By Ashley Allen
Sometimes it feels like social change moves so slowly we hardly see it happening. It isn’t until we take time to pause and reflect on bygone eras that we can see the drastic differences. I’ve recently found myself reflecting more than usual because lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m living in a bygone era.
I recently had to quite my job to stay at home with my son. I was raised in the traditional ‘wife is the homemaker’ lifestyle, and I’ve found that while I don’t hate staying home, I would like to work again. Having found myself suddenly living in a more stereotypical gender role, I’ve been pondering the societal differences between the 1950s and now.
Society in the 1950s was dramatically different than it is today. Everything from gender roles and race relations to negative perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community have changed. With the many changes we have seen in society since then, one of the most drastic differences is courtship and the way people date. I’ve given a lot of thought to how my husband and I met and how that compares to the courtship we imagine in the ‘50s.
Even in just the last decade or so, dating has morphed from face-to-face flirting and talking on the phone to dating apps and swiping right. We often see Boomers argue that dating today is too impersonal – in fact, we even see Millennials saying that. Was dating actually easier and more simple in the past? Are we truly worse off now?
I wanted to learn more about dating in the ‘50s, so I spoke to my grandpa, James — part of The Silent Generation (born late-1920s – mid-1940s) — to hear his perspective on dating when he was younger. To compare, I also talked to a woman in her early 20s named Breanna to hear what she thinks of today’s dating culture.
James, now retired, describes life in the 1950s as “purity and fun times.” He recounted
that it was a time when “life seemed simpler.”
“Without the social media of today, a phone in every butt pocket, and the unlimited deluge of information, fake or real, life seemed simpler because of less information,” he said.
Getting into the nitty gritty of dating culture, James had lot to say on gender expectations of the time. He describes a society not much different that what we have seen in movies, where men were protective and cautious around women. It was a time when it was often expected that the man would choose where dinner took place, order for his date, and pay fully.
“Women were expected to be treated like a lady whether she was or not,” he said. “You held the door for her, you protected her and if you drop an F-bomb in front of her, no matter who or what she was, you would be corrected severely by anyone within hearing distance.”
James explained that while a woman obviously had the ability to pursue a man, her reputation would take a serious hit.
“That hurt her chances of landing the man she wants,” he said.
When I asked him about his opinion on the popularity of dating apps, he had a lot to say. He described them as showing a “level of desperation” and being dehumanizing.
“Back then you either spent all your time looking or just waiting for someone to come along,” he said. “Nowadays you can order off the menu. Same risks, just more open.”
Due to the way we know women were perceived and treated in the ‘50s, none of this is surprising. Women were discriminated against as were members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. James explained to me that while he personally had no issues with either of these minority groups, the overall perception was that they did not deserve “life or liberty.” I found this abysmal but unsurprising.
I found James’ description of ‘50s dating fascinating. I’ve seen many Facebook arguments stating that we would be better off going back to this style of courtship, often coupled with images of young lovers sharing a milkshake with double straws in a snazzy restaurant. But as James explained, what happened in the background was less than picture perfect — and reputation was everything.
To get a view from both sides of the story and a more modern perspective, I talked to Breanna, a former coworker of mine. Breanna is a Millennial and also is bisexual.
We discussed these antiquated ideas about women during the 1950s and how drastically different they were compared to today’s. In modern times, it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to ask a man out, and she has no worry about her reputation taking a negative hit for being flirtatious.
“If I see a woman flirt or ask a guy out, or if I’m doing the asking and such, I think it’s no big deal,” Breanna said.
Her sentiments aligned with James’ when it came to modern dating apps and identified them as being “less personal and more fake.” She prefers flirtation face-to-face, which as much as Boomers may argue, still does happen in real life.
“All those [apps] do is give me anxiety about meeting up with someone, and it’s actually human traffickers or a murderer,” said Breanna.
And after that date is set, she not only would prefer to drive herself and order for herself, she believes the inviter should pay the bill, male or female. When it comes to someone ordering for her, she said she’s not a fan.
“Nope, too many allergies,” she said. “And money wise, I like the asker to pay and the other to get the tip. No matter who it is.”
Breanna also has a unique perspective on dating that James does not: she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community. We discussed James’ description of LGBTQ+ discrimination in the ‘50s as being “undeserving of life or liberty.” Breanna knows all too well society’s “limits” on acceptance — even today.
“On a general outlook, I’d say it’s accepted, however location matters as well as the political and religious outlook in said location,” she said. “I guess we aren’t as advanced as we like to think we are.”
Overall, Breanna’s thoughts on dating in the ‘50s are negative, and for modern dating they were rather indifferent.
“Dating in the ‘50s is too one-sided and clean cut,” she said. “I couldn’t do it.”
People tend to wear rose-colored glasses when recalling the past. Don’t get me wrong, great things came out of the 1950s. For example: Gregory Pincus led the team that created the first oral contraceptive. But it’s shortsighted to ignore the negative aspects of society, even if it does seem like a “simpler time.” Great things have also come out of the 2000s. Technology allows us to search anything in mere seconds, and there are many other advances that would’ve been unimaginable during the 1950s, but on the flip side, we face lack of intimacy and over reliance on apps when dating, as both James and Breanna pointed out.
As conservative as the 1950s were, the decade sparked a lot of change. The unrest of the 1950s housewife paved the way to the feminist movement of the 1960s. The civil rights movement was brought directly to the forefront of society as injustices against African Americans were battled in the highest courts. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955, both women and African Americans could rejoice in their victory against the patriarchy. The LGBTQ+ community, then considered more dangerous to the nation than communism, saw the first transgender celebrity, Christine Jorgensen, in 1953. Born a man who fought in the second World War, she fought stigmas and stereotypes and challenged ideas about gender and transsexuality. Suddenly, the All-American image of masculinity became a blonde, American bombshell.
All of these examples were seen as threats to the conservative American society of the ‘50s. And yet such “threats” have sparked movements toward a more open, accepting, and eager society in the 2000s.
Today we have more freedom and equality in the world of dating. Dating in the 1950s certainly had its pitfalls in expectations of women and attitudes about minorities, but many still reminisce about the “purity” James referenced. At the same time, modern women can experience the independence Breanna discussed because women of the past fought for our right to experience it without stigma or ridicule.
It’s really not abut which era is “better,” but instead the progress we’ve made over time.