Cultural narratives pertaining to any era are always extremely varied and often contradictory. This is certainly the case with those relating to the 1960s, as our culture is still analysing and critiquing both the events of the 1960s and their subsequent representations. Thus, by extension, our culture is still in the process of making meanings about the 1960s. Meanings circulate within a culture through narratives. Narratives differ across racial, ethnic, gender and age groups. They are also received and influenced differently depending on an individuals’ sexual, political or religious persuasion.
Despite the enormous variation and interpretation of cultural narratives, the way they circulate within the culture is always the same. That is, it is the dominant’s narrative(s) which informs the majority of the representations. In this way the narrative of the dominant becomes naturalised as “the truth”. The 1960s are widely regarded as a period characterised by rebellion, revolution and reform. However, the construction of this narrative has been solely through representations of the dominant.
The assumption that all members of the culture were socially active is an exaggeration perpetuated by the dominant representations of the 1960s, as are the successes of social activism. However, the 1960s were a period in which many members of the culture actively sought and achieved social change, particularly for women. This was directly in response to what was widely regarded as the austere and restrictive nature of the post-war years. This narrative regarding the 1950s was drawn upon by both my Grandparents and my peers in our respective conversations, thus strengthening its validity.
My Grandmother remembers the modest, “sensible” styles of fashion worn by both males and females during the 1950s. Such styles later became regarded as “severe” and “uptight” in the 1960s. My peers and I were aware of the “nice girls don’t” mentality that characterised the 1950s, from films such as Pleasantville and Grease. Such a mentality is in stark opposition to that of the “free love” mindset which characterised the 1960s. Because of our awareness of the repressive trends and attitudes of the 1950s, it seems natural to my friends and I that the 1960s were an era of great social upheaval and change.
Social unrest manifested itself through activism and protest. Many members of the culture were socially active, particularly white, middle class students and the success of their activism is notable. Achievements for the emancipation of women such as the legalisation of the contraceptive pill and abortion in 1962 and 1967 in Britain respectively, exemplify the successes of social activism. My Grandfather, who was a student at the University of Glasgow during the 1960s, remembers being asked by “intense feminists” to sign petitions in support of the legalisation of abortion.
The petitions demanded that women be freed from the “tyranny and injustice” of being made to go through with an unwanted pregnancy. My peers and I regard the legalisation of the contraceptive pill and abortion to be proof of the fact that the 1960s were a decade in which narratives regarding the “old world order” were disregarded, and liberation and freedom for all were championed by all. It is fair to say that the post-war years were more socially restrictive than their predecessors; however the sentiment that the 1950s had been defined by austerity and repression was expressed predominantly by white, liberal, middle class youths.
It is not objective to accept this (or any) narrative without examining and challenging its claims. However, this narrative reveals a lot about the feelings of the dominant during the 1950s. The 1950s were quite possibly the first time in which the dominant experienced (along with the rest of the culture) social immobility. The entire culture occupied a liminal space between modernism and post-modernism. The conversation I had with my peers included two people who were from fairly conservative, white, catholic families.