Danger, Deviance and Domesticity

May 1, 1997

Judith Zwolak

Stand up straight, don't make waves with your parents and tuck your shirt in. Follow these guidelines and you'll make the perfect young American in the Cold War era, at least according to the social-guidance films produced in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Social-guidance films are a kind of mirror image of the Cold War mentality," says Nadiene Van Dyke, history doctoral candidate. "While the films portray the 'Leave it to Beaver' nuclear household with the two-parent family and idealistic suburban lifestyle, there is also this undercurrent of caution, fear and paranoia."

Van Dyke, who is also the coordinator of the Department of Teacher Certification, is writing her history dissertation on these films and gives a presentation on some of her research at a brown bag lunch on April 18 at the Newcomb Center for Research on Women. With such titles as Girls Beware, Boys Beware and The Dangerous Stranger, it's no wonder these films fostered an anxiety about the world and a desire for a safe, non-confrontational home life with well-mannered, well-groomed children.

"In order to cope with the intense international and political turmoil of this period, you had to have a haven, some place that was not beset with those influences," Van Dyke says. "The home played that role."

Van Dyke says she is particularly fascinated with the portrayal of gender roles in these films. In a film about grooming, for example, an unkempt young woman with baggy socks and a sagging slip is not only unattractive but could be inviting trouble through her slovenly appearance.

"The message is that you're open prey if you don't dress and deport yourself in a manner in which you should," she says. "You can expect just about anything to happen to you." In her April 18 presentation, Van Dyke will screen a selection of these films and discuss them with participants. "I don't think historians use these kinds of sources enough," she says. "If you read them carefully, they tell you a whole lot, not only about the attitudes of the filmmakers, but about people's views of the ideal society."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000