American Sub-Cultures in the 1950s

Jill W. Bishop; U of M ID # 1758728; AmSt1003/American Cultures
Submission 2, Part 1 = Journal on Lesson 3.



In the 1950's the normative American family consisted of a breadwinner father, homemaker mother, and several happy, submissive, obedient "good" children, all living in homes in the suburbs on the outskirts of a larger city. It was a narrow view of a model family, yet it pervaded the media and was widely accepted as normal. Variations on this lifestyle were less accepted, less desirable, less tolerated. Several sub-cultures arose during this time that challenged this narrow definition of normal, including the teens, the Beats, and the gays and lesbians.


The teen culture that developed in the 50's was a deviation from the normative model that considered teens as the older children in the happy nuclear family. It threatened adults because it fragmented the family, separating it into teens and adults. In response to the constraints of the suburban family model, teens spent large amounts of time with other teens rather than with their families and developed their values, language, fashions, and music distinct from their parents'. Parental authority was also being challenged as teens claimed independence and autonomy made financially possible by their jobs. They became consumers in their own right, buying their own cars, clothes, and records.

The normative model of sex contained to marriage was only partially challenged by teens. Sensuality was more open and blatant, yet as a young teenager in the 1950's, I was unaware of anyone having sex outside of marriage, (no doubt is was happening, but it was apparently too heinous to talk about), and I never knew of a child born out of wedlock being raised by a single mother until I was in my 20's (in the early 1970's). Overt sensuality was reflected in early dating practices that led to early marriage and entry into the family mode, but going "all the way" was still taboo with "good" teens.

Adults were also threatened by teen culture because they linked it to juvenile delinquency, an element of lower class, criminal teenagers, illustrated and glorified by Hollywood. Juvenile delinquents epitomized the teen rebellion against adult authority and society. While most teens were part of the separate teen culture with their own music, fashion, etc, the juvenile delinquents, with their "...stereotypes such as drag racing, drugs, sex, teenage jive language, [and] rebellion against authority..."1 were the evil side of the teen culture. Adults feared that their own teens would fall into the bad practices of the juvenile delinquents.

Teen culture became the dominant focus of popular culture. The youth worship seen today in adults clinging to youthful looking faces and bodies, getting face lifts and obsessing over physical fitness, began with the rise of teen culture in the 50's. The media, particularly the movie industry, were held responsible for encouraging and escalating the teen culture, particularly the delinquent behavior. People were " ...appalled by the level and frequency of adolescent violence."2 In the film industry the "...moral position condemning drugs and misbehavior was merely a pretext to celebrate these and other facets of teenage culture."3 While the Film Code insisted upon "...continued stress on family values,"4 claiming to "...uphold the dignity of ... institutions of authority."5 it still allowed films depicting "...the division of American society into conflicting cultures made up of adolescents on one side and adults on the other," and "the successful defiance of delinquents, who reject authority..."6

Teens as a separate sub-culture, a deviation from the ideal nuclear family model, were considered to be a threat to a cohesive society and a contributor to the destruction of American society.


The Beats were a sub-culture of American males who rebelled against their role as breadwinner/husband in the dominant model of the family. They "rejected both job and family..."7 To avoid being a homeowner and consumer in the suburbs, the Beat "criss-crossed the continent [and] ...hopped freight trains."8 The Beats view of and scorn for the dominant model of intimacy and family relationships was described by Life magazine's O'Neil: "an "industrious square" is...a tragic sap who spends all the juices and energies of life in stultifying submission to the "rat race" and does so, furthermore, with no more reward than sexual enslavement by a matriarchy of stern and grasping wives and the certainty of atomic death for his children."9 This description illustrates the Beat rebellion against the male model of one who gives his life (spends all his juices and energies) for job (the rat race) and marriage (enslavement). The gullible square who chooses such a life is being duped, because the sexual reward is not worth the sacrifices.

