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Saturday, January 25, 2003

Mental Hygiene

This is another in my series of discussion of the films of the Prelinger archive.

(Sound of my three readers thundering away, leaving me alone with the inky blackness. Ahhhh....hello Darkness my old friend...)

I want to discuss the class of films dealing with "mental hygiene". These were made in order to help guide kids (usually---primarily teenagers) in correct social behavior. Dating, sex ed, anti-drug and driver's ed films made up distinct subgenres, but there were also films about getting along with family and peers.

These little movies are interesting for the slice of the times they showed, for the illumination of what their intended audiences hoped for, or feared. Because they are so narrowly focussed on certain topics, viewing them in large chunks can give the disturbing impression that the entire intellectual power of the era was turned toward molding the social lives of teenagers.

They often look strange and corny to us now. Younger children, especially, are urged to good behavior with stridently cheerful instructions from a narrator. More sophisticated films are content to let the story do the talking; they show the dire consequences of ignoring the featured rules. Even a small social error could lead to the worst imaginable fate for a teenager---the other kids would shun you! Many people find these laughable, but I vaguely remember being a teenager, and being shunned was considered to be a pretty dire fate (partly because being shunned often led to being assaulted).

Many people see the films as relics from an era of repression. That's is the general tenor of the book Mental Hygiene:Classroom Films 1945-1970, by Ken Smith. The films featured in the book cover a wide variety of topics; besides the ones mentioned above, they also instructed kids in personal hygiene, etiquette, career guidance, and what you might call civics.

On page 30 of Mental Hygiene, Ken Smith cautions against considering these films an attempt at brainwashing, because after all:

Mental hygiene films were not made by conservatives or reactionaries. Rather, they were made by some of the most liberal and progressive-minded people of their time. Their goal was noble: to help children become well adjusted, happy, and independent (within limits). The films look corny and manipulative to us today, but not because the people who made them were evil or stupid.

You may have to see several of these films before the "brainwashing" aspect begins to be noticeable. I'm so relieved to hear that the films can't possibly be "brainwashing", because their makers were liberals! Thank heavens! (You conservatives can feel free to seethe now.)

Smith remembers this point on page 30, but seems to forget it all the rest of the way through the book, where he is teasing out hidden meanings in the films. In the chapter, "Fitting In", for example, he tries to make something sinister out of films which encouraged getting along with peers. Don't misunderstand---many of these films are creepy, especially to someone my age. When I was growing up, "fitting in" meant "peer pressure", which meant doing drugs. By the time I was in school, kids who wanted to "fit in" were looked down upon a bit---I was always told to think for myself, which actually meant thinking what my parents wanted me to. So the rather neurotic emphasis on getting along does seem a bit odd.

But not sinister. Smith writes that conformity in the '50s was brought about by WWII. After a couple decades of chaos, a great war had been won and future prosperity assured by mass production and teamwork.

Why be a "selfish" individual when so much that was good had been, and could be, accomplished when the individual operated as a cog in a mega-machine?

The idea of fitting in with whatever or whoever was popular, when extended to American society in general, meant conforming to a very rigid, conservative status quo.


Films, a uniform delivery system, were ideal for promoting a uniform code of behavior...

Chilling. But not very apropos to the films he's describing, at least most of the ones I've seen. For example, when relating the behavioral films to---of course!---the McCarthy era, he says

...Americans hid under a blanket of conformity. Fitting in was the only safe course of action...Those who try to fit in and fail, as do teenaged Marion in Social Acceptability (1957) and Barbara in Habit Patterns (1954), weep in torment, damned by their own individuality.

Er, except for the fact that Barbara's problem is that she is sloppy and careless; she wears a stained sweater and the other girls notice. Barbara does not stand up for her right to be sloppy, does not denounce the prejudice against the Grubby-American. She doesn't rebel against what's expected of her, she's just too lazy to do it.

In Social Acceptability, Marion's real problem is that "fitting in" means giving parties every once in a while, and her mother is reluctant to help because she is actually rather shy (she didn't have films to help her when she was a girl). Social Acceptability is interesting because it shows a less affluent lifestyle than is usual in these films, and a parent who is (at first) not interested in integrating her daughter into the group. I'll have to do a post on it one day.

(Mind you, both these films induce a Festival of Cringing, so it's not like they're good or even harmless; I just don't think they're good examples of the fate of the non-conformist.)

Smith also notes that, such was the repressive climate of the times, that:

There were no positive role models for rebels, heretics, bohemians, radicals, agitators, inverts, eccentrics, freaks, or eggheads.

Inverts? Except possibly for the eccentrics and eggheads, there aren't any positive role models for any of these because, historically, people who go against the grain of their societies aren't viewed positively by those societies. They're only "positive" role models among other rebels, heretics, etc---or in the gauzy light of nostalgia, once they're safely dead or defanged. It's only in the last few decades, even here in the individualistic US, that rebellion for its own sake (as opposed to for a specific goal) has been thought of in a positive light.

In his notes for the CD-ROM collection Our Secret Century (disk 3, "The Behavior Offensive"), Rick Prelinger also blames (or credits) WWII for a change in teenage behavior that led to the need for these behavioral films. With even mothers away from home, working in war jobs, unsupervised teens got into trouble. He backs this up only by including on the disk the 1943 film As the Twig Is Bent, to which he makes only this very brief comment

As the Twig Is Bent dramatizes the wartime problem of "youth in crisis," and in so doing provides the missing link that
explains the origins of the postwar behavior offensive.

So I was a little suspicious of this war-film connection, but it's upheld by this snippet from Chapter 13 of the book, Love, Sex, and War: Changing Values, 1939-45 by John Costello (William Collins, London, 1985). Skip down to near the bottom, on the "patriotutes" ("victory girls", Prelinger calls them) who decided it was their duty to sleep with departing servicemen. Huh. You learn something new every day on the Web.

Prelinger goes on to say, "Finally, the young began to believe that nothing mattered, that the future was not worth living for." Which, I believe, has been the cry of the disaffected (and usually affluent) youth for a couple centuries now.

Prelinger and---especially, and despite his early caution---Smith are eager to see the dark, controlling side of these behavioral films. But after watching a number of them, I begin to see a different side. The people who produced these films saw that some kids didn't fit it, and it made them (the kids) unhappy (and some of them dangerous). Well, what's the cause of this inability to fit in? Gosh, it's that some kids just don't know what you have to do. Let's make some movies, to show them!

But, of course, getting along isn't just a matter of remembering to say please and thank you and to wear clean sweaters. What do your life-adjusting, group-integrating social guidance recommend then? We'll see in the next post.