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The Fifties
The father is gay, the mother wants a real job, the boy on the left listens to rock & roll, the boy on the right smokes weed, the little girl is dating a black man, the baby is a communist, and the unseen fifth child was institutionalized for having a birth defect. But for God's sake don't say anything!

"The world was beige and the music was crap... then 'Heartbreak Hotel' came along and saved us all."

"The fifties. Y'know, back when everything was like a sitcom from the seventies."
Phineas Flynn, Phineas and Ferb

The Fabulous Fifties: An era of identical pink pressboard suburban houses filled with smiling, apron-clad housewives. All the men wear slippers and fedoras and smoke pipes, all the girls are teenaged and wear poodle skirts, and all the boys are cute, freckle faced scamps with slingshots in their pockets. Parents sleep in separate beds and only kiss each other on the cheek.

Anyone who isn't any of these characters are either greasers, Beatniks, gas-station attendants, or Elvis (who, in this era, wouldn't be caught dead in a rhinestone jumpsuit). With the possible exception of the gas station attendants, everyone on that list is a direct threat to the upright morals and values of the era and will not be afforded a spot in the basement bomb shelter when the Reds drop The Big One. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement stride across America, slowed down only by the occasional Corrupt Hick. The birth of rock 'n' roll took place in this era, to the horror of Moral Guardians, which also showed a resurgence in popularity.

At least that's the popular view of the real Fifties. In media, there are three versions of The Fifties. The first is the Fifties Fifties, i.e. how the time was portrayed in many works that were actually made then. In this version, The Fifties were a suburban paradise where everyone was always happy, either forgetting the bad events that happened during the last decade or reminiscing the prosperous times of previous decades, and there were no problems except for all those juvenile delinquents running around. Unless the local college had some commies spreading un-American values or the flying saucers are landing. The fifties uptightness was linked to real world anxieties and atom-bomb jitters, after all. Don't expect the civil rights movement to show up. Hell, seeing actual black people is a bit of a crapshoot. The Fifties Fifties are in contemporary times a popular subject of The Parody.

The next version is the Nostalgic Fifties of The Seventies and The Eighties. By that time, there were a huge number of adults nostalgic for the "simple times" of their youth and Hollywood obliged. The biggest difference between this version and the Fifties Fifties is that the rebellious teenagers are now the heroes. We learn that all the teenagers back then liked to hang out at the local Malt Shop, where a jukebox played Nothing But Hits. The girls were only Seemingly Wholesome and both sexes were experiencing their own Coming Of Age Stories while necking down at the Drive-In Theater and watching Robot Monster.

Finally, there are the Historical Fifties of The Nineties and the Present Day. The Nostalgic Fifties are now starting to die out, replaced by other decades as there are becoming fewer and fewer writers in Hollywood who remember the Fifties... and many of these writers are the children of those former "rebellious teens", and take a somewhat more jaundiced view of their parents' upbringing. Therefore, the time period, as portrayed by Hollywood, is becoming more the textbook version. Films about The Fifties today tend more to deal with the political issues of that era (civil rights, McCarthyism, etc.) and less with its teen culture. Which is not to say it is necessarily any more accurate of course, merely that the decade is now filtered more through a political/ideological lens than a nostalgic one and teenagers aren't the only people that matter.

For a glimpse of what (some) Americans actually living in the Fifties thought of their world, read the Time Travel stories of Jack Finney. His heroes are generally lonely, frustrated, unhappy bachelors eager to escape from their conformist gray-flannel-suited world, usually into The Gay Nineties.

Note that Film Noir was a major genre during the Fifties (though more so in the late 40s/early 50s) that doesn't easily fit in with any of the mainstream versions of the decade listed above. This includes modern noir set during the Fifties like L.A. Confidential or The Black Dahlia.

One of the longest cultural "decades"- in many ways its tropes cover the period from V-J Day to the Kennedy assassination, 1945-63, with a shift in trappings in about 1955-57 as TV ownership reached a tipping point, tailfin cars got REALLY wild, women's skirts got shorter in reaction against the neo-Victorian "New Look" that had started in the late '40s, Rock & Roll started getting serious radio play and the first wave of Baby Boomers reached Junior High.

