February 14, 2013
This is the 18th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
“The problem with these skyways is that by the time they’re built they’re obsolete. This traffic is the worst I’ve seen yet,” George Jetson proclaims as he zips around in his flying car.
The 18th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on January 27, 1963, and was titled “Jane’s Driving Lesson.” As one might expect with a title like that, the episode deals with the flying cars of the year 2063. Specifically, female drivers of the year 2063.
This episode wears its sexism rather proudly at every turn, playing it for laughs as men are constantly terrified of women behind the wheel — or the yoke as the case may be. George pulls up behind a young woman driver and becomes confused by her hand signals. “Women drivers, that’s the problem!” George shouts at the woman.
When we looked at the 15th episode of “The Jetsons,” titled “Millionaire Astro,” I wrote about the social and economic conservatism of the show. This episode is another example of the show’s conservatism, again not in the “red state versus blue state” political sense, but rather in its affirmation of the social status quo. But where did this myth that women are worse drivers than men come from?
Michael L. Berger writes in his 1986 paper “Women Drivers!: The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior” about the history of the stereotype that women are poor drivers. Much like in the way that the “women are bad drivers” jokes are presented in “The Jetsons,” there is a long history of using humor to perpetuate this sexist rhetoric:
For although often presented in a humorous context, folklore concerning women drivers, and the accompanying negative stereotype emerged for very serious social reasons. They were attempts to both keep women in their place and to protect them against corrupting influences in society, and within themselves.
As Berger points out in his paper, the idea that women were bad drivers was very much rooted in class and wealth. However, the stereotype didn’t really gain traction until the 1920s, when middle class American women started to have access to automobiles. Up until that point it was only a wealthy handful (whether male or female) who could afford such a luxury like a car:
As long as motoring was limited to wealthy urban women, there was little criticism of their ability as drivers. These were women of high social and economic station, who made a vocation of leisure-time pursuits. If they chose to spend their time motoring around the city rather than at home giving teas few would criticize. Such changes posed little or no threat to the established social order, and hence there was no need for a negative stereotype.
In the 1910s prices of cars were coming down and many men were going off to fight the first World War, leaving women with both the “need and opportunity” to learn how to drive for those who hadn’t already:
By the end of [WWI], there existed the real possibility that the automobile could be adopted by large numbers of middle-class women. It is from this period, and not that of the initial introduction of the motor car, that we can trace the origins of the women driver stereotype and the folklore of which it is a part.
Jane Jetson was very much the American middle-class everywoman of 2063 — the woman that women of 1963 were supposed to identify with on the show, and in turn the woman that girls of 1963 were supposed to see as their future.
Jane receives a driving lesson during the episode but when the instructor wants to stop off to check his safe deposit box (and his life insurance policy) a bank robber emerges and jumps in. Jane continues on driving, believing that he must be just another driving instructor. The bank robber is terrified of Jane’s driving and by the end of the episode he’s begging to be put in jail rather than endure more time in the flying car with Jane.
After George finds Jane at the police stations the status quo is restored (George is again behind the yoke) and Jane explains, “You know George, I don’t really care much about driving anyway.”
George responds, “Well, it’s probably better if you don’t Janey. Driving requires a man’s skill; a man’s judgement; a man’s technical know-how.”
“And what about a man’s eyesight, George?” Jane replies just before George realizes he went through a red light and crashes into a parked car. This, like so many of these “women are bad at stuff” tropes from midcentury sitcoms, is meant to be the kicker. The audience is given a sly wink — isn’t it ridiculous that a man could be just a terrible as a woman behind the wheel?
Thanks to an unsympathetic judge (the parked car George plowed into was owned by the judge) George has to start taking the flying bus. Interestingly, the only other time in the series that we see a bus stop (other than early in this episode) is in the first episode, when Rosey tries to sullenly run away.
