As Seen on TV

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Karal, Ann Marling. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950’s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1994. 328 pp. $23.95. ISBN – 067404883-0 (pbk).



Karal Ann Marling gives the reader a great look at the often complex and changing American culture of the 1950s. Marling is a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota and has written several books on American culture in the 1950s. She points out in the prologue that “Life in the 1950s imitated art – as seen on TV.” (p6.) However, the real focal point of what she is trying to say is tucked into the last chapter of the book. American culture would be defined by people’s capacity to change and to choose. (p283). Marling also points out that although Americans wanted change, they still longed for conformity and control in their lives. Moving to the suburbs offered that security. The new medium of television would become very important in this change as more Americans began viewing the programs it offered. Marling believes seeing how things looked on television became central to the meaning of the 1950s. To try and achieve this, Marling looks at the 1950s culture through specific individuals, products and events as they were presented on TV.

In seven chapters Marling discusses what she feels are the different visual highlights of the fifties. Among those are Mamie Eisenhower and her color-pink influence on American women, fashion trends, the building of Disneyland, appliances for the new home in the suburbs, styles of popular cars, Elvis Presley’s hair style, the paint-by-number kits and the kitchen debate between Nixon and Khrushchev. Marling analyzes how television helped visually present each of them and how they shaped the post war era. In looking at the products Marling attempts to show how television viewing began to affect everyday culture and also shape Americans’ leisure time.

Marling’s analysis seems to be concerned with color, which is very intriguing since television at the time was black and white. She also points out that television catered to the growing white middle class whose purchasing power grew in the 50s post war period. For those who do not remember the 1950s Marling’s book is a nostalgic and funny treat.


Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

While Marling proposes interesting questions and analysis of the trends of the 1950s she falls short in several areas. There’s nothing to connect the trends, personalities or products she chooses. Why did she choose Mamie Eisenhower instead of Marilyn Monroe or June Alison or other female personalities of the fifties? Why Elvis instead of Mickey Mantle? As mentioned in the summary, Marling chooses to analyze how color played an important part in the 1950s, but television was in black and white. Products were advertised by people who described what the product looked like. Maybe looking at how the products were sold may have been a better way to present the visual impact of the product. Why was the color pink, in Marling’s analysis, the color of the fifties? Was it just the favorite color of Mamie Eisenhower or did it say something about the political climate at the time?

Marling makes the statement that the American culture would be defined by wanting change and the ability to choose. Yet Americans chose the suburbs where there was nothing but conformity. Housing developments were all built the same. People who lived in the suburbs were mostly white and middle class. Marling makes no reference to race or how blacks and Hispanics may have been affected differently by television’s visual culture.

In the visual culture of the 1950s, which developed after the Great Depression and World War II, people wanted new products that were visually appealing. Marling believes that television developed the visual culture when in reality television was just a part of it. Although Marling offers an interesting view of the 1950s, the reader is left with the feeling that there must be more than Mamie Eisenhower pink, Betty Crocker, and big fins on cars.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Marling's work is an unique history of material culture during the 1950s, using visual culture as a lens to understand consumerism in America. In combination with Lizbeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic [1], this work provides an lens into the lives of suburban, middle class Americans. For example, the family car, Marling states, became a symbol of a "public statement about one's private life." (159) She examines visual elements that are definitive of 1950s American culture, with Elvis Presley's hair, Betty Crocker's cook books, to the infamous "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev.

Kelly, above, questions Marling's focus on color, but it is also important to note that although television was one way that Americans viewed things, Marling's work is not exclusively about the television. She explains that it examines "what people looked at in the 1950s, and what [and who] there was to see." (5) The television did change how Americans viewed everyday culture, but it wasn't the only way. It is mostly likely a combination of the private consumerism in the post-war period with the importance of the television.

Interestingly, Marling spends an entire chapter on Marnie Eisenhower's image, which she argues changed how American women dressed. However, there is a lot more that could have been said in regards to gender roles and the shift for post-war women to be decorative housewives. Besides her neglect in women's roles, Marling also clearly provides a white, middle class suburban image of 1950s America through the television, largely ignoring the roles of African Americans; however, I do not believe that this is an oversight, as this type of consumerism she presents is considered a predominately white, middle class suburban culture.

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