Sex was available for the Beats without subscribing to the dominant model lifestyle; a man didn't have to be married and responsible for supporting a family to get sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The significance of this view is that "What the media said that the Beats thought about everyone else was, after all, not too far from what many men already suspected about themselves."10 Men began looking at the narrow interpretation of normal and questioning whether or not being a "square" was indeed the best way to live. The normative model of the male role was being questioned by the Beats, and men were listening. In modern 1990's terms, men wondered if they wanted such commitment at the expense of their personal freedom.


American gays and lesbians, brought together in the military during World War II, stayed together in small communities in large cities after the war. Since the strength and future of the society was seen to rest on the nuclear family, and nuclear families by definition consisted of heterosexual parents producing children, gays and lesbians deviated from this model in two important ways: they weren't heterosexual, and homosexual coupling didn't produce children. Consequently, gays and lesbians threatened the propagation of American society. While individuals with a homosexual orientation existed before, when they stayed "in the closet" and invisible to society, they weren't seen as a threat. When they became a visible sub-culture within American society, then they became a threat. Consequently, they were oppressed, ostracized, and threatened.

While most of America looked forward to the end of the war and a return to "normal," for gays and lesbians that meant a return to hiding in the closet or forcing themselves into the (unnatural (for them)) roles of husband or wife. The military experience had served to strengthen the identity of gays and lesbians because they could "end their isolation in small towns and find other people like themselves."11 But the tolerant social climate during the war came to an end with social pressure to conform to the normative (heterosexual) family. The dominant family model, supported by the government, the media, and powerful decision-makers, was seen as providing the stability and security necessary to direct the nation forward, and gays' and lesbians' deviation from that model was perceived as a threat to the country's security and stability.


All three sub-cultures were a rebellion against the strict, narrow definition of the model family. Teens rebelled against authoritarian parents and their role in the family as obedient children. The Beats and gays both rebelled against the male model of heterosexual family man: the Beats against family and job responsibilities, and gays and lesbians against denial of their sexual orientation. The unifying characteristic of each group had a different basis: the teens were a similar age, the Beats were men, and the gays and lesbians were united by homosexual orientation.

The teens deviated least from the model family. They were enthusiastic consumers, unlike the Beats, and they remained in a family, unlike the Beats and the gays and lesbians. Consequently, by the 1960s "youth culture was not something to bemoan,"12 and the teen sub-culture thrived and became accepted as part of American society. This was not true for the gays and lesbians. They are still fighting for acceptance and encounter significant discrimination in America today.

The Beats were a minuscule percentage of men, known only by reputation to most Americans. The gays and lesbians were also a relatively small percentage of the population, and their visibility at that time was confined to the cities. The teens, on the other hand, were a visible part of every community.

The Beats and teens developed their own music, language, and dress. The juvenile delinquent element of the teen culture, like the Beats, took on lower class standards of behavior, while the gays and lesbians covered all socio-economic levels. The gays and lesbians were less cohesive in those external cultural manifestations of a (sub-)culture.




The teens, Beats, and gays and lesbian sub-cultures all were seen as a threat to the "...fragile security of the postwar American family."13 The government, religious institutions, and other policy-makers were unified in their belief that the strength of the country rested on the family; consequently, the deviation of each of these sub-cultures from the model was perceived as a national security threat. Conformity was the norm in post-war America, but the Beats refused to marry and support families, the gays and lesbians very existence as non-heterosexuals flaunted the nuclear family, and the autonomous teens were not remaining in their rightful place of dutiful children in the family. The 1950s were years of a narrow definition of rightful society with intolerance and distress over deviations from the norm.


1 James Gilbert, "Juvenile Delinquency Films," A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 192.

2 Gilbert, 194

3 Gilbert, 192

4 Gilbert, 190

5 Gilbert, 18

6 Gilbert, 183

7 Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men, (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, and Auckland: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1983) 52.

8 Ehrenreich, 53

9 Ehrenreich, 64

10 Ehrenreich, 64

11 Brub, "Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II," Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, (New York: New American Library) 384.

12 Gilbert, 195

13 Gilbert, 195

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