Interestingly, the decade has triggered highly contradictory reactions among people who do not remember it well since the 1970s. Fifties cars are still admired aesthetically (in some areas, you can still find them on the street), Fifties clothes are enormously popular for costume parties, and Fifties music (at least, the sort that doesn't sound like holdovers from the Forties) will probably never be thought unfashionable. In addition, many seem to view the decade, with much sadness, as a forever-vanished idyllic time that was infinitely more conservative and family-friendly (although this is not what people actually living through the decade necessarily thought). At the same time, the 1950s is often treated as a sort of historical Butt Monkey - an all-purpose dartboard on which anyone who is irritated by social repression - especially if it concerns sex - can feel free to take out their frustrations. (Whenever you hear of someone described as having "Fifties values," it usually isn't a compliment.)

But those who wish to Flanderize an entire decade should know that the 1950s were actually marked by great strides forward in social progress, sexual and otherwise, even if they still existed mostly on the theoretical level. (The Republican party's platform for 1956 included a plank calling for an end to sex discrimination. Yes, you read that right: the Republican party.) And in any case, they were a lot less repressed than the eras that preceded them. The decade was also a period of relative stability and unprecedented optimism, both probably enhanced by comparison since the period was bracketed by the horrors of World War II and the upcoming turbulence of The Sixties. This was particularly prevalent in the US, which had not only triumphed in the war but, more importantly, was just about the only major nation to come out of the conflict with its infrastructure intact. With no rebuilding to do, the focus was on innovation; there was a strong belief in the prospect of limitless progress through science and industry, which led to a lot of gee-whiz science fiction that's now covered with Zeerust. It's no coincidence that the ultimate embodiment of optimism, Disneyland, opened in 1955, with its cornerstone of Tomorrowland, promising a "great big beautiful tomorrow." Compare Aluminum Christmas Trees.

Roughly speaking, the political decade of fifties began with the start of The Korean War in 1950 and ended with the escalation of the Vietnam War in the early 60's. Culturally speaking, it started with the start of I Love Lucy in 1951 and ended with the release of Psycho in 1960, or arguably with the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

For more information, see our handy swell Useful Notes page.

See Also: The Roaring Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, Turn of the Millennium and The New Tens.

Fifties slang. If you want to talk like it's the Fifties, be sure to use these words:

  • "Swell" - Say this a lot, especially if you're a teenage girl and you're talking about something you like (usually a boy). Be sure to say it in an extra cutesy and/or sweet way. The more affected it sounds, the better. ("Oh, that's just swell!")
  • If you get tired of "swell" try "keen" or "neat" instead, but don't say "neat-o" or "cool" unless you're a beatnik.
  • "Gee whiz" - Be sure to say this every two seconds if you're a boy under twelve. It can be used in any situation since it doesn't really mean anything.
    • "Golly" can essentially serve the same purpose.
    • Actually "gee whiz" is a Gosh Dang It to Heck! version of Jesus and Golly for "god".
  • "Square" - Someone dull, out of it or otherwise not "in". Usually used to refer to a nerd, since the Fifties were before Nerds Became Sexy and long before nerds were hardcore.
  • "Dreamboat" - If you're a girl, use this word to refer to your crush.
  • "Baby" - If you're a guy, this is what you call your girlfriend. Be sure to add the word "hey" before it whenever you address her, or start with "hello", but the second syllable should be of much lower tone. If you're The Big Bopper you can elongate both words. This is a great way to cover up if you can't remember her name (after all, all girls back then seemed to have names like Peggy Sue or Mary Lou, so it's easy to get them mixed up). If that doesn't work, call her the name of a candy, confection or anything else that tastes sweet. Fifties girls like to think that they remind you of what causes cavities.
  • "Dolls/Dames" - Girls/women collectively. If you happen to be a private detective, use it whenever you can justify it.
  • "Get with it, kid" - What you say to a square.
  • If you're a dad, call your teenaged daughter "Kitten" and your preteen son "Sport".

