Just when you think trends, and the television shows about them, couldn't get any more vapid, here we have Wives with Beehives, a program about women who want to party like it's always 1959.
One place this breezy portrait of such women doesn't lead is to the sight of hair done in a beehive. There are other stand-out hairdos, to be sure, some clearly the product of fevered fantasies about the '50s, but nothing approaching the style the title mentions. That should have been the first sign that this TLC production about a group of Los Angeles housewives who pride themselves on adherence to the manners, morals and dress of the 1950s might be a bit short in the authenticity department. There would be others in regular succession.
...That clothing plays a central role in the concerns of the four women introduced here, whose reasons for their choice of lifestyle are all roughly similar. Dollie, who had a difficult childhood, wants order, and also a world like the one she connects with the '50s, when men were men and women were women. Unlike today—when, she charges, men have surrendered their masculinity. As she speaks a scene unfolds in her living room by way of illustration, showing her husband striding purposefully to a table lamp to change the bulb—presumably an example of male assertiveness. How many manly husbands does it take to screw in a light bulb?...
Amber, who also wants a stable and peaceful life, wants no children and may, it's suggested, be trying to overcome memories of her strict religious upbringing. Fifties fashion of all kinds is central to her life, if this report is to be believed. She prides herself on her cocktail parties featuring appropriate taste treats of the era: deviled eggs and cheese puffs. The dressing room that holds her huge vintage wardrobe is the largest room in the house—a fact that would likely have been incomprehensible to an American homemaker of the '50s.
Shelby, married to a U.S. Navy man, is proud to feed her husband what she considers 1950s meals when he's home on leave. Potato-chip casserole, freezer-box pie and blue Jello, etc. She believes, as does the elegant Leslie, that the values of the '50s will keep her family intact.As it happens, I know some women who were housewives in the Fifties -- my grandmothers and Darwin's. Strangely enough, what they've told me of their lives has very little to do with girdles and bullet bras, and more do to with raising children and trying to manage a household. By 1959, the total fertility rate in the United States was 3.7 children per women. At the end of the decade, my paternal grandmother had four; my maternal grandmother had 11. Of course these were times before easy, reliable birth control (that part of the morals of the 50s seems to be lost), but my grandmothers -- and Darwin's grandmothers too -- were all faithful Catholics, a demographic that transcends passing fashion and architectural trends.
Darwin and I lived for eight months in his grandmother's home, built in 1952. It had the formica table and the tile countertops and the vintage stove and ancient carpet. It also had a microwave, from a later period -- an innovation that Grandma H loved, because contrary to TLC's stereotype of the 50s housewife, she didn't love to cook. She also spent a great deal of time caring for a disabled child in an era in which many criticized her for not institutionalizing the little girl.
His other grandmother, Grandma R, was a Navy wife and moved seven children around the country. When her children put together a cookbook for Grandma and Grandpa's 50th anniversary, what they remembered were not her potato-chip casseroles and freezer-box pie but her meatball soup, her beans, her mole, her fideo, her tamales, her salsa, her pork and green chiles.
My Grandma D didn't spend her days crafting jello molds or bundt cakes for her husband; she had eleven children to raise, and, living in Baton Rouge, the family had a black cook who made great regional dishes like red beans and rice. She stayed petite and slim and elegant into her eighties, and though she is lovely in the old family photos, it has less to do with the styles of the time than with her own ladylike grace.
Grandma E was a thrifty Irish homemaker who raised her family near first Boston and then Philadelphia, who battled a hereditary blood disease before the advent of modern medicines that could keep it under control. She had no extra room in her house for a "huge vintage wardrobe", and she never threw cocktail parties. She still brooks no nonsense, and would find the idea of living a fantasy life based on the accoutrements of a certain decade ridiculous.
And this doesn't take into account the lives of other women in the period -- single working girls, WWII widows, women who crammed large families into small apartments, women who didn't have husbands who would keep them safely insulated from the cares of the world. Women who couldn't afford the latest styles, and didn't have the time or servants to wash and drip dry huge wardrobes. Women who knew that magazines such as Vogue and Good Housekeeping and Mademoiselle and TV shows such as I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet crafted just as whitewashed and unrealistic an image of contemporary life as Martha Stewart Living and The Real Housewives of Orange County do now.
Do you want to know who lives the life of a stereotypical 1950s housewife? I do. I raise lots of children, keep a welcoming (if not always neat) home for my husband, go to church every Sunday, and have the occasional cocktail. I also, like my grandmothers before me, wear what's current because that's what I can find without going out of my way. Like my grandmothers before me, I'd give my eyeteeth for a some better household technology (although for me, "having eyeteeth pulled" is just an expression -- it was far more literal for them and their children). Like my grandmothers before me, I don't have time to carefully build up a pretty fantasy life in order to have a stable family -- I'm too busy actually living and caring for the real thing.
Anyone who's interested in a reality show depicting a family life that would have been more familiar to women of the 1950s should check out Jennifer Fulwiler's new show, Minor Revisions.