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Text Commentary

Social and Cultural Context in the Honeymooners
by Elizabeth Whiteman `

Although some may argue that mid to late-1950s television networks produced shows with little variation in plot or challenge of ideals, many shows exemplify American culture at this time and how it began to change. In the episode “Better Living Through TV” from "The Honeymooners", which aired on CBS in 1955, social and historical context is evident through the interactions between the characters and the overall theme of the episode. This episode explores the beginnings of the shift of women from their roles inside the home, in addition to the common desire to pursue the “American dream”. Television shows in the 1950s began to question traditional gender roles, stemming from the vital roles women played in WWII. However, shows, including "The Honeymooners", did not explicitly advocate for social change. Instead, the conflict was resolved by a happy ending or commercial break. Horace Newcomb in “The Opening of America” discusses how these small challenges to the status quo paved the way for the social change that occurred in the 1960s. He argues, “social alternatives, personal and systematic, were always available in television, whether or not they contributed in a direct manner to social action. In the details and particulars of television programming we find a process of social ferment… asking over and over, Why should things be the way they are? The answer- Because that is how we hold it all together- necessarily involved the repeated questioning of gender roles, family structure..” (119). This questioning of gender roles is evident in this clip through Ralph’s initial male bravado being diminished by his wife’s remarks. Ed and Ralph’s fear of asking their wives for the funds to invest in a new business venture display the power that women were gaining in the home. The overt sentiment that men controlled their wives is still evident, however, through Ralph’s comments about being the “king of the castle” and referring to his wife as “a mere peasant girl” who does his servant work. Ed, however, argues that Alice controls Ralph and predicts he will not stand up to her. Once she enters the room, Ralph is afraid to ask her for the money, receiving ridicule from Ed. Alice pokes fun at Ralph calling him “Richard the Chicken-hearted” instead of his previous self-claim of being “Richard the Lionhearted”. Ralph’s fear of Alice’s reaction conveys a challenge of traditional social ideas of gender roles and control in a marriage. However, this power shift is not long-lived. Ralph’s control of Alice is evident throughout different episodes of "The Honeymooners", insuring that gender roles are not openly violated. The small hints at challenging social norms are evident in this clip and throughout 1950s television. The greater theme of investing in a business endeavor by using television also speaks to the social and historical context of the time. Ralph’s “get rich quick” ideals seen in this episode and throughout the run of the show relates to the cultural context of the “American dream”. The 1950s experienced a time of economic boom following WWII, and most Americans sought to be a part of this new wealth. Ralph’s desire to make a better life for him and his wife highlights many other Americans’ aspirations to make it big and provide for their families. However, Ralph and Ed’s other failed attempts to create successful business or investments portray that some Americans had a more difficult time being successful in the “economic boom”. Ed and Ralph’s desire to advertise on television highlights another important aspect of American culture during this time. Throughout the 1950s, the popularity of television skyrocketed and became integral to American culture and society. It became a medium for all of America to communicate and created a common ground for people all over the country. In the episode, Ralph describes to Ed how quickly they would sell their new product by going on a television show and advertising it themselves, without needing the help of an announcer. He describes how their product would appeal to the housewives of America, nodding to the fact that housewives were often most likely to be the viewers of television. This episode’s emphasis on the “get rich quick” philosophy and the importance of television in society demonstrates cultural and social norms of the 1950s. Television in the 1950s is often believed to have simple plot lines with little social commentary or conflict. However, this episode, and many other television shows, entered subtle social challenges. This episode in particular challenged traditional gender roles in the home and portrayed the wife as having control over some aspects of their marriage. This episode is also successful in portraying the American dream of partaking in the economic boom and the frustrations of failing to be prosperous. The importance of television in 1950s society is evident during this episode through the portrayal of the popularity of television advertisements. “Better Living through TV” effectively conveys trends in 1950s television and provides a social and cultural context for everyday life in America. Works Cited Newcomb, Horace. "The Opening of America." In The Other Fifties, 103-23. University of Illinois Press, 1997.

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
"Better Living Through TV," The Honeymooners by CBS; Director: Frank Satenstein; Writers: Marvin Marx, Walter Stone (1955) This clip contains the first third of an episode of The Honeymooners entitled "Better Living Through TV," the fifth episode of Season 5, which first aired on November 12, 1955, on CBS.