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Fifties Ethnicities: The Ethnic Novel and Mass Culture at Midcentury


In her new nonfiction book, an Oklahoma City University professor examines the role of race — or lack thereof — in 1950s popular culture.

Malena Lott December 4th, 2013

As Oklahoma City University professor Tracy Floreani learned from her Italian father, whether or not he is considered Caucasian constantly is changing in our culture.

At one point in time, Italians, Jews and other lighter-skinned immigrants were not considered “white” strictly because of their heritage.

Floreani takes on color and gender through the lens of the 1950s in her new academic book, Fifties Ethnicities: The Ethnic Novel and Mass Culture at Midcentury, released this month by SUNY Press.

“When you think of June Cleaver, you don’t imagine her as black,” said Floreani, whose nonfiction book brings to light what popular culture was telling us about ethnicities in a time when Hollywood altered ethnic-sounding last names to more palatable “American” names and rarely included racial characters into a storyline.

If they did, surprisingly, a white actor played an ethnic character. Such was the case in Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ 1958 classic film starring Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas.

According to Floreani, the tipping point for acceptance for many immigrants was fighting in our wars, changing the few from “them” to “us.”

Her biggest takeaway from her research in the book was that we seem to think that ethnic voices were silent during that period.

“But if we look carefully, they had a large say in how they were represented,” she said.

While a time capsule of pop culture lets us understand how those in charge of the media depicted American life, current shows about that time period, such as Mad Men, try to cast a more realistic view of what was happening. Storylines have included civil rights issues, the ostracization of Jews and the struggle for women to rise above their place at the stove or the typewriter.

“California culture and modern producers are very aware of that erasure and have a sense of responsibility to add those components that were really there,” Floreani said, adding that we won’t get that from Happy Days reruns. “The changes you saw happening in the 1960s were a result of the conversations about culture that were happening in the ’50s.”

Nevertheless, our nostalgia for the decade, beyond the cool clothes sand contemporary furnishings, is very white.


Here she is? 

Floreani, an English professor at OCU, grew up all over the Midwest and spent 20 years in Kansas. Interestingly, those same culture conversations are happening today, and Kansas was right in the midst of it. When Indian-American Miss New York Nina

Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, a public outcry on social media included racist comments that a Muslim was not a “real Miss America” and that the white, gun-toting Miss Kansas was better suited for the title.

Not only did the outraged misidentify her as Muslim, but that’s a religion, not a skin color. On the one hand, an Indian-American Miss America is considered progress, breaking barriers, but as was apparent with the backlash by all age groups, the conversation about ethnicity and cultural acceptance rages on.

“As long as we are a nation of immigrants, the inclusiveness will keep changing,” Floreani said.

“Unfortunately, many of those same immigrants who were once considered outcasts are the ones finger-pointing now.”

In Fifties Ethnicities, Floreani takes a look at five primary areas: cultural narratives and American identities; American mass culture and the literary immigrant as seen in C.Y. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; consumer fantasy, American women and social mobility in Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and the I Love Lucy TV series; negotiating the ethnic male star image in William Saroyan’s Rock Wagram; and narrating invisibility in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

 
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