In the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, life changed radically many areas including ideas, fashion, and sexuality. The American people were losing faith in the federal government, popular clothing became more loose and free, and women’s societal roles were challenged. When women started taking new roles outside of the home and had more freedom to make choices without men, a deeper level of competition between the sexes was created. While women seemed to welcome this change, some even claiming it was overdue, men had trouble letting go of control and keeping up the newfound freedom of American women.
As women began questioning their roles in their homes and in American society, the demand for equality from their male counterparts became overwhelming. This demand saturated every area of life including homes, relationships, and the media. This second wave of feminism achieved a great deal in creating a new standard for women against the defacto ideas previously thought by society. Women took their talents into society by working outside of the home, from both necessity and desire. In fact, not only did women start working, but they began to excel in their careers. According to the national Census Bureau, the percentage of women managers doubled in number from 14% in 1960 to 28% in 1979. This dramatic increase is a perfect example of women taking over jobs that were traditionally for men and feeding the competition between the sexes. I believe that while this was an advancing step for women, it was also a discouraging and humbling step for men.
In the novel Rabbit is Rich the character of Rabbit feels trapped by his bossy mother-in-law and his free-spirited wife. While he has all the material possessions he desires, he cannot seem to escape the troublesome demanding women in his household. For Rabbit, and other men during these decades the idea of the man being the head of the household or the boss in the home is long forgotten. With Rabbit all of his money that makes him rich comes from his wife and her side of the family; Rabbit and his wife even have to live in his in-law’s home.With his job, money, and home coming from the women in the family, he is seen as somewhat unneeded and replaceable. Since Rabbit is Rich being written right after the major women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, readers are given an insight into the aftermath of the feminist revolution from the male point of view.
Husbands and family men were not the only people who were affected by the power shift; young adults and teens were aware of the effects of these dramatic changes as well. The classic movie The Graduate gives an understanding of the way young men were treated by their families and women during the Sixties. Similar to Rabbit from Rabbit is Rich, the main character of Benjamin feels trapped by other people in his life. Ben has the world open to him since he is a recent graduate of a university at the young age of 21, and yet has no idea what to do with his degree. Benjamin knows he is expected to work with his father to take over the family business in order to continue his father’s legacy; but this expectation causes him to feel like he has no room to breathe or make his own choices. He does not want to do something based on what his more traditional father, and society, deemed to be a right choice. Ben’s generation was not one of following the family expectations, but instead to blaze new trails; even when they become too much to handle. After all, Updike wrote it best when Rabbit says, “They’ve [the younger generation] seen the world go crazy since they were age two, from JFK’s assassination right through Vietnam to the oil mess now.”While some of these events have yet to happen in Ben’s life, Updike is right. Many crazy unfathomable events happen to this generation causing the traditional ideals to drift away.
New view of sexuality itself also plays a major role in the changes in the 1960s for Americans. Updike shows his readers this in that Rabbit’s wife has become freer with herself and her sexuality during this time period. She is not a traditional 1950s housewife wearing aprons and pearls. Instead she wears sheer clothing around the house and even had an affair with Rabbit’s coworker and friend a few years before the book begins. His wife’s freedom with herself was unsettling to him, but he was still married to his unfaithful wife. The wife had all the control within the relationship; also seen in the relationship with Ben and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. She is the dominant figure because of this new idea of freedom and desire with women’s sexuality. Men began to now be dominated in personal relationships.
Rabbit calls his son’s generation “spineless” with “no grit, nothing solid to tell a fact from a spook with,” he is speaking the unspoken truth about men’s actions of the changes and men’s experience in the 1970s. These adjectives of “spineless” and “no grit” perfectly describe Ben in his relationship with Mrs. Robinson during his post graduate days. During his relationship with Mrs. Robinson, he wants out of the relationship and ends the relationship with her; but not with her consent. After their relationship ends she makes his life very difficult, just as she threatened she would. She takes away opportunities, makes false rape claims, and puts him to blame; all because she has the power to. Ben cannot escape these lies and is ensnared in a world of shame and regret.
Reoccurring themes in both The Graduate and Rabbit is Rich show the power struggle between the sexes in America. The overtaking of the work place, dominating personal relationships, and overt sexuality in women make for the beginnings of the modern relationships seen in the United States today. The creation of the idea of partnership relationships brought women up to a new level of power while humbling men along the way; much to the men’s dismay. The fight for power began long ago and yet continues to be a struggle in places of education, the work force, and at home with both sexes vying for the most power. This experience of the American people is no longer unique to the “Sixties” and “Seventies”, but a shared experience among Americans in today’s society. A once radical movement and the acknowledgement of the power struggle is now the status quo just waiting for a new radical movement.