Televising Masculinities: Blue Collar Masculinity and the 1950s in The Honeymooners

By Brian Faucette

As I pointed out in my previous column on I Love Lucy during the 1950s (part 1, part 2),  one of the biggest challenges to preconceived notions of normative masculine authority was the introduction of the television into the home. In her excellent study Make Room for TV, Lynn Spiegel shows how television producers, manufacturers, and advertisers worked together to assure American men and women that the introduction of the television into the home would not be that great of a disruption to their daily lives. Spiegel points out that after World War II the home was viewed as a respite for the weary man who spent his days working to provide for the family. At the same time, a domestic ideology was sold to women that their role was to cook and clean and provide their men with a space free of worry or strife. In addition to these functions, it was argued that introducing television into the home would bring the family together, creating a more coherent body politic that would act as a firewall against the influences of Communism. However, as Spiegel shows, this introduction was not without controversy. Women worried over where to place the device in their home and the control it might have, and men worried that  TV might deter their wives from maintaining the home and in effect challenge the masculine norms of the decade.

The standard model of 1950s masculinity, as captured by Sloan Wilson in his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, served to represent the shifting nature of American masculinity into the suburbs and corporate America as the norm for the middle class. It was this model that was celebrated for its conformity and willing embrace of the heightened consumer culture. Yet Barbara Ehrenreich illustrates in her book The Hearts of Men that this so-called normative model found resistance from within its own ranks as a result of the constant call for men and society to conform. She argues that “in the fifties conformity became the code word for male discontent,” because the “white collar work world crushed initiative, rewarded conformity rather than creativity, and forced the individual to submit to the collective will of the committee, the team.”  For these men, Ehrenreich argues the only means to find control or freedom was within the home, by ensuring that women were under the thumb of male control.

However, the world of the working class man—or “blue collar masculinity”—was one that television would briefly embrace. Amidst the daily concerns of the working class, Hollywood believed they could produce a model of masculinity that was tied to a more traditional perspective where men controlled their homes and could still find time to engage in more masculine pursuits such as joining all male fraternal societies, enjoying leisure activities with other men, and most importantly bonding with other men.

The Honeymooners titlecard

The blue-collar ethos and model of American masculinity where the man seemed to be in control (but in reality was often the butt of the jokes) is brilliantly displayed in each of the 39 episodes of the short lived CBS series The Honeymooners (1955-56).  Star Jackie Gleason’s performance as lovable and irascible bus driver Ralph Kramden showed audiences each Saturday night a version of American masculinity where the concerns of the working man were at the forefront of the action. David Sterrit provides the clearest reading of the series and its protagonist in his monograph, The Honeymooner: “Ralph is a blue-collar Sisyphus, the fourth floor walk-up is his mountain, and the weight of socioeconomic immobility in the Postwar Era—insistently denied by may eggheads but undeniably real for much of the working class population—is the rock he seems fated to struggle with for the rest of his days. He is the ordinary guy writ large”.

Gleason first created the popular characters for recurring skits that aired on DuMont Network’s Cavalcade of Stars, and then on his CBS variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show.  The standalone series premiered on Oct. 1, 1955. Gleason wanted to show a side of America that was beginning to disappear from television as a result of the popularity of domestic sitcoms like I Love Lucy, which focused on the problems and lives of the expanding middle class. What Gleason failed to recognize was an increasing trend; television executives and advertisers were not interested in series about working class or down scale individuals because these people were not able to actively participate in the new consumer economy geared to sell to middle class consumers via TV.

Still, Gleason sought to show that he understood something more important about the changing social and economic landscape of America. He gave a comical and honest portrayal of the struggles of average Americans in each week’s episode; the minimalist set of the Kramden’s apartment is conspicuously absent of new products like electric refrigerators and stoves. Gleason tried to present an image of America where life did not revolve around consumer products because not every working American could earn enough money to pay for all those things as they struggled daily to make enough to survive.