Popular tropes from this time period are:

    open/close all folders 

    Examples of the "Fifties" Fifties 
Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • Tintin. Series started in 1929.
  • Spirou and Fantasio. Series began in 1938.
  • Tom Poes. Series began in 1941.
  • Suske en Wiske. Series began in 1945.
  • Nero . Series began in 1947.
  • Lucky Luke. Series began in 1947.
  • Piet Pienter en Bert Bibber. First appeared in 1950.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe
    • The Junior Woodchucks. First appeared in February, 1951.
    • The Beagle Boys. First appeared in November, 1952.
    • Gyro Gearloose. First appeared in May, 1952.
    • April, May and June. First appeared in February, 1953.
    • Glittering Goldie O'Gilt. First appeared in March, 1953.
    • Flintheart Glomgold. First appeared in September, 1956.
    • Little Helper. First appeared in September, 1956.
    • Argus McSwine. First appeared in July, 1957.
    • Grandpa Beagle/Blackheart Beagle. Composite Character based on two different depictions of the Beagle Boys' founder.
      • Blackheart Beagle. First appeared in August, 1957.
      • Grandpa Beagle. First appeared in March, 1958.
    • General Snozzie. First appeared in June, 1958.
  • Dennis the Menace (UK). First appeared in March, 1951.
  • Archie Comics
    • Midge Klump. First appeared in April, 1951.
    • Miss Bernice Beazley. Appeared c. 1957.
    • Mr. Svenson. First appeared in July, 1958.
  • MAD originally started as a comic book, with it's first issue debuting in August, 1952. It later converted to a magazine format by issue twenty-four in order to appease Harvey Kurtzman and keep him on as editor.
  • The Phantom Stranger. First appeared in August-September, 1952.
  • Richie Rich. First appeared in September, 1953.
  • Red Skull/Albert Malik is established as a Communist agent. First appeared (in this role) in December, 1953.
  • Mickey Mouse Comic Universe
    • Gilbert. First appeared in May, 1954.
    • Scuttle/Weasel. First appeared in February, 1957.
  • Krypto the Superdog. First appeared in March, 1955.
  • Jommeke. First appeared in October 30, 1955.
  • Martian Manhunter. First appeared in November, 1955.
  • The Topper. Comic launched in February, 1953.
  • The Beezer. Comic launched in January, 1956.
  • Batwoman/Kathy Kane. First appeared in July, 1956.
  • The Flash
    • Flash/Bartholomew "Barry" Allen. First appeared in October, 1956.
    • Kid Flash/Wallace "Wally" West. First appeared in December, 1959.
  • Gaston Lagaffe. First appeared in 1957.
  • Brainiac. First appeared in July, 1958.
  • Adam Strange. First appeared in November, 1958.
  • Supergirl/Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee Danvers. First appeared in May, 1959.
  • Suicide Squad. Debuted in August-September, 1959. Later stories established that the Squad was founded during World War II.
  • Green Lantern/Hal Jordan. First appeared in October, 1959.
  • Lana Lang. First appeared September/October 1950.