Much like other episodes of “The Jetsons,” we’re left to wonder what kind of real-world impact a different depiction of the future may have had on the world we live in today. Obviously, the episode is little more than one long “women are terrible drivers” joke and it’s easy to dismiss it as such, but it was seen repeatedly throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s by kids all over the world. Time and again we see “The Jetsons” used as a way to talk about the future in which we’re currently living.
Today men like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, point to products like the iPhone and say “we’re living The Jetsons with this.” What if the Jetsons points of reference people use in the 21st century weren’t just technological? What if someone could point to other forms of progress and say, “This is the Jetsons. We’re truly living in the future with this.”
February 8, 2013
This is the 17th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The January 20, 1963, episode of The Jetsons was titled “Las Venus” and along with the second episode of the series, “A Date With Jet Screamer,” is a great futuristic example of what I’ve come to call “wholesome hedonism.”
What’s this wholesome hedonism that we see continually pop up in the Jetsons universe? Well, it’s sex, drugs and rock and roll. But unlike the more carefree version of these things that would become popularized in American culture during the late 1960s, this was sold as a more socially conservative alternative. The sex was always heterosexual and off-camera; the drugs were strictly all-American cigarettes and olive-filled martinis; and the rock and roll, well that was just mainstream, early ’60s white rock and roll. This version of relaxation — of regular vacations to get away from it all — was expected of middle class Americans of the 1950s and early ’60s, and every kid watching at home was assured that the future would be filled with just as much fun.
This episode of “The Jetsons” follows the family as they drop off the children on their way to Las Venus, a futuristic stand-in for Las Vegas in the year 2063. George and Jane check into their futuristic hotel room and find robot slot machines, as one might expect in the Vegas hotel of tomorrow. Things are looking like smooth sailing for George and Jane’s second honeymoon until George’s boss calls on the videophone and explains that an executive from General Rotors is in town and that George will have to meet with her. George doesn’t realize it’s a her and, after he does, this apparently poses a problem for a man trying to juggle two commitments.
Today, Las Vegas is known as America’s playground — where there’s a constant push and pull between family-friendly entertainment and anything-goes debauchery. Back when this episode first aired in 1963, Las Vegas was fighting a public relations battle to put a little more “wholesome” in its wholesome hedonistic image.
In 1930 the population of Las Vegas was just 5,165, but the local economy was supported by the massive spending of the federal government. Construction of the Hoover Dam began in 1931 and that year the city entertained about 125,000 tourists. By 1960 the population had grown to about 65,000 people and about 10 million tourists visited Las Vegas that year and spent about $400 million dollars.
Until 1960, Las Vegas was essentially as discriminatory as the Jim Crow south. Legendary black performers like Sammy Davis Jr. weren’t even allowed to stay in the hotels in which they were performing. After a sold-out show, Sammy had to exit through the kitchen—he was told that white visitors from places like Texas didn’t want to share the gambling floor with non-whites. Even after a sit-down meeting by NAACP members with Las Vegas business owners in 1960 there was still widespread discrimination within the city, though the casinos and hotels were no longer explicitly segregated. (Ed. — For more on Vegas race relations, read our story on the ill-fated Moulin Rouge casino, the first integrated hot spot in town.)
Las Vegas of the early 1960s was defined by a culture of hedonism, excess and organized crime. These saucy ingredients combined with the boom of the postwar era to make Las Vegas the hot new spot for filming TV and movies. But there was quite a push-back by Vegas boosters who worried about the image of the city. Viewers of this Jetsons episode understood Las Vegas largely through the lens of popular culture and the people who were raking in millions from the city’s resorts and casinos understood this all too well.
Ocean’s Eleven (co-starring Sammy Davis, Jr. interestingly enough) was filmed in Vegas and was released in 1960. But two TV shows were set to be produced in Las Vegas in 1961 that never made it past the pilot stage thanks to sabotage by city and police officials. “Las Vegas File” was supposed to be produced by Warner Brothers for ABC and “Las Vegas Beat” starring Peter Graves was supposed to be a detective show that was torpedoed by a write-in campaign to NBC by businessmen who felt that the depictions of crime in the show would reflect poorly on the city. Initially, both shows were assured production cooperation by local police. But after local casino and hotel owners became more acquainted with the content NBC received 11 telegrams complaining about “Las Vegas Beat” and pulled the plug itself even before the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce could file the lawsuit they had been threatening.
