The Feeling American: Emotion Management and the Standardization of Democracy in Cold War Literature and Film

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Singleton, Kelly Anne
Auerbach, Jonathan
This project examines how strategies of emotion management influenced the development of American literature and film during the Cold War period. Focusing primarily on the High Cold War Period of 1949 to 1962, it argues that a government-funded postwar boom in the psychological and social sciences resulted in a “psychological turn” in American culture that sought to solve social problems by teaching Americans to manage their emotions in keeping with scientifically-established standards for democratic behavior. Proponents of emotion management believed it could accomplish the Soviet goal of creating a harmonious, classless society without requiring radical social revolution or totalitarian forms of control that would violate American principles of freedom and democracy. To that end, American policymakers used the findings of social scientists to develop narratives that: 1) modeled how to behave in the event of a nuclear attack, 2) equated happiness with the American standard of living, 3) made emotional malleability the foundation for a democratic personality, and 4) linked racism to deviation from the norms of liberal white psychology. The works of several mid-century American authors and filmmakers provide an important counterpoint to the optimism of this official emotion management narrative as they: 1) challenge the government’s sanitized representation of nuclear war, 2) document the unhappy effects of middle-class organization culture, 3) express anxiety over the alienating effects of emotional labor, and 4) reject the equation of mental health and American identity with specifically white cultural standards and forms. In contrast to emotion management’s conservative emphasis on individual psychological adjustment, these works suggest that only systemic structural changes can resolve the problems of American democracy. This historicist approach analyzes propaganda films, government bulletins, popular magazine articles, and period sociological studies alongside close readings of novels (Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow! (1954) and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)), films (Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962)), and the story collections of African American authors Langston Hughes and Alice Childress.