Film

Literature

Live-Action TV

Music

Music Genres That Started in the Fifties

Newspaper Comics

Radio

Theatre

Professional Wrestling

Video Games

Western Animation

    Examples of the Nostalgic Fifties 
Film
  • American Graffiti, though technically set in 1962.
  • The version of 1955 seen in the Back to the Future films has elements of both the Nostalgic Fifties and the Historical Fifties, but seems to generally lean more in the direction of the Nostalgic Fifties.
  • The John Waters movie Cry-Baby is more like an Affectionate Parody of the fifties and juvenile delinquent movies, but it still counts.
  • Grease
  • Peggy Sue Got Married (technically 1960, but it might as well still be the '50s)
  • The Last Picture Show is bit more complicated than some on this list, in that it is both a rather bittersweet version of the period and one set unusually early (in 1951) which means it predates a lot of the standard decade tropes like rock 'n' roll or B-Movies. It's also set in a Dying Town in rural Texas, placing it at some remove from the middle-class "mainstream" of the era. (The teen characters listen to country and western songs and watch cowboy flicks!)
  • The Porky's movies were a particularly sex-crazed version, or maybe just riding the coattails of a Seventies trend.
  • Diner
  • Though the decade is never properly defined, Fido is set in a kind of alternate-history Fifties where a Zombie Apocalypse nearly wiped out humanity approximately twenty years before, and survivors live in fortress-like Stepford Suburbias surrounded by zombiefied wasteland.
  • Matinee (1993), though technically set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, attempts to pinpoint on film the moment when a town full of adorable scamps and movie lovers left The Fifties and entered The Sixties.
    • It's a very Troperrific rendition, complete with the protagonist's bratty younger brother who is obsessed with The Lone Ranger and carries around die-cast pistols everywhere, "the Love Interest in poodle skirt" who his best friend is afraid to ask out to the dance, and the love interest's "abusive greaser ex-boyfriend".
  • Stand by Me (set in 1959 and featuring an all-star soundtrack) attempts to do the same thing (mark the transition from The Fifties to the Sixties, from Innocence to Experience) on a smaller scale, reflecting the coming of age of four Maine Oregon youths (and the youths of director Rob Reiner and author Stephen King).
  • School Ties is set in the fifties, as evidenced by the 'uncivilized' rock music the kids listen to (that to a modern ear sound extremely boring, but to their contemporary audiences were quite wild). Also there's the rampant antisemitism for that special period touch.
  • Fade to White, an Alternate History short story by Catherynne M. Valente is set in a post-World War III United States where the government maintains a facade of The Fabulous Fifties as deliberate policy so people can avoid thinking about how it's a Crapsack World in reality.
  • A Running Gag in the 2002 Australian comedy Crackerjack about the elderly members of a lawn bowls club.
    "How about we have a fancy dress party, and we all come dressed like our favourite decade?"
    "We tried that before, and everyone dressed like the Fifties."

Live-Action TV

Music
  • "American Pie", the song written by Don McLean in 1971, is in part a nostalgic look back at the more innocent Rock & Roll music and culture of his youth in the 1950s... and, of course, memorializing Buddy Holly's plane crash in "The Day The Music Died."

Pinball

Theatre

    Examples of the Historical Fifties 

Comics

Film

Literature
  • The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, one of the most popular and influential books in the 1950s, Trope Codified (and attacked!) the whole concept of 50's conformism.

Live-Action TV
  • M*A*S*H. The show either takes places in the Historical Fifties or else in a Present Day Past.
  • Padre Coraje. Set in the Argentine Fifties.
  • The Hour. Set in 1957-58 Britain, the Suez Crisis is the backdrop for season one, and the Cold War/Space Race is the backdrop for season two. The fashion runs the gamut from Marnie's stereotypical skirts and pearls and Hector's grey flannel suit to Lix's Katherine Hepburn suits and Freddie's beatnik look.
  • The Doctor Blake Mysteries is set in 1959 Australia.

Theatre

Video Games
  • Mafia II plays in the 50s. It does however also show the dark sides of the 50s beyond Suburbia, like racial segregation, corruption, black market, slums, and mafia. But hey, at least you can encounter every 1950s stereotype known to man:
    • the charming housewife returning from her local Piggly Wiggly (after visiting the opium house),
    • the friendly next-door neighbour with the tie and the suitcase who scratched your car the other day,
    • the friendly gas station attendant after robbing him and blowing up his petrol pump,
    • the greasy radio host who ends every sentence with "folks" and promotes cigarette smoking,
    • the no-nonesense, deep-voiced radio host who will piss off commies and promotes family values,
    • the old grumpy hag who runs the local diner and still has problems with fitting her hair net,
    • the shoeshine guy who shines shoes,
    • the newspaper guy who begins and ends every sentence with "Extra!",
    • the good-hearted Irish police officer who will most likely shoot you on sight,
    • those greasers who always hinder your black trade because you're in their territory, and
    • the bomberjacket-clad afro-americans who do the same thing, only on the other side of Hudson Bay Empire Bay.