Today, the city of Las Vegas continues to struggle with its public image — unsure if it wants to be the place where what happens here stays here or a more wholesome destination of Disney-fied pirates and amusement park rides. But I suppose we have another 50 years of Las Vegas re-inventing itself to discover if a more wholesome hedonism or a traditionally hedonistic version of Las Vegas will arrive in 2063.
January 29, 2013
Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite’s regular half-hour CBS documentary program “The 21st Century” was a glorious peek into the future. Every Sunday night viewers of the late 1960s were shown all the exciting technological advancements they could expect to see just 30 or 40 years down the road. The March 12, 1967, episode gave people a look at the home of the 21st century, complete with 3D television, molded on-demand serving dishes, videophones, inflatable furniture, satellite newspaper delivery and robot servants.
Cronkite spends the first five minutes of the program deriding the evils of urban sprawl and insisting that everyone dreams of a house in seclusion on a few acres of land. Cronkite and his interviewee Philip Johnson insist that moving back into ever denser cities is the wave of the future. It’s interesting then that Cronkite must pivot before showing us the standalone home of tomorrow. This would be a second home, Cronkite tells us — far removed from the high density reality that everyone of the 21st century must face:
Let’s push our imaginations ahead and visit the home of the 21st century. This could be someone’s second home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. It consists of a cluster of pre-fabricated modules. This home is as self-sufficient as a space capsule. It recirculates its own water supply and draws all of its electricity from its own fuel cell.
Living Room of 2001
The living room of the future is a place of push-button luxury and a mid-century modern aesthetic. The sunken living room may feature inflatable furniture and disposable paper kids’ chairs, but Cronkite assures us that there’s no reason the family of the future couldn’t have a rocking chair — to remind us that “both the present and the future are merely extensions of the past.”
Once inside we might find ourselves in a glass enclosure where the lint and dirt we’ve accumulated during our trip is removed electrostatically. Now we step into the living room. What will the home of the 21st century look like inside? Well, I’m sitting in the living room of a mock-up of the home of the future, conceived by Philco-Ford and designed by Paul McCobb. This is where the family of the 21st century would entertain guests. This room has just about everything one would want: a big (some might say too big) full color 3D television screen, a stereo sound system that could fill the room with music, and comfortable furniture for relaxed conversation.
If that living room looks familiar it may be because it’s the same house from the Internet-famous short film “1999 A.D.” produced in 1967 (often mistakenly dated as 1969, which would make the moon landing stuff less impressive) and starring a young Wink Martindale.
Cronkite explains that a recent government report concludes that Americans of the year 2000 will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations “as the rule.” He goes on to tell viewers that this will mean much more leisure time for the average person:
A lot of this new free time will be spent at home. And this console controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct and entertain the family of the future. The possibilities for the evening’s program are called up on this screen. We could watch a football game, or a movie shown in full color on our big 3D television screen. The sound would come from these globe-like speakers. Or with the push of a button we could momentarily escape from our 21st century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age.
Home Office of 2001
Later, Cronkite takes us into the home office of the future. Here the newspaper is said to be delivered by satellite, and printed off on a gigantic broadsheet printer so that the reader of the future can have a deadtree copy.
This equipment here will allow [the businessman of the future] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.
This console provides a summary of news relayed by satellite from all over the world. Now to get a newspaper copy for permanent reference I just turn this button, and out it comes. When I’ve finished catching up on the news I might check the latest weather. This same screen can give me the latest report on the stocks I might own. The telephone is this instrument here — a mock-up of a possible future telephone, this would be the mouthpiece. Now if I want to see the people I’m talking with I just turn the button and there they are. Over here as I work on this screen I can keep in touch with other rooms of the house through a closed-circuit television system.
