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Journal of Women's History 13.3 (2001) 158-159
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Scratching the Surface: Critique and Ambiguity in Postwar Popular Culture
In the last decade, studies of gender and women's experiences during the Cold War have problematized our picture of the smiling housewife and her children standing proudly in front of a suburban ranch house. Elaine Tyler May's influential 1988 study, Homeward Bound, rejected prevailing assumptions that the powerful postwar ideology of domesticity was evidence of a complacent and compliant America. 1 Instead, she argued that domesticity was a response to the fears and anxieties of Americans confronting the Cold War, atomic annihilation, and other national and global conflicts. Rather than deny the gender conservatism of the period, May and subsequent historians have complicated the story of a triumphal middle-class domesticity by exploring the relationship between family ideals, social practices, and political change. Such studies as those by Joanne Meyerowitz and Susan Lynn, about women who continued to work outside the home and mobilized for civil rights and peace, have further enriched this scholarship, demonstrating that women's social, political, and economic experiences in Cold War America were much more contested than those portrayed in Life magazine and on television sitcoms. 2
More recently, scholars have begun to push this revisionist historiography further by investigating in greater depth the ambiguities and contestations contained within dominant culture. Jane Levey's study of the permeability of gender roles in the best-selling nonfiction books Cheaper by the Dozen and The Egg and I represents this direction. Rather than locating contestation or resistance only at the fringes, Levey's analysis demonstrates the importance of popular culture in mediating social anxieties at the center. "Scratch the surface" she eloquently writes, "and one finds that the popular culture of the immediate postwar era contains the seeds of a critique of the very norms it appears to elevate" (127). Such best-sellers as Cheaper by the Dozen and The Egg and I did more than simply reiterate the ideals of domesticity; instead, they confronted and renegotiated the constraints and limits associated with the narrowing of gender roles after the war. Conflicts over appropriate gender behavior, evident in descriptions of the working mother in Cheaper by the Dozen and the discontented farmer's wife in The Egg and I, clearly appealed to American audiences at least as much as prescriptive literature that defined the separation of spheres in more absolute terms. These best-sellers interestingly blurred the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, as in Cheaper by the Dozen's [End Page 158] idealized descriptions of a working mother's absences and a father's gentle familial tyrannies. These blurred boundaries indicate the need for further study about how the fictive and the "real" interact in popular narrative confrontations with social change.
Levey's critique of middle-class culture engages with resistance and ambiguity as integral elements of hegemony rather than as outside or oppositional forces. Her thoughtful readings demonstrate how resistance is limited and often contained within narrative forms. Levey's analysis of The Egg and I, for instance, reveals how MacDonald's critique of women's "bounden duty" to their husbands tapped into readers' unease, without offering any radical alternatives (131). Instead, this narrative offered, in Levey's words, a "safe perch from which to criticize" the excesses of domesticity (132). Nostalgia is a key factor in understanding how resistance is both possible in mainstream culture and contained by it. Although Cheaper by the Dozen and The Egg and I address contemporary issues, they are safely located in the past, and in one case in a rural setting. Levey's intriguing discussion of the relationship between nostalgia and modernity in these texts prompts further questions about how nostalgia functions ambiguously in its movement between critique and conservative resolution. Through its deeply textured readings, this essay deepens our understanding of both the contested nature of domesticity and its incredible endurance in American culture.
Wendy Kozol is associate professor of women's studies at Oberlin College. She is author of Life...