    Examples which don't easily fit into any of the above 

Anime and Manga

Comics
  • The Silver Age of Comic Books began in this period, following the red-baiting and obscenity hysteria fueled by the publication of Dr. Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, which helped end the E.C. Horror Comics catalog that had supplanted superhero comics through most of the 1950s with grotesque and Weird Tales from the Crypt. The only E.C. comic to survive was...
  • MAD Magazine, which defied the image of '50s conformity by satiring and skewering pop culture with a countercultural Manhattanite wit.
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is set in a ... somewhat skewed version of 1950s Britain. (It doesn't help that 1984 has just happened.)

Comedy
  • Lenny Bruce, the infamous comedian who broke free of "obscene language" taboos in the 1950s, got his start doing stand-up comedy in strip clubs in the heart of Los Angeles' middle-class suburban mecca of San Fernando Valley in the early 1950s.
  • Bob & Ray, who themselves fit into the Historical Fifties as a result of spoofing the media conventions inherent in the Fifties Fifties.

Film

Literature
  • Bill Bryson's The Life And Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, an autobiographical and historical account of 1950s and early 1960s America, when he was a child.
  • Lolita was not only written in the 1950s, it was set in Nabokov's idea of a typical American community and helped inspire the later concept of "dark pathology hidden behind a facade of '50s conformity".
  • Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick is a deconstructive Mind Screwdriver of an apparently realistic novel, written in 1959 and apparently set in 1959, but as the book goes on, the characters find apparent anomalies, such as ancient and water-damaged magazines with the previous year's date and featuring a photograph of a supposedly famous actress called "Marilyn Monroe" who they've never heard of, etc. Gradually it becomes clear that the year is 1998, and a war is going on between Earth and its plucky underdog colonists on Mars. The hero is actually a senior military stategist who's suffered a psychotic breakdown; the military machine wants him to continue his war work, so they've preserved his stability by building a "Fifties" Fifties small town just like the town he grew up in, complete with friends and neighbours (some of whom have been given Fake Memories), where he and nearly everyone around him thinks that he's just playing and winning a newspaper competition, but in fact he's predicting Martian attacks.

Live-Action TV
  • The Honeymooners was made in the fifties, but it's far from "suburban paradise": it features a married couple, who live in a crappy, cold-water walk-up apartment, can't afford a TV or a vacuum cleaner, and fight all the time. This was, of course, typical for many Americans at the time.
  • Dragnet was a Police Procedural that ran from the late Forties through the Sixties. While there is Fifties conformity scattered throughout the series, the show is not completely clean, showing the ugly side of society as they solve each week's crime. Was somewhat made in response to the negative view of the police force during the time period.

Theatre

Video Games
  • Destroy All Humans!
  • Stubbs the Zombie A parody of the 50's mindset with large doses of cold-war hysteria and obsession with The Future.... as envisioned by someone from that era.
  • The Fallout series not only is a throwback to 1950's sci-fi, it also have many parodies of that time period — such as a virtual reality 50's simulator with kids and adults repeating those same phrases at the beginning of the page.
  • One of the simulations used in Saints Row IV is Steelport set in this time. Bright, sunshiny, whimsical track. Driving is done safely, at the speed limit. And no swearing or violence. The game's base genre is crime Wide Open Sandbox. No points for guessing what the Boss does when he/she is snapped out of it.

Western Animation
  • The Iron Giant is mainly a deconstruction of Fifties alien invasion movies, but it also has large dollops of nostalgia (the director was born in 1957, the year the movie was set) and delves into some of the issues of the day, particularly Cold War paranoia, as personified by Kent Mansley.
  • Moral Orel has no set time period, but its characters are blatant 50's stereotypes, a lot of 50's architecture and technology is present, and there's an omnipresent theme of hiding away your sins and mistakes.

    Works made, but not set, during the fifties 
Anime and Manga

Comics

Film

Literature

Live-Action TV

Theater

Western Animation

World War IIThe 20 th CenturyThe Sixties
Arab-Israeli ConflictHollywood HistoryThe Korean War
Dunce CapImageSource/PhotographyThe Forties
The FashionistaThe SeventiesThe Nineties

alternative title(s): The Fabulous Fifties
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