Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966

Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966

Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966

Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966


Seen as a land of sunshine and opportunity, the Golden State was a mecca for the post-World War II generation, and dreams of the California good life came to dominate the imagination of many Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Nowhere was this more evident than in the explosion of California youth images in popular culture. Disneyland, television shows such as The Mickey Mouse Club, Gidget and other beach movies, the music of the Beach Boys--all these broadcast nationwide a lifestyle of carefree, wholesome fun supposedly enjoyed by white, middle-class, suburban young people in California.

Tracing the rise of the California teen as a national icon, Kirse May shows how idealized images of a suburban youth culture soothed the nation's postwar nerves while denying racial and urban realities. Unsettling challenges to this mass-mediated picture began to arise in the mid-1960s, however, with the Free Speech Movement's campus revolt in Berkeley and race riots in Watts. In his 1966 campaign for the governorship of California, Ronald Reagan transformed the backlash against the "dangerous" youths who fueled these actions into political triumph. As May notes, Reagan's victory presaged a rising conservatism across the nation.


All good teenagers
go to California when they die

—Brian Wilson, in Jurmain and Rawls, California: A Place

Americans in the postwar era often remember history according to the images of popular culture. Measuring time in decades, they conjure up the 1950s in personal terms and icons: Marlon Brando astride a motorcycle, James Dean, hula hoops, Elvis, rock and roll. When the lens is turned on the 1960s, revolution seems to be in the air: hippies of Haight-Ashbury, war in Vietnam, counterculture trends. Considering the power of radio, television, and film – then and now – to shape attitudes, values and beliefs this is hardly a surprise.

Historians, growing more tuned to popular culture’s power, have grafted such symbols to their narratives. However, the inclusion of these images is problematic, since they are rarely the subject of serious analysis. Yet an investigation of popular culture offers insights that may hasten a new perspective, one that questions myths and creates a fuller understanding of past actors and events. Careful study of these images can challenge the view of the fifties as an age of conformity and stagnation, alter the picture of the revolutionary sixties, and reveal the critical links that bind the apparently different decades.

In recent years there has been growing attention to this avenue of scholarship as an integral piece of the historical picture. The study of popular culture began as part of the late-1960s trend toward social history, a way of writing history beyond the focus on the elite and powerful. The Journal of Popular Culture, founded in 1967, countered misconceptions about the triviality and simplicity of mass culture. This move marked the . . .

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