As I emphasized in my earlier articles about I Love Lucy during the 1950s (part 1, part 2), the advent of television in households posed a significant challenge to established ideas of traditional male authority.
In her insightful work titled Make Room for TV, Lynn Spiegel illustrates how television producers, manufacturers, and advertisers collaborated to reassure both American men and women that integrating television into their homes would not profoundly disrupt their daily routines.
Spiegel highlights that after World War II, the home was perceived as a sanctuary for the hardworking man, who toiled throughout the day to support his family.
Simultaneously, a domestic ideology was promoted to women, emphasizing their roles in cooking, cleaning, and providing their husbands with a worry-free, harmonious environment.
Beyond these roles, it was argued that introducing television into households would strengthen family bonds, fostering a more united societal front as a defense against the influences of Communism.
Nonetheless, as Spiegel demonstrates, this introduction of television was not without controversy.
Women were concerned about where to position the device in their homes and the degree of control it might exert.
Meanwhile, men worried that TV might distract their wives from their homemaking duties and, in turn, challenge the prevailing masculine norms of the era.
The 1950s standard model of masculinity, as depicted in Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, symbolized the evolving nature of American masculinity, which was becoming synonymous with suburban life and corporate careers as the middle-class ideal.
This model was praised for its adherence to conformity and enthusiastic embrace of the burgeoning consumer culture.
However, Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book The Hearts of Men, sheds light on the fact that this supposed normative model faced opposition from within its own ranks due to the constant pressure on men and society to conform.
She contends that during the fifties, conformity became synonymous with male discontent because the white-collar work environment stifled individual initiative, rewarded conformity over creativity, and compelled individuals to yield to the collective will of committees and teams.
For these men, Ehrenreich argues that the only avenue for achieving a sense of control or freedom was within the domestic sphere by ensuring women remained under male authority.
Conversely, the world of the working-class man often referred to as “blue-collar masculinity,” briefly found a place in the realm of television.
Amid the daily concerns of working-class life, Hollywood believed it could portray a model of masculinity more aligned with traditional values, where men maintained control in their households and still managed to partake in more traditionally masculine activities, such as joining all-male fraternal societies, enjoying recreational pursuits with other men, and, most importantly, forming strong bonds with their male peers.
The blue-collar spirit and the model of American masculinity, where men appeared to be in control (though often the subject of humor), is brilliantly exemplified in all 39 episodes of the short-lived CBS series The Honeymooners (1955-56).
The star, Jackie Gleason, delivered a remarkable portrayal as the lovable yet irritable bus driver, Ralph Kramden, showcasing to Saturday night audiences an embodiment of American masculinity where the challenges faced by the working-class man took center stage.
In his monograph, The Honeymooner, David Sterrit offers the most insightful analysis of the series and its central character.
Sterrit describes Ralph as a blue-collar Sisyphus, with the fourth-floor walk-up serving as his metaphorical mountain and the burden of socioeconomic immobility during the Postwar Era—a reality persistently denied by many intellectuals but undeniably real for a significant portion of the working-class population—acting as the boulder he appears destined to wrestle with for the rest of his life.
In essence, Ralph epitomizes the ordinary man’s struggles on a grand scale.
Gleason initially crafted these beloved characters for recurring sketches featured on the DuMont Network’s Cavalcade of Stars and later on his CBS variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show.
The standalone series made its debut on October 1, 1955. Gleason aimed to portray an aspect of America that was gradually fading from television due to the rise in popularity of domestic sitcoms like I Love Lucy, which revolved around the challenges and lives of the burgeoning middle class.
However, Gleason failed to realize a growing trend: television executives and advertisers had little interest in series centered around working-class or less affluent individuals.
These groups were deemed unable to actively participate in the new consumer-driven economy that primarily catered to middle-class viewers through TV.
Nevertheless, Gleason endeavored to demonstrate his understanding of something more significant about America’s evolving social and economic landscape.
Each week’s episode featured a comical yet candid portrayal of the everyday struggles of typical Americans. The minimalistic set of Kramden’s apartment notably lacked modern appliances such as electric refrigerators and stoves.
Gleason aimed to present an image of America where life did not revolve around consumer products, recognizing that not every working American could afford these luxuries while they grappled daily to make ends meet.