With equipment like this in the home of the future we may not have to go to work, the work would come to us. In the 21st century it may be that no home will be complete without a computerized communications console.
One of the more interesting gadgets in the office of the future that we can clearly see but Cronkite never addresses is the “electronic correspondence machine” of the future, otherwise known as the “home post office.” In the film “1999 A.D.” we see Wink Martindale’s character manipulating a pen on the machine, which allows for “instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world.”
Kitchen of 2001
The kitchen of the future includes plastic plates which are molded on-demand, a technology that up until just a few years ago must have seemed rather absurd. With the slow yet steady rise of home 3D printers this idea isn’t completely ridiculous, though we still have quite a ways to go.
After dinner, the plates are melted down, along with any leftover food and re-formed for the next meal. It’s never explained why the molding and re-molding of plates would be any easier or more efficient than simply allowing the machine to just wash the dishes. But I suppose a simple dishwasher wouldn’t have seemed terribly futuristic to the people of 1967.
This might be the kitchen in the home of the future. Preparation of a meal in the 21st century could be almost fully automatic. Frozen or irradiated foods are stored in that area over there.
Meals in this kitchen of the future are programmed. The menu is given to the automatic chef via typewriter or punched computer cards. The proper prepackaged ingredients are conveyed from the storage area and moved into this microwave oven where they are cooked in seconds. When the meal is done the food comes out here. When the meal is ready, instead of reaching for a stack of plates I just punch a button and the right amount of cups and saucers are molded on the spot.
When I’ve finished eating, there will be no dishes to wash. The used plates will be melted down again, the leftovers destroyed in the process and the melted plastic will be ready to be molded into clean plates when I need them next.
Robot Servants of 2001
Later in the program Cronkite takes us to the research laboratory of London’s Queen Mary College where we see robots in development. Cronkite interviews Professor M. W. Thring about the future of household robotics.
Cronkite assures us that the robots are not coming to take over the world, but instead to simply make us breakfast:
Robots are coming. Not to rule the world, but to help around the house. In the home of 2001 machines like these may help cook your breakfast and serve it too. We may wake up each morning to the patter of little feet — robot feet.
During the interview, the professor addresses one of the most important questions of the futuristic household robot: will it look like a human?
CRONKITE: Professor Thring, what are these?
THRING: These are the first prototypes of small scale models of the domestic housemaid of the future.
CRONKITE: The domestic housemaid of the future?
THRING: Yes, the maid of all work. To do all the routine work of the house, all the uninteresting jobs that the housewife would prefer not to do. You also give it instructions about decisions — it mustn’t run over the baby and things like that. And then it remembers those instructions and whenever you tell it to do that particular program it does that program.
CRONKITE: What is the completed machine going to look like? Is it going to look like a human being?
THRING: No. There’s no reason at all why it should look like a human being. The only thing is it’s got to live in a human house and live in a human house. It’s got to go through doors and climb up stairs and so on. But there’s no other reason why it should look like a human being. For example, it can have three or four hands if it wants to, it can have eyes in its feet, it can be entirely different.
Thring explains that the robot would put itself away in the cupboard where it would also recharge itself whenever it needed to do so — not unlike a Roomba today, or the automatic push-button vacuum cleaners of “The Jetsons,” which first aired just five years earlier.
I first saw this program many years ago while visiting the Paley Center for Media in New York. I asked Skip over at AV Geeks if he had a copy and it just so happens he did. He digitized it and released it as a DVD that’s now available for purchase, called Future Is Not As Good As It Used To Be. Many thanks to Skip for digging out this retro-futuristic gem. And if anyone from CBS is reading this, please release “The 21st Century” online or with a DVD box set. Cronkite’s show is one of the greatest forward-looking artifacts of the 20th century.
