Academic journal article Thymos

Wally Cleaver Goes to War: The Boy Citizen-Soldier on the Cold War Screen

Academic journal article Thymos

Wally Cleaver Goes to War: The Boy Citizen-Soldier on the Cold War Screen

Article excerpt

This paper examines the ways in which instructional films, television shows, and television commercials both depicted and sought to construct the experience of American boyhood in the decades immediately following World War II. During the Cold War, many American adults feared that boys lacked the "masculine'' qualities required by future defenders of the United States. Believing that boys needed additional instruction in appropriate gender behavior, educators turned to a new film genre: the classroom instructional film. Films in this genre emphasized the importance of patriotism, respect for order and authority, and the need for emotional and physical discipline in American males. Television shows and toy commercials also encouraged boys to envision themselves as future soldiers and defenders of freedom.

Keywords: COLD WAR, GENDER ROLES, INSTRUCTIONAL FILMS, MILITARY, TOY COMMERCIALS

Upset that 5-year-old Paul would rather play on the kitchen floor with his pet turtle than eat breakfast at the table with his parents, Paul's father Jim angrily informs Helen, his wife and Paul's mother, that it is time that Paul learns a "sense of responsibility." By the end of the movie in which this scene appears, Fears of Children (1951), viewers have learned the reasons for Paul's fears and his defiant behavior: he needs to assert himself because his mother treats him like a "baby" by, for example, not letting him climb on rocks or play with children's scissors. His closeness to his mother has also led to his resentment of his father. Mothers, the film teaches, should not make their sons afraid to engage in harmless pursuits. Likewise, fathers should allow their sons to yell at them occasionally and to destroy their toys when they feel frustrated. Risk-taking and aggressive behavior are all part of being a boy. According to the film, attempts by parents to thwart such behavior harm a boy's development and risk turning him into both a "sissy" who remains abnormally attached to his mother and a sociopath who fantasizes about killing his father (as Paul does when he deliberately "drowns" the teddy bear that his father gave him).

People today might find such a message familiar, especially if they, like Paul, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the height of the Cold War. During this period in American history, parents feared that, unless properly trained and actively encouraged to engage in appropriate gender behavior, children would be unable to adopt the "correct" gender role for their sex upon becoming adults. This fear was especially pronounced among the parents of boys. While girls who behaved like boys were often a source of humor in popular culture, boys who early in life did not display such manly traits as self-control, patriotism, assertiveness, and a disdain for all things feminine were often a source of anxiety.

Perhaps unwittingly, Paul's parents, like other parents of the 1950s and 1960s (and as many gender theorists now argue), believed that "masculinity" was not synonymous with "maleness," and that being born with an X and a Y chromosome did not make a male a man. Parents of the Cold War understood that masculinity was a social construct that was "constantly created and challenged" and that "discourse constructs the ideology of masculinity" (Reeser, 2010, pp. 18, 23). While nineteenth-century parents had not found it odd when male children played with dolls, American parents of the Cold War era found the same behavior to be deeply unsettling because the nature of the discourse had changed (Formanek-Brunell, 1992, pp. 120-121). Where nineteenth-century medical and pedagogical texts had stressed the innateness of "male" and "female" behavior (and had assumed that male behavior would naturally manifest itself only in those children with male bodies and only children with female bodies would develop female behaviors), medical, psychological, and childrearing texts of the mid- to late twentieth century regarded masculinity and femininity not as inborn traits but as behavioral habits that must be "imposed" on children (Reeser, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.