The pilot episode, “TV or Not TV,” highlights emerging consumerism’s threats to the household and masculine authority.
Ralph’s wife, Alice (played by Audrey Meadows), insists that he buy her a television set upon discovering that their friends and neighbors, the Nortons, are acquiring a second set to replace their malfunctioning one.
Initially, Ralph attempts to assert his dominance and bully Alice regarding her demands. However, he eventually yields to her persuasion upon learning that Ed Norton (portrayed by Art Carney) lacks the funds to purchase the set outright.
The two men pool their resources to buy the television, but Ralph’s character is tested when he tricks Norton into keeping the TV at Ralph’s apartment.
The series establishes a portrayal of robust, overbearing, and domineering masculinity, embodied by Ralph, a bus driver who dons his uniform for work daily.
Right from the first episode, it’s evident that he is not the “man in the gray flannel suit” idealized in TV and advertisements. Instead, he epitomizes the archetype of the blue-collar working man who defines himself by his physical stature, commanding presence, and authority in the household.
Upon returning home from work, Ralph bluntly instructs his wife, “Hurry up with my meal; I’m going bowling.” He doesn’t display genuine affection toward his wife in their interactions, while Alice feigns sweetness to manipulate him.
Alice’s friend, Trixie (portrayed by Joyce Randolph), had earlier explained that being sweet and employing the “pipe and slippers routine” was her strategy for getting Ed to comply with her wishes.
Alice attempts to flatter her husband by addressing him as “sweetums” and attending to his every need, including helping him remove his shoes and don his slippers. However, Ralph remains unconvinced and questions her sanity and underlying motives.
Subtly, Alice tries to slip in her request for a television set by saying, “by the way,” and Ralph’s reaction is explosive. He leaps out of his chair and berates her, exclaiming, “I knew there’d have to be a ‘by the way’ somewhere.”
He threatens to leave the room and re-enter, declaring, “I don’t want to be comfortable. I don’t want my slippers… and most of all, I don’t want any talk of buying a television set,” in an attempt to assert his authority over the household and spending decisions.
However, in contrast to characters like Lucy Ricardo and other sitcom wives, Alice Kramden is no pushover.
She’s capable of standing up to her husband, as evidenced by her direct confrontation when she gets right in his face and loudly questions, “Why can’t we have a television set?… Why do you always have to be so thrifty?” Her challenging Ralph’s choices and spending habits underscores how she questions his masculinity, ultimately leading to their heated argument.
Ralph attempts to clarify that he’s not being thrifty but is waiting to spend his money on a 3-D television, which makes Alice chuckle.
She then directly questions him, asking, “Are you also waiting for 3-D refrigerators?” Alice continues to accuse Ralph of being cheap and lists the various conveniences the Nortons have acquired, including a television.
Despite the pressure, Ralph endeavors to maintain his position. He explains, “They have all those things – vacuum cleaner, electric stove, washer, television, etc. But there’s one thing they have that we don’t.
You know what that is? Worries. Do you know why they have worries? Because every week, they have to make payments on those things, see? That’s a headache when you have to pay out every week. I don’t have any headaches.
I have peace of mind. I have money, Alice. I save mine in a bank.” Ralph argues that financial security and liquidity are more crucial than having a home filled with consumer products.
Alice insists on getting a TV set, expressing her frustration with being left alone in their rundown apartment every evening. She states, “I want a television set, and I’m going to get a television set.
I’ve lived in this place for 14 years without a single piece of furniture being changed. I’m sick and tired of it. You’re out all day, and you’re spending money on pool, bowling, or lodge dues at night.
Meanwhile, I’m here staring at that fridge, that stove, that sink, and these four walls,” before storming off angrily into the bedroom.
Eventually, Ralph does acquire a television for his wife, but only when he realizes that sharing the cost with Norton would effectively halve the price.
However, introducing the television into the household doesn’t alter Alice’s behavior, as Ralph fears. Instead, it changes Ralph himself.
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He begins staying home more often to watch TV rather than going out to spend money and finds himself staying up late at night, affecting his sleep.
Consequently, it’s Ralph who becomes engrossed in the allure of the device, not Alice.