January 28, 2013
This is the 16th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The Jetsons episode “The Little Man” originally aired on ABC on Sunday January 13, 1963. The story revolves around the accidental shrinking of George to no more than a foot high by Mr. Spacely’s new MiniVac machine. Miniaturizing humans was a somewhat popular theme of b-movies that preceded The Jetsons, like Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). The episode is one of the weakest of the series, but it does have one of the more interesting versions of the ubiquitous videophone:
In the world of the Jetsons the videophone takes many forms. But unlike its most common household use today — as a mere application within a computer or phone — the Jetsonian videophone is its own piece of dedicated hardware.
The videophone (my preferred term for a technology that has gone by many names during the 20th and 21st centuries) is a strange and beautiful technology. It was a perennial technology of the future; continually popping up in different waves as being just around the corner throughout the 20th century. From the earliest experiments with practical television in the 1920s people were promised that picturephone technology was on its way. Television wasn’t immediately envisioned as a broadcast medium, but rather was imagined as point-to-point two-way talkers like those in the classic 1927 film Metropolis. The videophone was hyped at both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fair and as recently as the early 2000s communications companies were still making concept videos for landline videophone machines that today look laughably anachronistic.
But then out of nowhere the videophone was suddenly just here. Without much warning videophone was a reality. Just not in a form that companies like AT&T were promising us for nearly a century. Rather than acting as its own independent appliance in the home, we have videophone capabilities embedded within our devices — our computers and phones now often have little cameras seamlessly hidden inside. And the technology is almost a secondary consideration within the applications we use for video: we have Skype, Gchat Video among a host of other less well known apps.
In the world of “The Jetsons” the videophone is largely depicted as it was in the 1950s — as its own appliance. The videophone is a solid piece of hardware not unlike a TV of the 1950s or even radio of the the 1930s, but there’s very little consistency when it comes to what the Jetsonian videophone looks like. Below I’ve pulled just a few examples from the myriad videophones of the Jetsons universe.
Mr. Spacely has a standard desk model videophone that we see pop up again and again in business settings.
In the 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” a young woman exits a plane and her parents meet her in the terminal (how retro is that!). Rather than whip out her cellphone the moment she touches down as we’re so apt to do here in the future, she proceeds to tell her parents that before making their way to baggage claim, they need to stop at the payphones — the video payphones.
This vision of the hardwired public videophone is not unlike the Visaphone that we see used in the first episode of The Jetsons:
The Jetsonian videophone often has buttons that are never explained, but sometimes (like in the screenshot below) we see characters use buttons to do something as wild as pick up their children with a gigantic robot arm.
Of course, the biggest concern about the videophone was the idea that people could see what you looked like in your own home. We have a certain feeling of security in our homes; a feeling that people aren’t able to catch us with our pants down — both figuratively and literally. In the second episode of The Jetsons we see that Jane is obviously quite stressed by an early morning videophone call she gets from a friend before she has put on her face — again, literally. Jane pops on a mask that’s made to look exactly like her own face and by the end of the sequence we learn that her friend has done the same.
The 1955 short film The Future is Now addressed this problem, though they weren’t so much worried with putting on an entire face mask in order to answer the videophone:
What do you wear to answer the phone? What difference does it make? None, today! But tomorrow, if videophone comes, as well it might, then the world has found itself another problem.
When George gets pulled over for speeding the videophone is used to call in to the judge. Interestingly, some officials in the city of Inglewood, California tried out a more low-tech version of this instant roadside justice in 1926. From the book The Great Car Craze by Ashleigh Brilliant:
In a system which the [Los Angeles] Times dubbed “court-a-la-carte,” the judge and bailiff together with table, chair, and lawbooks, were installed in the back of a light truck which “parked unostentatiously near the motorcycle officers’ beat” and waited for the telltale sound of the siren, signifying that an arrest was about to be made. The truck then rushed to the site of the arrest and confronted the presumably dumfounded driver with the full majesty of the law. The only disadvantage of the system from the judge’s point of view was that the “business” was not always as brisk as it might have been.
