My first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves, is set in 1959 Virginia. Since the book focuses on the school integration movement, I had to do a LOT of research to write it.
I read memoirs and watched recordings of oral histories. I dug up old newspaper articles and magazine coverage. I spent every Saturday for many weeks in the Virginia history room of a nearby library.
But in addition to learning the details of school integration, I also needed to know general background information on what life was like for teenagers in the late 1950s. So I read teen novels from the period, watched popular movies from 1959, and visited the Library of Congress to read vintage copies of Seventeen magazine.
I also poked around on YouTube for videos from the time. I was amazed to discover that YouTube is full of uploads of 1950s short videos that were produced by textbook companies. I assume these videos were shown in schools on film strips when the teachers wanted a break. (Which I would definitely want, if I had to teach kids who were anything like the ones in these videos.)
Since these short films were produced and written by adults who were trying to teach kids moral lessons, I doubt they actually have valuable information about authentic teen life at this time ― but they’re nonetheless pretty amazing to watch.
I expected them to be about things that I was taught in school health classes, like dental hygiene and the birds and the bees. Some of them were, but a surprising number were about how to manage one’s social life.
Like this one, about the dangers of snobbery. (Choice line: “Mother, don’t be so corny!”)
Or this one, about how having bad posture will cause you to be ostracized by everyone you love:
Or this video about how to choose a girl to ask on a date. “One thing you can consider is looks. … But it’s too bad Janet always acts so superior and boring.”
But it isn’t all fun and parties in old-school PSAs. This video from 1961, “Girls Beware,” includes the unforgettable line, “You can never find the right words to tell a mother her daughter has been murdered.”
Since the main characters of Lies We Tell Ourselves are gay, I made sure to seek out videos that discussed 1950s views on homosexuality. What I found was pretty disturbing.
Like “Boys Beware,” a public service announcement warning young kids, “You never know when a homosexual is about”:
And this chilling speech to a school auditorium full of students about how if they’re gay, they’ll get caught, “And the rest of your life will be a living hell”:
That said, these videos don’t portray heterosexuality in an especially positive light, either. This one focuses on the potential traumas of make-out parties and features a subtext-laden conversation about cucumbers:
So, what to take away from this collection, aside from the fact that teenagers in the 1950s appeared to be either eleven years old or in their mid-twenties, were exclusively Caucasian, and wore ankle-length skirts to school and prom dresses to their friends’ parties?
When I was writing Lies We Tell Ourselves, these videos helped me remember that the teenagers I was writing about had grown up in a world where videos like these were often the only information they got from authority figures about important topics like puberty and sex. I also kept in mind that preaching to teenagers about how they’re “supposed” to behave is likely to produce the opposite effect.
We’d like to think we’ve come a long way since the 1950s. In some ways we have, but that “Boys Beware” video always reminds me that there are still people today who view LGBT people first and foremost as predators. There are still people who teach girls that it’s their fault when they’re the victims of violence, too, as the narrator implies in “Girls Beware.” And it’s not as if all parents and teachers today are totally frank with their kids about everything ― many are just as likely to sugar-coat the truth and frame everything in “moral lesson” as the creators of these videos were.
But I’m pleased to note one difference ― at least we’ve moved on from ankle-length skirts. I mean, seriously. Who can even walk in those?
Wait ― uh oh…