Honeymooners01

The pilot, “TV or Not TV”, shows the dangers new consumerism presented to the home and to masculine authority. Ralph’s wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) demands that he buy her a television set after learning that their friends and neighbors, the Nortons, are buying a second set when their first one goes out. Ralph tries to bully Alice about her demand but caves to her pressure when he learns that Ed Norton (Art Carney) does not have enough money to buy the set outright. The two men pool their resources to purchase a set. However, as soon as they acquire the television, Ralph’s routine and relationship with his friend is tested because Ralph tricks Norton into keeping the television in Ralph’s apartment.

The series builds its image of a gruff, boisterous, bullying masculinity around the character of Ralph, who works as a bus driver and wears a uniform to work everyday. From the moment Ralph appears in the first episode it’s clear that he is not the “man in the gray flannel suit” celebrated on TV and in ads. He is the model of the blue-collar working men who define themselves by their size, voice, and control in the home. When Ralph gets home from work, he tells his wife, “Hurry up with my eats, I’m going bowling.” Ralph does not show his wife any real affection when he greets her, but Alice pretends to be sweet to her husband. Her friend Trixie (Joyce Randolph) had earlier explained that being sweet and using “the pipe and slippers routine” was how she manipulated Ed into doing whatever she wanted.

Alice tries to flatter her husband by calling him “sweetums” and tending to his every need, including taking off his shoes and putting on his slippers. Ralph does not buy her act and questions her both her sanity and her motives. Alice then tries to nonchalantly slip in her request for a television set when she says “by the way” and Ralph nearly explodes as he jumps out of his chair and starts yelling at her, “I knew there’d have to be a ‘by the way’ someplace.” He then tells her that he is going to go back out the door again and re-enter, exclaiming, “I don’t want to be comfy. I don’t want my slippers… and most of all I don’t want any talk of buying a television set” as he tries to assert his authority over the home and purchasing decisions.

However, unlike Lucy Ricardo and other sitcom wives, Alice Kramden is no pushover. She is capable of standing up to her husband, as is shown when she gets right in his face and loudly asks, “Why can’t we have a television set?… Why do you always have to be so cheap?” Both her questioning of Ralph’s decisions and his spending ways serve to show how she questions his masculinity, which in turn leads to their heated argument.

Ralph tries to explain that he is not cheap, but instead is waiting to spend his money on 3-D television, which Alice laughs at. She then pointedly asks, “Are you waiting for 3-D refrigerators too?” Alice again accuses Ralph of being cheap and tells him about all the nice amenities the Nortons have accumulated, including a television. Ralph tries to stand his ground and explains that, “they got all those things [vacuum cleaner, electric stove, washer, television, etc.]. And they got one more thing that we ain’t got. Do you know what that is? Worries. Do you know why they got worries? ‘Cause every week he’s got to go down and pay for those things, see? That’s headaches when you got to pay out every week. I don’t have any headaches. I got piece of mind… I got money, Alice. I sock mine away in a bank.” Ralph is arguing that for him it is more important to have financial security and liquidity than it is to have a home filled with consumer products.

Alice, Ralph, and Ed on The Honeymooners

Alice demands that they get a TV set because she is tired of being left each night alone in their little run-down apartment. “I want a television set, and I am going to get a television set. I have lived in this place for 14 years without a stick of furniture being changed. I am sick and tired of it. You are out all day. Then at night you are spending money playing pool, spending money bowling, or paying dues at that crazy lodge you belong to. And I am left here to look at that ice box, that stove, that sink, and these four walls,” she says furiously before storming off into the bedroom.