The video-recording device on most videophones is often hidden in The Jetsons, but sometimes we get to see hints of what might be cameras, like in the home model below:
It’s not just humans of the future who enjoy the use of videophones. In episode eight of the series, “Rosey’s Boyfriend,” two robot lovers get to spend time together despite their distance from each other.
The Googie-tastic design of the various videophones in the Jetsons’ world strangely makes me long for the videophone as an independent piece of hardware. But much like other services that seem to be quickly melding into our phones, tablets and phablets, I think these dedicated videophone devices will remain relegated to the retrofuture.
January 2, 2013
This is the 14th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 14th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired in the U.S. on December 30, 1962, and was titled “Test Pilot.” This episode (like so many others) centers around the competition between Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs. Both companies have developed an invincibility suit which can supposedly withstand anything from gigantic sawblades to missiles being fired directly at it. The only trouble is that neither Mr. Spacely nor Mr. Cogswell can find any person brave enough (or dumb enough) to act as a human guinea pig and test the suit’s ability to keep its wearer safe.
George goes to the doctor for an insurance physical and gets some bad news. George swallows a Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule which travels around the inside of his body showing the doctor (in a rather humorous way, of course) how George’s various organs are holding up. “You just swallow it and it transmits pictures to a TV screen,” the doctor explains. Through a series of mix-ups the doctor diagnoses George as having very little time to live. George then takes “live each day as if it were your last” quite literally and begins making hasty decisions — giving his family money to spend frivolously and telling off his boss, Mr. Spacely.
Mr. Spacely realizes that George’s newfound bravery may be just what he needs to test out the invincibility suit. Mr. Cogswell tries to poach the newly heroic Jetson for his company since he’s had no more luck than Mr. Spacely in finding a test pilot. Mr. Spacely wins out and George goes on testing the suit without a care in the world, acting rather calm for a man who believes that he’ll soon be six feet under. (Or six feet over? I don’t think “The Jetsons” ever addresses if people of the 21st century are buried or cremated or shot into space or something.)
After many death-defying tests, George discovers that the diagnosis was wrong and that he’s not going to die. George then reverts back to the lovable coward he always was and does his best to get out of the last test which just so happens to involve two missiles being shot at him. In the end, it wasn’t the missiles or the sawblades that destroyed the suit, but the washing machine — and George remarks that they should have included a “dry-clean only” tag.
The 1950s was an exciting decade for medicine with many important innovations — from Salk’s polio vaccine to the first organ transplant. These incredible advancements led many to believe that such marvelous medical discoveries would continue at an even more accelerated rate into the 21st century, including in how to diagnosis different diseases.
As Dr. Kunio Doi explains in his 2006 paper “Diagnostic Imaging Over the Last 50 Years” the science of seeing inside the human body has developed tremendously since the 1950s. The biggest hurdle in diagnostic imaging at mid-century was the manual processing of film which could be time consuming:
[In the 1950s] most diagnostic images were obtained by use of screen-film systems and a high-voltage x-ray generator for conventional projection x-ray imaging [...]. Most radiographs were obtained by manual processing of films in darkrooms[...], but some of the major hospitals began to use automated film processors. The first automated film processor [...] was a large mechanical system with film hangers, which was designed to replace the manual operation of film development; it was very bulky, requiring a large space, and took about 40 min to process a film.
The January 17, 1960 edition of the Sunday comic strip Our New Age by Athelstan Spilhaus offered an optimistic look at the medical diagnostic instruments of the future:
The strip explains that one day patients might step into an “examination booth” while outfitted with a suit that measures all kinds of things at once — your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and so on. This suit will, of course, be connected to a computer which will spit out data to be analyzed by a doctor. The prescription will then be “automatically” printed out for the patient.
Just as we see with George Jetson, “automatic” diagnosis in this comic strip from 1960 doesn’t mean that humans will be taken completely out of the picture. Doctors of the future, we were told, will still play a vital role in analyzing information and double-checking the computer’s diagnosis. As Dr. Doi notes in his paper, we’ve made tremendous strides in the last 50 years of diagnosis. But I suppose we’re still waiting on that invincibility suit.