Background & Context


Marriage and family were key components of the 1940’s and 1950’s as veterans returning from WWII searched normalcy after the war. Marriage was considered necessary and an essential part of conforming to society norms. Displayed on T.V. and movies from the time period, the nuclear family consisted of Man, Wife, and Children, usually residing in a newly crafted suburban neighborhood where daily routine was cherished. As the men went to work, women further rooted themselves within the household, and beauty and upkeep of self and home were expected. Within the 40’s and 50’s men’s masculinity was heighted along side the femininity needed of women during the time. There was little sexual experimentation from either sex, and those outside of the heterosexual category where outcast as mentally ill. Marriage was expected at a young age, and was considered to be a “companionate type of relationship, which focused on the satisfaction and pleasure that came from playing the role of spouse” (Elliot).

Moving from the 50’s to the 60’s marriage relationship deviated from the focus on spouses and growth as a couple to a “more individualized type of relationship, which focused on developing and individuals own sense of self (Elliot). Seen from the numerous sources watched and read in class, the 60’s were a time of free love and experimentation. Both sexes were compelled to have multiple sexual partners and engage in previously unheard of sexual activity heightened by the use of LSD, marijuana, and other illegal drugs. The 60’s counterculture and the rise of the new left gave increased flexibility to couples that didn’t want or need to marry right away. Increased access to education played a role, as women could attend university no longer needing the financial support of a spouse. Racism and segregation still prevalent, interracial couples rose in numbers, as many following the “free love” lifestyle applied the ideology beyond racial lines.


The concept of marriage and relationships in America shifted from in the 1960s to the 1980s due to a variety of factors. Counterculture ideology encouraged women to explore their sexuality and many postponed marriage until a later age. The median age of first marriage during this time stayed relatively constant for men, but displays a large shift for women. In the 1950s, the median age of first marriage was about 20 years old for women and it jumped to almost 24 by the 1980s (Elliot). The dynamic of the American relationship shifted as well; more women were entering the workforce and staying there. This is a sharp contrast from the 1950s “Nuclear Family” in which the woman in the relationship was expected to remain at home and care for the family. The social and legal acceptance of birth control and abortion gave women more autonomy in reproductive choices, which made it easier to sustain a career.

Another large shift in the American relationship during this time period was the emergence of interracial marriages. Since the Civil Rights Movement, the rates of interracial marriages have steadily increased. One monumental case in regards to marriage was Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court decided to invalidate a law that prohibited interracial marriages in 16 states. The number of interracial marriages increased steadily from 1960-1980, even though they only made up a small percentage of total marriages. In 1960, there were 149,000 interracial marriages and by 1980 that number jumped to 953,000. The film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner represents the presence of interracial relationships during the time period as well as the tensions and limitations that continued to surround them.


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