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In Lynn Peril’s Pink Think: Becoming A Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons, Peril depicts social conservatism as a key characteristic of society in the 1950’s. Consumer capitalism and commercial advertisement not only helped perpetuate social conformity, but also defined gender roles and expectations of both men and women. In this paper, I will argue that both the consumption and influence of social pressure helped create the structure of traditional and strict gender roles.
Consumer Capitalism was an essential trademark of the 1950’s. The devastation of World War II left America’s economy crippled and its individuals in despair. This fostered hope among Americans for social and economic recovery, giving rise to modernity and suburban growth in the 1950’s— both of which shaped the development of the American culture of the time. Women, as described in Peril’s Pink Think, played a special and active role in the consumer capitalism. Commercial advertisement, which was a new and advanced vehicle for social and economic growth, pressured and encouraged women to partake in consumer spending—making personal and social turmoil imminent and prevalent among women. Women were caught on the threshold between choosing society, with the perk of living comfortably yet restrained, or against the status quo, with the perk of living freely, yet, as an outcast. The onset of consumerism “symbolized their future roles as house wives, painting a very clear image of a woman of the 1950’s” . If a woman of the 1950’s lived outside the boundaries of what constituted the ‘ideal woman’ of the 1950’s, as Peril demonstrated in the book, the individual suffered consequences— jeopardizing her own title and status in American society.
The Cold War, which took place in the mid 1940’s to the 90’s, instilled a deep-set fear of social instability among Americans across the nation. The fear of communism, otherwise known as the “The Second Red Scare”, forced individuals into conformity— bringing upon society shame and disgust towards any behavior that reflected any sort of non-conformity. Individuals placed great value on conformity as it helped bring some social stability and social order in the midst of the chaos that resulted from the war. Nonconformity included engagement in homosexual and interracial relationships, and as, Pink Think illustrates, violating any social expectations of a man or woman of society— key elements that later came to shape the conservative era of the 1950’s. Nonconformity, or the trespass of gender expectations in society, as demonstrated in Peril’s novel, dictated social behaviors among both men and women in America.
Another key characteristic of the 1950’s was the Polio Epidemic. Polio, a fatal disease causing paralysis or even death, was contracted from the unsanitary conditions of urban cities— an area “[lacking] doctors or decent hospital facilities” . This caused many Americans to flee to housing areas, later known as the white suburbs. Migrating populations led to a tremendous growth in suburban areas. The suburbs consisted mostly of white, middle-class Americans residents. This exclusive community over time led to the strict and rigid formation of the “nuclear family” — a domestic ideal of the post-war era. The typical nuclear family lived in a house with a white picket fence along with an assigned role for every family member. Mothers, in particular, as described in Peril’s novel, were given the role of assuming domestic responsibilities and upholding domestic stability in the house. While the image of the perfect suburban wife was “efficient, patients, [and] always charming” , men on the other hand took on more business-oriented careers, arriving at a clean home with dinner awaiting them at the dining table. This intensified the social pressure and influence among women— laying the foundation for women to be objectified and undermined later in society.
American society in the 1950’s placed great emphasis on commercial advertising and consumer spending. Consumer spending, helping to repair the economical damage of World War II, became the epitome of social status in society. The emergence of television helped catapult consumption throughout America, with many of these advertisements appealing to young women. As Peril describes in her book, the marketing campaigns placed social status and materialism on a pedestal—exposing women to the pressure of adopting and becoming the social norm. Commercial advertisement, a strategy used to broadcast what was considered normal and ‘the standard’ to American individuals, fed to the economic stimulation of monetary wealth. These advertisements taught women to feel ashamed of their natural beauty, thus influencing them to purchase their cosmetic products as a way of building confidence. “Advertisements suggested that there was nothing consumerism couldn’t solve, as if the only thing between heartbreak and happiness was the proper stemware of a set of monogrammed towels” . Companies advertised their products to be an end all and be all solution to all their life problems. In reality, however, this belief only deepened female insecurity as it made them feel their standards are not up to par with society’s standards. Peril further describes society’s standards for women when she states that the advertisement of “Listerine played on a women’s fears of lonely spinsterhood… their advertising brought other anxieties into the picture as well. ‘You can look him quick when your Charm starts slipping’, began one 1955 ad” . This ad, exacerbating women’s already pre-existing insecurities, insinuates that her outer appearance plays a great factor in her love life and her ability to find a partner. This added tremendous pressure on women to uphold society’s expectations by maintaining a hyper feminine image— a practice self-deprecating to women influenced under commercial advertising industries. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, references the cynical truth of marketing that is also parallel in the food industry when he states, “The market is a tool, and a useful one. But the worship of this tool is a hollow faith.” .
