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Perfectly Average

The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America

Anna Creadick

Publication Year: 2010

At the end of World War II, many Americans longed for a return to a more normal way of life after decades of depression and war. In fact, between 1945 and 1963 the idea of “normality” circulated as a keyword in almost every aspect of American culture. But what did this term really mean? What were its parameters? Whom did it propose to include and exclude? In Perfectly Average, Anna Creadick investigates how and why “normality” reemerged as a potent homogenizing category in postwar America. Working with scientific studies, material culture, literary texts, film, fashion, and the mass media, she charts the pursuit of the“normal” through thematic chapters on the body, character, class, sexuality, and community. Creadick examines such evidence as the “Norm and Norma” models produced during the war by sexologists and anthropologists—statistical composites of“normal” American bodies. In 1945, as thousands of Ohio women signed up for a Norma Look-Alike contest, a “Harvard Study of Normal Men” sought to define the typical American male according to specific criteria, from body shape to upbringing to blood pressure. By the early 1950s, the “man in the gray flannel suit” had come to symbolize what some regarded as the stultifying sameness of the “normal-ized” middle class. Meanwhile, novels such as From Here to Eternity and Peyton Place both supported and challenged normative ideas about gender, race, and sexuality, even as they worked to critique the postwar culture of surveillance—watching and being watched—through which normalizing power functioned. As efforts to define normality became increasingly personal, the tensions em-bedded in its binary logic multiplied: Was normal descriptive of an average or prescriptive of an ideal? In the end, Creadick shows, a variety of statistics, assumptions, and aspirations converged to recast “normality” not as something innate or inborn, but rather as a quality to be actively pursued—a standard at once highly seductive and impossible to achieve because it required becoming perfectly average.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

First, my deepest gratitude to Christian Appy, series editor, and Clark Dougan, senior editor, at the University of Massachusetts Press, whose hands-on approach is rare and rewarding and whose patience, care, good cheer, and faith in this project have been deeply sustaining. For critical assistance in helping me untangle ideas and arguments as I developed the manuscript, I am grateful to my trusted...

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Introduction: Situation Normal

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pp. 1-14

In the 1955 best seller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the protagonist, Tom Rath, a white, middle-class, suburban commuter, experiences multiple flashbacks to his time as a paratrooper in World War II. His first recovered memory raises the notion that “normality” was something the war itself had destroyed: “It had been snafu from the beginning...

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1. Model Bodies, Normal Curves

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pp. 15-41

In late April of 1999, I stepped off a streetcar in Dresden, Germany, and walked down a long driveway to face a looming brick and plate-glass structure. Its facade was intimidating: four-story columns reached up to a broad white frieze emblazoned with huge gold letters: DEUTSCHES HYGIENE - MUSEUM. A long banner falling from the top of the front read...

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2. Normalizing the Nation: The Study of American Character

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pp. 42-65

In the publicity surrounding the “Norm and Norma” sculptures in the late 1940s, anthropologist Harry L. Shapiro and others had slipped frequently and easily from descriptions of the “normality” of the models’ bodies to assertions about their normality of character.¹ Journalists and scientists regularly anthropomorphized the plaster figures, moving beyond their surfaces...

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3. Passing for Normal: Fashioning a Postwar Middle Class

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pp. 66-89

Part of the seductive power of normality was its statistical alignment with the middle: the “normal” curve plotting out the midpoint on a continuum. For postwar Americans, the middle seemed a safe place—secure and solid—not a life on the social or economic fringes. If “normal” meant the middle, the pursuit of “normality” meant becoming, or remaining, middle ...

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4. From Queer to Eternity: Normalizing Heterosexuality in Fact and Fiction

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pp. 90-117

The decades following World War II in the United States cannot be fully characterized by sexual “containment” nor by “sex panic,”¹ not by sexual obsession nor by sexual excess, but rather by deeply contradictory attitudes and practices that were neither fully progressive nor repressive. World War II created a massive social upheaval that had a major impact on U.S. sexual ...

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5. Picture Windows and Peyton Place: Exposing Normality in Postwar Communities

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pp. 118-141

In the 1956 blockbuster novel Peyton Place, the town itself becomes the central character: “Talk, talk, talk,” says the young protagonist Allison MacKenzie, impatiently. “Peyton Place is famous for its talk. Talk about everybody” (350). Peyton Place speaks in voices, it judges, it watches, it keeps track: “From the day Allison was born, [her grandmother] Elizabeth ...

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Conclusion: Home, Normal Home

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pp. 142-149

A 1962 New York Times article titled “Baffling Search for the ‘Normal Man’” concludes with one psychiatrist’s complaint that searching for a definition of “normality” was “a little like trying to glue fog to the sky.”¹ This metaphor still holds. Normality is difficult to contain because it is constantly moving, shifting, dissipating. Worse, to try to define normality ...


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pp. 151-181


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pp. 183-191

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760147
E-ISBN-10: 1613760140
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498051
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498052

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 28 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War
Series Editor Byline: Christian Appy See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 760804733
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Perfectly Average

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • National characteristics, American.
  • Community life -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1945-.
  • United States -- Civilization -- 1945-.
  • Sex in popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Body image -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Middle class -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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