There is a myth, Foucault tells us, that the Victorian era (the 19th century) was one of sexual repression, where people could not talk about sexuality, nor learn anything from it. Women, it was believed, were frigid and had no passionate interest. They covered their bodies so much by shame that even the piano legs had to wear socks. Queen Victoria was the symbol of this chaste society.
The same philosopher, however, tells us that this was a farce. There was no more sexually promiscuous society than Victorian society. Prostitution, sexual abuse, sexual colonialism, rape, incest, and all kinds of pathologies were everywhere. The new discipline of psychiatry, with its obsession over the sexual life of Europeans, was born in this same century. On the one hand, then, there was the prudish queen, but on the other, Jack the Ripper, who enjoyed dismembering sex workers. What made this time so puritan was simply the command not to talk about it publicly: in private life, the sky was the limit.
With regard to America, we have another false premise. We believe that the 1950s were the years of sexual repression. There was no sexual education, no female liberation, and no gay movements. Both the cinema and the television were forbidden to touch the subject. The shows we saw were apolitical comedies portraying the idyllic life of heterosexual marriage. According to this traditional view, the sexual liberation movements would not emerge until the 1960s. Their origin is often attributed to the influence of other political nature events, such as the struggle for civil rights and protests against the war in Vietnam.
Once again, this is false: the 1950’s, in the field of sexuality, has been one of the most radical decades. On television, for example, we saw great liberation proposals but we just did not know it because the message was unconscious. This "unconscious" would not be that of Freud who looked at it inside our heads, but that of Lacan, who sees it outside them, that is i.e., in our socio-cultural production.
Let us think of shows like Bewitched or Genie or I Dream of Jeannie or I Love Lucy. Although they apparently exposed the life of the American middle class in the suburbs, in the unconscious, they told us something else. Samantha or Jeannie or Lucy were not submissive women: they did not like doing household chores and they managed to escape with tricks from them. The prohibition to exercise the special power Samantha or Jeannie had, was easy to associate to associate it with the situation of the American women after the war. First, they had been called to work in the war industry where they enjoyed financial independence and freedom of movement, but, after the war, they were asked to go back to their homes. The reason: to leave the jobs for men. Although our heroes do not express it publicly, they struggled to keep their secret power; this was a strong message to the 1950s housewives.
The famous series of the Munsters and the Addams Family were no less provocative. Once again, we can observe that female protagonists in those series are more powerful than men, or that "traditional" and "femenine" women like Marylin, the niece. For those of us who belonged to minorities, whose families were not at all conventional, with strong accents, strange manners, handicapped people (The Hand), or half-disturbed relatives, who did not fit with society´s expectations, there was a message of liberation: we could be different and charming and disturbed and we all belonged at home (An anti Psychiatrist message in a time where people were sent to asylums).
There was no more radical series than Mr. Ed. Remove the horse, keep the male voice and we have a simulated gay relationship between Ed and Wilbur (no bestiality was intended). The latter, a man dedicated to architecture (a profession that was not considered masculine in the 1950´s), married to a woman with whom he does not have a deep relationship, maintains the most intense communication with Ed, who advises him, saves him, helps him, is jealous of him, and loves him dearly. This love must be kept in total secrecy, even from his own wife, who suspects but never verbalizes it: this is a portrait of the closeted gay life of the time.
The normalization of these forbidden relationships, for both gays and women, was the school that would sow ideas that one could be different from the rest and did not have to die for it. Ed, a symbol of a gay man, was one of Stonewall’s forerunners.