Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Foreign Relations in 1950s Television

During this contentious election year there is much being said about how people who are different are getting along. The short answer, it appears, is not that well.

This isn’t the forum to talk about the ebb and flow of tolerance, and how some situations were clearly worse 50 years ago, while many others seemed so much better than they are now.

Instead, let’s see what happens when vintage TV shows approached this topic.

I always like these episodes. They reveal how much bigger the world seemed in the pre-Internet era. For the heartland residents of golden-age sitcoms, the chance to meet someone born outside the U.S. didn’t come along every day. That perspective influenced how outsiders were portrayed, as well as how they were received by the characters viewers watched every week.

Often these shows fell back on cultural stereotypes that could be viewed as na├»ve now, or offensive if you’re the sort that likes to be offended about everything.

But that was not how they were intended. If anything, writers viewed these scripts as opportunities to educate viewers about the ways different populaces lived and dressed and spoke, while also offering an outsider’s perspective on American life and culture. That required an emphasis on divergence, though inevitably an underlying message would emerge on how people are people, no matter where they are from.

Here are three intriguing examples.

“Fair Exchange” (1958)
Father Knows Best
The Andersons play host to Chanthini, an Indian exchange student played by Puerto Rico’s own Rita Moreno. 

“Will she have a shawl on her head and a water bucket on her shoulder?” Kathy wonders, while Bud hopes she knows the Indian rope trick. Chanthini is also not immune to jumping to conclusions: when she sees an apron-clad Jim helping with the dishes she assumes he’s a servant. In her country, she says, the men don’t do kitchen work. “You people have the right idea,” Jim responds.

“Fair Exchange” offers a textbook example of how this story trope often plays out. “Did you know?” lessons are frequently inserted (not always gently) into the script: “What’s that little red dot on your forehead?” Kathy asks Chanthini; “We get most of our tea from India,” Margaret informs her family.  And as we’re still in the 1950s, everyone admirably tries not to offend each other. The final scene, where Bud tries to teach Chanthini about football, is one of those utterly charming moments that TV has long since forgotten how to create.

“The Duenna” (1957)
The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
David meets Lucita, an attractive girl who speaks only Spanish. Somehow they manage to make a date, but he is confused when she calls later and he can’t understand her. 

A half-hearted attempt to translate reveals one word familiar to Ozzie – “duenna,” meaning chaperone. Apparently it’s Spanish tradition for girls on dates to be accompanied by a grandmother or maiden aunt. Ozzie tags along to accompany the chaperone, but is taken aback when the duenna turns out to be an attractive senorita with amorous intentions. 

The episode plays without subtitles, except for one brief scene needed to clarify the plot. Thus, viewers are as challenged by the language barrier as David, which heightens our awareness of how difficult these situations can be. What is engaging is the good faith effort made on both sides, without any expressions of impatience or frustration.  

“The Geisha Girl” (1961)
The Donna Reed Show
The wife of the new doctor in town gains a reputation as a snob because she never attends social events. Donna believes such pre-judgments are unfair and drops by for a visit. She discovers that the woman in question is not only Japanese, but also someone who prefers the traditional garb and subservient role of a wife common to her homeland. 

Later, at a small dinner party, the other doctors’ wives stare in disbelief as she serves her husband dinner and lights his pipe. The doctors find her deference admirable. “Don’t let it give you any ideas,” Donna cautions her husband.

Here we do see a suggestion of prejudice, though it is quickly proven false. But there is a discomfort among the ladies of Hilldale with someone who acts so submissive, and that in itself is interesting given how many women today might view the traditional homemaker roles that are esteemed in TV shows of this era. 

The final scene shows what happens when Donna takes it upon herself to Americanize the woman. One shopping trip later our visitor from Japan has joined the ranks of Hilldale’s stylish Midwestern homemakers.

But how will her husband react to his new wife? As it turns out, he’s delighted to see her making friends and embracing her new life in a new country. Assimilation is portrayed as a triumph for the immigrant and the community. If only that were still the case. 

1 comment:

  1. I thought the "geisha girl" photo looked like the actress who played Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, so I looked it up -- it's her! Miyoshi Umeki