
      • Kid Flash/Wallace "Wally" West. First appeared in December, 1959.
    • Gaston Lagaffe. First appeared in 1957.
    • Brainiac. First appeared in July, 1958.
    • Adam Strange. First appeared in November, 1958.
    • Supergirl/Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee Danvers. First appeared in May, 1959.
    • Suicide Squad. Debuted in August-September, 1959. Later stories established that the Squad was founded during World War II.
    • Green Lantern/Hal Jordan. First appeared in October, 1959.

    Film[edit | hide]

    Literature[edit | hide]

    Music[edit | hide]

    Music Genres That Started in the Fifties[edit | hide]

    Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

    Theatre[edit | hide]

    Professional Wrestling[edit | hide]

    • WWE. Established in 1952/1953.

    Video Games[edit | hide]

    Western Animation[edit | hide]

    Examples of the Nostalgic Fifties[edit | hide]

    Film[edit | hide]

    • American Graffiti (though technically set in 1962)
    • The version of 1955 seen in the Back to The Future films has elements of both the Nostalgic Fifties and the Historical Fifties, but seems to generally lean more in the direction of the Nostalgic Fifties.
    • The John Waters movie Cry-Baby is more like an Affectionate Parody of the fifties and juvenile delinquent movies, but it still counts.
    • Grease
    • Peggy Sue Got Married
    • The Last Picture Show is bit more complicated than some on this list, in that it is both a rather bittersweet version of the period and one set unusually early (in 1951) which means it predates a lot of the standard decade tropes like rock 'n' roll or B-Movies. It's also set in a Dying Town in rural Texas, placing it at some remove from the middle-class "mainstream" of the era. (The teen characters listen to country and western songs and watch cowboy flicks!)
    • The Porky's movies were a particularly sex-crazed version, or maybe just riding the coattails of a Seventies trend.
    • Diner
    • Though the decade is never properly defined, Fido is set in a kind of alternate-history Fifties where a Zombie Apocalypse nearly wiped out humanity approximately twenty years before, and survivors live in fortress-like Stepford Suburbias surrounded by zombiefied wasteland.
    • Matinee (1993), though technically set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, attempts to pinpoint on film the moment when a town full of adorable scamps and movie lovers left The Fifties and entered The Sixties.
      • It's a very troperrific rendition, complete with the protagonist's bratty younger brother who is obsessed with The Lone Ranger and carries around die-cast pistols everywhere, "the love interest in poodle skirt" who his best friend is afraid to ask out to the dance, and the love interest's "abusive greaser ex-boyfriend".
    • Stand by Me (set in 1959 and featuring an all-star soundtrack) attempts to do the same thing (mark the transition from The Fifties to the Sixties, from Innocence to Experience) on a smaller scale, reflecting the coming of age of four Maine Oregon youths (and the youths of director Rob Reiner and author Stephen King).

    Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

    Music[edit | hide]

    • "American Pie", the song written by Don McLean in 1971, is in part a nostalgic look back at the more innocent Rock and Roll music and culture of his youth in the 1950s...

    Theatre[edit | hide]

    Examples of the Historical Fifties[edit | hide]

    Comics[edit | hide]

    Film[edit | hide]

    Literature[edit | hide]

    • The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, one of the most popular and influential books in the 1950s, Trope Codified (and attacked!) the whole concept of 50's conformism.

    Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

    Theatre[edit | hide]

    Video Games[edit | hide]

    • Mafia II plays in the 50s. It does however also show the dark sides of the 50s beyond Suburbia, like racial segregation, corruption, black market, slums, and mafia. But hey, at least you can encounter at every 1950s stereotype known to man:
      • the charming housewife returning from her local Piggly Wiggly (after visiting the opium house),
      • the friendly next-door neighbour with the tie and the suitcase who scratched your car the other day,
      • the friendly gas station attendant after robbing him and blowing up his petrol pump,
      • the greasy radio host who ends every sentence with "folks" and promotes cigarette smoking,
      • the no-nonesense, deep-voiced radio host who will piss off commies and promotes family values,
      • the old grumpy hag who runs the local diner and still has problems with fitting her hair net,
      • the shoeshine guy who shines shoes,
      • the newspaper guy who begins and ends every sentence with "Extra!",
      • the good-hearted Irish police officer who will most likely shoot you at sight,
      • those greasers who always hinder your black trade because you're in their territory, and
      • the bomberjacket-clad afro-americans who do the same thing, only on the other side of Hudson Bay Empire Bay.

    Examples which don't easily fit into any of the above[edit | hide]

    Comics[edit | hide]

    • The Silver Age of Comic Books began in this period, following the red-baiting and obscenity hysteria fueled by the publication of Dr. Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, which helped end the E.C. Horror Comics catalog that had supplanted superhero comics through most of the 1950s with grotesque and Weird Tales from the Crypt. The only E.C. comic to survive was...
    • MAD Magazine, which defied the image of '50s conformity by satirizing and skewering pop culture with a countercultural Manhattanite wit.
    • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is set in a ... somewhat skewed version of 1950s Britain. (It doesn't help that Nineteen Eighty-Four has just happened.)

    Comedy[edit | hide]

    • Lenny Bruce, the infamous comedian who broke free of "obscene language" taboos in the 1950s, got his start doing stand-up comedy in strip clubs in the heart of Los Angeles' middle-class suburban mecca of San Fernando Valley in the early 1950s.
    • Bob & Ray, who themselves fit into the Historical Fifties as a result of spoofing the media conventions inherent in the Fifties Fifties.
    • Lord Buckley, who in many ways defined the counterculture of the 1950s in a way that was informative, authentic and entertaining without being threatening.

    Film[edit | hide]

    Audrey: I'll cook like / Betty Crocker / And I'll look like / Donna Reed!

    Literature[edit | hide]

    • Bill Bryson's The Life And Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, an autobiographical and historical account of 1950s and early 1960s America, when he was a child.
    • Lolita was not only written in the 1950s, it was set in Nabokov's idea of a typical American community and helped inspire the later concept of "dark pathology hidden behind a facade of '50s conformity".

    Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

    • The Honeymooners was made in the fifties, but it's far from "suburban paradise": it features a married couple, who live in a crappy, cold-water walk-up apartment, can't afford a TV or a vacuum cleaner, and fight all the time. This was, of course, typical for many Americans at the time.
    • Dragnet was a Police Procedural that ran from the late Forties through the Sixties. While there is Fifties conformity scattered throughout the series, the show is not completely clean, showing the ugly side of society as they solve each week's crime. Was somewhat made in response to the negative view of the police force during the time period.

    Theatre[edit | hide]

    Video Games[edit | hide]

    Western Animation[edit | hide]

    • The Iron Giant is mainly a deconstruction of Fifties alien invasion movies, but it also has large dollops of nostalgia (the director was born in 1957, the year the movie was set) and delves into some of the issues of the day, particularly Cold War paranoia, as personified by Kent Mansley.
    • Moral Orel has no set time period, but its characters are blatant 50's stereotypes, a lot of 50's architecture and technology is present, and there's an omnipresent theme of hiding away your sins and mistakes.


    Works made, but not set, during the fifties[edit | hide]

    Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

    Comics[edit | hide]

    Western Animation[edit | hide]

    1. The USSR had 200 strategic bombers, tops, in all. Their missiles weren't much better.