Representation matters. Messaging matters.
These ads, half of them drawn from my mom’s formative years of the 1950s, the other half drawn from my formative years of the 1980s, tell a story about the values and expectations that shaped us. If we are willing to accept that media messages reflect and shape culture, we can see that the 1950s hammered unrelenting messages of subservience, homemaking, and “pretty wins.”
Yes, I realize this is not hot news.
Side-by-side with ads from the ’80s, though, we can see interesting similarities and changes between the decades. By the time I was in high school and college, the messaging allowed women agency, independence, and autonomy. At the same time, it was still true that Mom was in charge of family food, and ladies needed, needed, needed to be pretty. Even more horrifyingly, we see the start, in the 1980s, of sexualizing girls at increasingly young ages. That Love’s Baby Soft ad fills me with a hundred colors of flaming rage.
Beyond that, the representation in both eras casts white people as the center, the normal, the visible. By the 1980s, blonde hair had emerged as even more strongly preferred, and the representation of those with any kind of “darkness” was nearly non-existent. How does the world feel to those who never see themselves depicted as exemplars?
YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE NONE OF THIS IS HOT NEWS.
I’m just trying to get your brains working here because I have a favor to ask. In about a month, I will be going to Tennessee for a stretch of days to do a writer’s residency at the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to use the gift of those days. All that’s coming to me so far is this: I am very interested in playing around with ideas about how the eras we grew up in formed us — or, more interestingly, didn’t. I am interested in how people experienced the pressures of expectations, whether from parents at home, from teachers at school, from coaches in sports, from movies, music, etc. I am interested in how people moved beyond the pressures of expectations, if they did, and, as I like to put it, “exceeded their programming.” Some women live their whole lives with two goals: get a man, and be thin. Yet others, born and raised in the same time period, shed that conditioning and decide that a successful life consists of community engagement and improving the planet. Some men live their whole lives under the weight of being primary breadwinners and stoic steak eaters. Yet others, raised in the same time, even the same household, toss off those values and surround themselves with boas and stacks of books.
I’m curious what patching together a jigsaw of stories might yield.
This is me, crowd sourcing.
YES, YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE YOU ALREADY GOT THAT.
So here’s what I’m after, if you feel like contributing: a specific anecdote that illustrates your experience with pressures and expectations as you were growing up (into college even). As well, I would love specific anecdotes that illustrate ways in which you exceeded that programming. Either way. Or both.
Also, these anecdotes do not have to be focused on you. In truth, sometimes we see this stuff more easily in others than in ourselves. Maybe you have a story about a parent or a grandparent or an uncle that really exemplifies the ways in which time periods determine behaviors.
You may have noticed I use the word “specific” here; ideally, your anecdotes would revolve around incidents or moments (“One time, my mom wouldn’t let us leave the driveway until I went back into the house and got a pair of gloves to wear to church” or “My grandpa upended the dinner table when the butter wasn’t next to the rolls” or “When the neighbor lady saw me talking to a black boy, I was grounded for a month”) rather than abstracted lists (“I just knew I was supposed to go to college” or “I always knew I would work”).
If you have a story to share with me, one I can use in my writing (always happy to change names and obscure identities, of course), I would be giddy to see it show up in my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m asking now since it’s one month until I head to Tennessee.
YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE YOU ALREADY DID THAT MATH.
Anyhow, it is with hope in my heart that I toss this challenge out.
(’cause no matter when you grew up, manners always matter)
Typing time: a million minutes
Editing time: as long as it takes to find a bunch of vintage ads, screenshot them, crop them, collage them, crop the collages because I was doing screenshots of those, too, since PicMonkey is an ass about letting people save images unless they sign up for a seven-day free trial, and then mess around with them in the html editor when the spacing got fucked. So, like, 44 minutes?