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Perfectly Average

Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Perfectly Average
    Book Description:

    At the end of World War II, many Americans longed for a return to a more normal way of life after decades of depression and war. In fact, between 1945 and 1963 the idea of “normality” circulated as a keyword in almost every aspect of American culture. But what did this term really mean? What were its parameters? Whom did it propose to include and exclude? In Perfectly Average, Anna Creadick investigates how and why “normality” reemerged as a potent homogenizing category in postwar America. Working with scientific studies, material culture, literary texts, film, fashion, and the mass media, she charts the pursuit of the“normal” through thematic chapters on the body, character, class, sexuality, and community. Creadick examines such evidence as the “Norm and Norma” models produced during the war by sexologists and anthropologists—statistical composites of“normal” American bodies. In 1945, as thousands of Ohio women signed up for a Norma LookAlike contest, a “Harvard Study of Normal Men” sought to define the typical American male according to specific criteria, from body shape to upbringing to blood pressure. By the early 1950s, the “man in the gray flannel suit” had come to symbolize what some regarded as the stultifying sameness of the “normalized” middle class. Meanwhile, novels such as From Here to Eternity and Peyton Place both supported and challenged normative ideas about gender, race, and sexuality, even as they worked to critique the postwar culture of surveillance—watching and being watched—through which normalizing power functioned. As efforts to define normality became increasingly personal, the tensions embedded in its binary logic multiplied: Was normal descriptive of an average or prescriptive of an ideal? In the end, Creadick shows, a variety of statistics, assumptions, and aspirations converged to recast “normality” not as something innate or inborn, but rather as a quality to be actively pursued—a standard at once highly seductive and impossible to achieve because it required becoming perfectly average.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-014-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Situation Normal
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the 1955 best sellerThe Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the protagonist, Tom Rath, a white, middle-class, suburban commuter, experiences multiple flashbacks to his time as a paratrooper in World War II. His first recovered memory raises the notion that “normality” was something the war itself had destroyed: “It had been snafu from the beginning—situation normal, all fouled up, only they hadn’t used the word ‘fouled’ in those days; no word had been anywhere near bad enough to express the way they felt. They had jumped at the wrong time at the wrong place, and a quarter...

  6. 1 Model Bodies, Normal Curves
    (pp. 15-41)

    In late April of 1999, I stepped off a streetcar in Dresden, Germany, and walked down a long driveway to face a looming brick and plate-glass structure. Its facade was intimidating: four-story columns reached up to a broad white frieze emblazoned with huge gold letters: DEUTSCHES HYGIENEMUSEUM. A long banner falling from the top of the front readDer Neue Mensch: Obsessionen des 20. Jahrhunderts—“The New Man: Obsessions of the Twentieth Century.” I had come here to see “Normman and Norma,” sculptures of the “average” American male and female body, which had been shipped over from Cleveland to Dresden...

  7. 2 Normalizing the Nation: The Study of American Character
    (pp. 42-65)

    In the publicity surrounding the “Norm and Norma” sculptures in the late 1940s, anthropologist Harry L. Shapiro and others had slipped frequently and easily from descriptions of the “normality” of the models’ bodies to assertions about their normality ofcharacter.¹ Journalists and scientists regularly anthropomorphized the plaster figures, moving beyond their surfaces to hypothesize about their interiors. Such slippage from bodies to minds was not surprising; inquiry into the “normal” American character was another significant academic project of the interwar and early postwar years. In 1949, for example, aCollier’sarticle spotlighted the news that the Rockefeller Foundation had funded...

  8. 3 Passing for Normal: Fashioning a Postwar Middle Class
    (pp. 66-89)

    Part of the seductive power of normality was its statistical alignment with the middle: the “normal” curve plotting out the midpoint on a continuum. For postwar Americans, the middle seemed a safe place—secure and solid—not a life on the social or economic fringes. If “normal” meant the middle, the pursuit of “normality” meant becoming, or remaining, middle class. But the postwar middle was shifting ground.

    A 1959Lookmagazine cartoon by Ned Hilton (fig. 17) both acknowledges and lampoons postwar Americans’ obsessions with their own status. A white, suburban housewife is sitting on a couch reading. She pauses...

  9. 4 From Queer To Eternity: Normalizing Heterosexuality in Fact and Fiction
    (pp. 90-117)

    The decades following World War II in the United States cannot be fully characterized by sexual “containment” nor by “sex panic,”¹ not by sexual obsession nor by sexual excess, but rather by deeply contradictory attitudes and practices that were neither fully progressive nor repressive. World War II created a massive social upheaval that had a major impact on U.S. sexual life. The dislocations of war loosened sexual mores and sanctioned a broader range of sexual expression, but the mechanisms of war also produced a culture of sexual oppression, repression, and violence. The postwar period was thus characterized by a kind...

  10. 5 Picture Windows and Peyton Place: Exposing Normality in Postwar Communities
    (pp. 118-141)

    In the 1956 blockbuster novelPeyton Place, the town itself becomes the central character: “Talk, talk, talk,” says the young protagonist Allison MacKenzie, impatiently. “Peyton Place is famous for its talk. Talk about everybody” (350). Peyton Place speaks in voices, it judges, it watches, it keeps track: “From the day Allison was born, [her grandmother] Elizabeth Standish lived with fear. She was afraid that she had not played her part well enough, that sooner or later someone would find out. . . . In her worst nightmares she heard the voices of Peyton Place.”¹ Generalized, collectivized, and internalized, the town...

  11. Conclusion: Home, Normal Home
    (pp. 142-150)

    A 1962New York Timesarticle titled “Baffling Search for the ‘Normal Man’” concludes with one psychiatrist’s complaint that searching for a definition of “normality” was “a little like trying to glue fog to the sky.”¹ This metaphor still holds. Normality is difficult to contain because it is constantly moving, shifting, dissipating. Worse, to try to define normality with any precision is to risk reifying its claims to describe. But normality has always had, and continues to have, a particular and traceable history. To show how normality hasfunctionedin a specific context allows us to see just how foggy...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 151-182)
  13. Index
    (pp. 183-191)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 192-192)