Is the 1950s an "Age of Conformity"?


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLUSTER 60 course, which earned a grade of A.

After 4 intense years of direct involvement in WW2, Americans in the 1950s were more than ready to embrace bland conformity in place of constant uncertainty. With the nation’s booming economic wealth, millions of Americans believed they were living the American dream, living in archetypal suburban refuge such as Levittown, where uniform, unidentifiable houses were inhabited by “people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers” (Farber 3). Furthermore, the emergence of McCarthyism and the ensuing witch hunt for Communists also incited a widespread anticommunism hysteria known as the Second Red Scare. To avoid running the risk of being accused a Communist and commiting social suicide, 1950s Americans instead chose to obediently conform to a commonly accepted mould and lead their stable life. Despite this conformity, I contend in this essay that there were a few instances throughout the decade where people stood up to the norm and refused to go along with the status quo. To substantiate my argument, I will then bring up in politics, the opposition of racial segregation; in music, the development of hip style in music; and in literature, the inception of modernism.

Divergence from the norm was most evident in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which represented a watershed moment in the struggle for racial equality in America and is now widely acknowledged as one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. In the lecture, we learned that up till 1954, large portions of the United States had racially segregated schools. This was made legal by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which held that segregated public facilities were constitutional, so long as the black and white facilities were equal to each other. Essentially, this ruling constitutionally sanctioned laws barring African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools and other public facilities as whites—known as “Jim Crow” laws—and established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would stand for the next six decades (Fremon).

By early 1951, a plaintiff named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter, Linda Brown, was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary schools. In his lawsuit, Brown claimed that schools for black children were not equal to the white schools, and that segregation violated the so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment, which holds that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (Cornell Law School).

When Brown’s case and four other cases related to school segregation first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court combined them into a single case under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Displaying considerable political skill and determination, the newly appointed Chief Justice, Earl Warren, succeeded in engineering a unanimous verdict against school segregation the following year. After reviewing psychological studies showing black girls in segregated schools had low racial self-esteem, the Court concluded that separating children on the basis of race creates dangerous inferiority complexes that may adversely affect black children's ability to learn.

In the decision, issued on May 17, 1954, Warren wrote that “in the field of public education, where “education is the foundation of citizenship”, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal”, even if the tangible facilities were equal between the black and white schools, and is hence unconstitutional. As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.” Although the decision did not succeed in fully desegregating public education in the United States, it put the Constitution on the side of racial equality, paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and galvanized the nascent civil rights movement into a full revolution, making it one of the most impactful events that opposed the status quo of racism.

Moving on, the emergence of hip music style was another prime example of counter culture in an era of conformity. Hip, derived from AAVE jazz terms ‘hep’ and ‘hepcat’, sought to rebel against the conformity of “square” music at the time. The pioneers of the hip style, commonly referred to as “hipsters”, signify knowingly, using language in a slippery way as a form of resistance to the pervasive, unwitting signifyin' going on in the mainstream “square” culture. One of the most distinct contrasts between the “square” and “hip” music style can be observed in Frank Sinatra’s 1956 rendition of “Pennies from Heaven.” Exactly 20 years after the Burke & Johnston published the original performance of “Pennies from Heaven” in 1936, Sinatra added a “swing” element to the song by shifting the lyrics to match different notes in the melody, as well as varying his emphasis on the pronunciations of certain words in the lyrics. This performance became the gateway to Sinatra’s transition into a “swinging” white hipster, in the late 1950s, making him one of the first of his fame to adopt a style that is traditionally considered black music style.

To further bolster this argument, the subtle infusion of “hip” culture in America can be traced back to the early 1950s, with its musical influence reaching as far as the political realm, albeit in a different context than the one we discussed above. The 1952 “I like Ike” ad, though incredibly infectious and functions effectively as an earworm, follows a terribly “square” marching band tune and incessantly repeats the “I like Ike” phrase according to the tempo. In the ad, there is even a line that goes “get in step with the guy that’s hep” that attempts to convince voters that Ike is “hip” by explicitly stating it — ironically making it the exact representation of “squareness.” On the other hand, Stevenson’s 1952 “I Love the Gov” and “Music Man” ads, which were both songs performed by the same female singer, successfully integrated the “hip” element. As expected in a political ad, the singer sultrily belts out tidbits on Stevenson’s credentials and abilities that make him worthy of the presidency. However, in 2 particular lines, one in each advertisement, she added a “swing” to the performance, namely “I love the Gov’, the Governor of Illinois,” in “I Love the Gov” and “But Stevenson, Civilian-son” in “Music Man”. Although Stevenson did not emerge victorious in the 1952 Presidential Election, his ads served to show the gradual emergence of “hip” culture, which boldly and unapologetically opposes the conformist “square” style.

In literature, we see a break from conformity in Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint. Dick starts a big portion of the book with traditional realism, writing in transparent prose and depicting the present in a faithful, accurate manner. This “square” writing style attempts to reflect life “as it actually is”, unclouded by false ideals, literary conventions, or misplaced aesthetic glorification and beautification of the world. For instance, one of the most obvious themes throughout the beginning of the novel is the portrayal of consumer culture in the 1950s. Dick describes in detail Nielson stirring his cup of coffee at the cafe booth, Jack’s nylon slacks and mentions a down payment on a house (Dick 4-5).

However, as the book progresses, Dick implicitly infuses modernism into the story via sci-fi. The addition of this element defamiliarizes the present and allows the reader to experience semiotic interruption of everyday life. Furthermore, this “hip” writing style is an experimental prose, characterized by a rejection of the realist consensus between author and reader via the adoption of complex and difficult writing styles. It also focuses on cosmopolitan characters who are frequently alienated and disengaged from bourgeois values such as nuclear family and consumerism. We can clearly observe Dick introducing modernism into the novel when he uses terms such as “The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules.”, “he saw through, into the space beyond it” and “go out of existence” (Dick 45). Through Dick’s venture into modernism, we can see how this opposes traditional realism writing style that aims to appeal to the readers’ familiarity with the present and directly challenges what readers already expect about the novel.

Despite the overall conformity of America in the 1960s, the evidence I provided above shows that there are little bright spots throughout the decade that showed divergence. These were only small instances but they had a ripple effect and directly led to the rebellion of the 1960s. The emergence of “hip” music led to the 1960s rock and roll of the Beatles, the Rolling stones and Jimi Hendrix. The small steps in Civil Rights led to the full force of protests and marches of the 1960s, eventually leading to legislations that provide rights to the black community and are maintained to this day. Phillip K. Dick set the stage for other minority authors to venture into more adventurous writing styles, which became more prominent in the 1960s. Despite the conformity of the 1950s, it can clearly be seen that the small instances of rebellion and refusal to go along with the status quo became the cornerstone for the counterculture of the 1960s.

Works Cited

Cornell Law School. “Brown v. Board of Education (1954).” LII / Legal Information Institute, 2020,

Fremon, David K. The Jim Crow Laws and Racism in American History. Berkeley Heights, Nj, Enslow Publishers, 2000.

National Archives. “Brown v. Board of Education.” National Archives, 15 Aug. 2016,

Dick, Philip K. Time out of Joint. Boston, Mariner Books, 2012, pp. 4–5, 45.