Between the Pit of Man's Fears and the Summit of His Knowledge: Rethinking Masculine Paradigms in Postwar America via Television's The Twilight Zone
AuthorCummings, Erin Kathleen
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During the opening credits of the first season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling defined the Twilight Zone as another dimension located "between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge." Serling's creative commentary theoretically speaks to the process through which gender paradigms have been constructed and transformed over time. As Gail Bederman explains in Manliness and Civilization (1995), gender construction is a historical, dynamic process in which men and women actively transform gender ideals by blending, adapting, and renegotiating older models in conjunction with concurrent modes. Between the summit of knowledge (that which is known) and the pit of fear (that which is unknown) gender is indeed constructed. This study focuses upon one particular aspect, one particular moment, in the constant process of gender construction: masculinity in the postwar era. Using television's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) as well as viewer responses to the series, this study offers a necessary rethinking of postwar masculinity. The current scholarship on postwar masculinity contends, overall, that male discontent in the postwar period was caused by conformity to what Barbara Ehrenreich refers to as the breadwinner ethic--the traditional expectation that men provide for their families in the specific postwar context of corporate work and suburban domesticity. Characterizations of masculinity in The Twilight Zone and viewer responses to it, however, suggest something significantly different. In this study I agree that masculine malaise in the postwar era was due to the problem of conformity. I argue, however, that conformity proved problematic not because men adhered to the breadwinner ethic, but because of conformity's roots in an earlier, paradigmatic shift from a model of masculinity based upon unyielding virtuous character to one focused on malleable, self-centered, and other-determined personality. Additionally, The Twilight Zone and its accompanying viewer responses reveal that, while men found themselves beleaguered by the problem of personality (conformity), they also advocated a resurrection and renegotiation of that older model of masculinity based upon moral manly character. In short, this study endeavors to add historicity to our understanding of postwar masculinity. I endeavor, then, to identify not only what was changing in the broader, historical framework of masculine ideals, but also to highlight the vitality of gender construction and its nature as an active process by considering Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, cultural representations of masculinity therein, and individual responses to those representations from ordinary people.