Americans, who lived through the Cold War experienced, experienced a deep fear of social instability that even more so expanded the walls of conservatism in American society. Not only did Americans fear communism but, most importantly, nonconformity, or any behavior that deviated from their role in society. A key example of this, as Peril describes, is the social expectation of a woman’s duty to society. “If the little women didn’t shoulder her duty to bear children and maintain the home” Peril states, “the national economy was threatened” . Extreme statements as these encapsulated the magnitude of stress and pressure women experienced in the 1950’s. If women did not abide to the social norms and expected role of the ‘ideal woman’, in the eyes of society, they have disrupted the very nature of humanity, betraying society’s fabricated image of womanhood—a dark contrast to the very ideals of conservatism. In his novel Fast Food Nation, Schlosser states that the founders of food industries, such as McDonald’s, “cannot trust some people who are nonconformists… [they] will make conformists out of them in a hurry… the organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization’” . Society, a product of the system, functions on uniformity. The system, however, which works to create social order, dampens the voices of its subject in the process— an act that unknowingly plummets American individuals into an oblivion. This plays an influential role in individual’s condemnation of nonconformity and subversive behavior— placing great power in the voice of the system while silencing those who are beneath it.
Conservatism, however, manifested itself into a higher exercise of social power— the objectification of women in American society, or gender hierarchy. The idea of the nuclear family served as a pivotal point in the development of gender expectations because while it epitomized perfection and American success, it also showcased the ideal ‘relationship’, which Peril continues to describe is, in essence, male ego-driven. “Boys [enjoy] being with a popular girl because ‘in her company, they feel more manly, cleverer, or better’… Boys also brought out the femininity in girls. The girl who is feminine wants the man to lead her… She likes being with a boy because he brings out these feelings in her’ (47). Much like Capitalism, traces of narcissism and superficiality inherent in consumer spending subconsciously play a role in the behavior of men as it determines who they choose as a partner. This practice undervalues women. Rather than finding value in one another, the individual found value in how the other could feed his ego—a feeling also provided by that of materialism. High selectivity and fierce competition, which encompasses the very ideology of capitalism in a similar way, fuels the social dynamic of men and women in society as well—all which shapes the gender roles of men and women in society. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser states, “The thing that’s been inhibiting long-form investigative reporting is fear— fear of being sued, of being unpopular, of being criticized by very powerful groups” (236). Just as Schlosser describes, the fear of failure and falling short of perfection, a principle of American Success, is also apparent within the fast food industry as well; desensitization, a byproduct of the system, is an infestation on both the individual and social level.
Both the fast food industry and commercial advertisement, as illustrated in Pink Think and Fast Food Nation, are dominant forces in society. While both marketed large benefits to the individual, they also came at a great cost—consumer loyalty that not only cost deep pockets but also generated gender roles molded at the hands of society. Both commercial marketing and fast food industry prove to play a double-edge sword in society such that it runs on profit, but would altogether be impossible without the social control and structure of gender roles and social norms—a success attributed to the conservative culture of American society.
The key events of World War II, the Cold War, and the polio epidemic greatly contributed to the formation of American society in the 1950’s. Capitalism during World War II glamorized the idea of American success through the social ladder of economic status. The idea of conformity so heavily emphasized during the Cold War solidified the roles both men and women played in society all the while instilling fear upon those showcasing behavior that violated their assigned roles; the fear of nonconformity and ostracism keeps the practice of Conservatism alive. And lastly, the objectification of women exhibited during the polio epidemic results in society’s attempt to create structure and social order after the destruction and aftermath of the war. Both men and women of the 1950’s fell into very strict roles shaped by the strong political, economic, demands of the time that very much still has a prolonging impact on American lives today.
As evident in Pink Think and Fast Food Nation, the social structure of the 1950’s remains evident in American culture today. Women continue to play a vital role in consumer consumption, as their desire to live up to society’s standards and expectations are largely shaped by society’s pressure to conform and please the male ego; the value of conformity continues to contradict healthy self-esteem and positive body image. In addition, men continue to take on careers in areas that business-oriented and still remain to be male-dominated until this day while women are still expected to play a subservient role towards men—a social structure that very much characterizes the gender roles and social expectations of American culture and its people today.
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