Ralph does get his wife a TV, but only when he realizes that if he splits the cost with Norton he’ll be able to effectively get a set for half price. However, once the television is introduced into the house it does not alter Alice’s behavior as Ralph fears but instead his own. Ralph begins to stay at home more often to watch television instead of going out to spend money, and finds himself staying up late at night which affects his sleep. Thus it is Ralph who the viewer sees losing himself in the allure of the device, not Alice. The episode ends with Alice tucking in Ralph and Ed in the living room as they sleep in front of the television. She says, “I have to admit, Ralph. For once in your life you were right. We should never have gotten a television set.” Alice gets the last word on the subject,  thus giving her the authority in the home, but both that authority and the television come with a cost: the need to admit that her husband was correct and the realization that Ralph will be in the home more frequently as long as the television stays.

In each episode, Ralph spends much of his time trying to assert that he is in control of his home, which Alice undermines ever time by pointing out his many faults. While the show is ironically titled The Honeymooners, what viewers see each week is a couple who have been married for a long time and who fight, argue, and challenge one another on every decision. Perhaps the episode that best encapsulates this aspect of the series is “Better Living Through TV” (Nov. 11, 1955).

In the episode, Ralph cooks up a scheme to buy a multi-function kitchen gadget on the cheap and then sell it using a spot on the local television station. He tells Norton, and together the two men go into business to buy and sell the so-called kitchen gadget of the future, hoping to make a fortune. In the end they are unsuccessful when Ralph discovers that he is not as confident in front of the cameras as he boasted he would be.

Unlike previous episodes that open in the Kramden’s dated and sparse apartment, this episode opens in the Norton’s apartment, which is decorated in the latest style and filled with nice furnishings and all the modern conveniences. Ed is helping his wife, who is trying to repair one of her dresses by using her husband as her model. The comedy in this early scene occurs as a result of Ralph seeing Norton in a stylish dress smoking a cigar and initially mistaking him for Trixie. Ralph makes fun of Norton for wearing the dress and questions his masculinity when he asks Norton why he isn’t wearing his pants instead. Norton then refuses to help Trixie; she gets mad and goes to ask Alice for help repairing the dress.

Alice and Ralph in The Honeymooners

Ralph tells Norton that he has come upon a way to make a fortune but only if Norton will split the costs of the endeavor with him. Norton chuckles at first but agrees to the proposition after Ralph says, “I am the king in my castle. I rule my kingdom. Alice is just a mere peasant girl. Just a servant to do my bidding. I snap my fingers and she jumps. I’m the king. The king of my castle. I rule with an iron hand.” Ralph, chest puffed out, explains that he will have no problem getting the money from his wife who maintains the household finances. Ralph’s boast to Norton illustrates the dominant belief of the decade that a man should be “king of his castle” and also shows the importance for men’s psyches in the 1950s to believe that in the home they were solely in charge, because often in the outside world, they were not.

Later that night when Ralph asks Alice for the money she refuses. The two argue loudly about the money and Ralph tells her that she is keeping him from a good investment which could earn them a fortune. Angered by her unwillingness to go along with his plan, Ralph yells threats like, “You’re going to get yours!” and “I’d like to belt you one.” While the scene is designed to be funny, the underlying message is that Ralph is a man who is capable of violence and does not feel that hitting a woman is out of bounds as long as he is able to maintain control of his home. When she refuses to give in to his threats he employs an emotional tactic, telling her, “I want the money to get you the television set you want, the washing machine you want,” hoping that by offering the opportunity to get the consumer products she desires that she will help him. Instead Alice lists off all the crazy schemes and money Ralph has wasted over the years trying to get rich. As she recites his list of failures, the viewer sees Ralph become disconcerted at the realization that no matter how hard he tries to get rich, perhaps there is no real chance for him to take part in the American Dream.

Despite only last one season, the representation of masculinity depicted in The Honyemooners would be embraced by future sitcoms like All in the Family, and even in animated series like The Flintstones (explicitly modeled on The Honeymooners) and The Simpsons. While the sitcom male would argue that he was in control, often these series would undermine that image. Even when men felt they were in control based on their gendered status, that was not the case; for the blue-collar model of masculinity, the focus was on trying to keep with the American Dream and its consumer model rather than consistently controlling the household. 

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