The episode concludes with Alice tucking in Ralph and Ed as they fall asleep in front of the television. She admits, “I have to admit, Ralph, for once in your life, you were right. We should never have gotten a television set.”
Alice has the last word on the matter, asserting her authority in the household. However, both her authority and the television come with a price: the need to acknowledge that her husband was correct and the realization that Ralph will be home more frequently as long as the television remains.
In every episode, Ralph dedicates a considerable amount of time to trying to assert his authority in his home, but Alice consistently undermines him by pointing out his numerous flaws.
Ironically titled The Honeymooners, the show presents a couple who’ve been married for a long time and engage in frequent fights, arguments, and challenges regarding their decisions.
One episode that effectively encapsulates this dynamic is “Better Living Through TV” (November 11, 1955).
In this episode, Ralph concocts a plan to purchase a versatile kitchen gadget at a low cost and then sell it through an appearance on the local television station.
He shares his idea with Norton, and the two men venture into a business venture to procure and sell the so-called “kitchen gadget of the future,” hoping to make it rich.
However, their efforts are in vain when Ralph realizes that he’s not as confident in front of the cameras as he had boasted, leading to their ultimate failure in the endeavor.
In contrast to previous episodes that typically begin in the Kramdens’ outdated and sparsely furnished apartment, this particular episode starts in Norton’s residence.
Norton’s apartment is adorned in the latest style, complete with tasteful furnishings and all the modern conveniences. Ed is assisting his wife, who is attempting to mend one of her dresses by using her husband as her makeshift model.
The humor in this early scene stems from Ralph’s reaction upon seeing Norton wearing a stylish dress and smoking a cigar, initially mistaking him for Trixie.
Ralph playfully pokes fun at Norton for donning the dress and questions his masculinity, questioning why Norton isn’t wearing pants instead.
Consequently, Norton refuses to assist Trixie, leading to her frustration and prompting her to seek Alice’s help repairing the dress.
Ralph approaches Norton with a scheme to amass a fortune on the condition that Norton shares the costs involved. Norton initially chuckles at the idea but eventually agrees when Ralph proclaims, “I am the king in my castle. I rule my kingdom.
Alice is just a mere peasant girl, 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.”
With his chest puffed out, Ralph expresses confidence in obtaining the necessary funds from his wife, who manages the household finances.
Ralph’s boast to Norton mirrors the prevalent belief of the 1950s that a man should be the “king of his castle.”
It underscores the significance, of men’s self-esteem during that era, of believing they had absolute authority in their homes, especially when they often lacked control in the outside world.
Later that evening, when Ralph requests the money from Alice, she refuses.
A heated argument ensues, with Ralph expressing his frustration, claiming that her refusal prevents him from pursuing a lucrative investment that could potentially secure their fortune.
Angrily, Ralph utters threats such as, “You’re going to get yours!” and “I’d like to belt you one.”
While the scene is intended for comedic effect, there’s an underlying message that Ralph is a man capable of violence and believes that resorting to physical force, even against a woman, is not beyond the limits as long as it allows him to maintain control over his home.
When Alice remains steadfast in her refusal to yield to his threats, Ralph employs an emotional tactic, stating, “I want the money to get you the television set you want, the washing machine you want.”
He hopes that by offering her the chance to obtain the consumer products she desires, she’ll be more inclined to assist him. However, instead of complying, Alice enumerates all the ill-conceived schemes and money Ralph has squandered over the years in pursuit of wealth.
As she recites his catalog of failures, the viewer witnesses Ralph becoming disheartened, realizing that no matter how hard he endeavors to achieve riches, he may be unable to partake in the American Dream.
Although it lasted only one season, the representation of masculinity portrayed in The Honeymooners would go on to influence future sitcoms like All in the Family.
This trend extended into animated series as well, with shows like The Flintstones (which was explicitly modeled after The Honeymooners) and The Simpsons.
While the male characters in these sitcoms often argued that they were in control, the series would frequently subvert this image.
Even when men believed they held control due to their gendered status, the reality was often different.
For the blue-collar model of masculinity, the primary focus was on striving to achieve the American Dream and conform to its consumer-oriented model rather than consistently dominating the household.