Work/Life: Norman Rockwell...Bad To The Bone?

  • Ninety-two years ago this week, the Saturday Evening Post ran its very first Norman Rockwell cover.  The painting depicted a boy of around ten or twelve, looking rather disgruntled at having to both wear his Sunday best and push his infant sibling along in a canopied baby carriage.  His unhappiness is clearly exacerbated by the presence of two of his contemporaries, boys dressed in baseball uniforms on the way to a day of little league fun.  The other boys, as they pass, look with thinly-disguised disdain on their acquaintance, who, by the way, must also suffer the indignity of carrying a conspicuously protruding baby bottle in his suit jacket pocket. 
  • It’s the sort of whimsical Americana that made Rockwell a household word, and at first glance it should perhaps elicit no more than a chortle of familiarity.  However, let’s examine it from a different perspective, if only to have the incongruous thrill of using the following phrase: let’s look at the dark underbelly of Norman Rockwell.  (After all, anyone who has ever endured a family Thanksgiving knows that right after that frozen moment of Rockwell’s famous family turkey-carving painting, Uncle Jack scurried into a corner to take another pull from the Dewar’s, Mom quizzed her “longtime bachelor” son on why he still doesn’t have a girlfriend, and Dad told his daughter that if she expected him to pay for college she could damn well start carrying her weight around on the chores.)  
  • Pushing a baby carriage is a mothering image, a nurturing image.  Setting aside the notion that the young boy in the painting may be disgusted at having to do “women’s work,” the truth is he is providing a valuable service, and really helping out the family unit.  Plus, he is getting an opportunity to bond with his sibling.  Both very valuable assets to anyone’s emotional development.  And yet, even back in 1916, the roles were clearly defined, and deviation from them meant being ostracized or worse.  The baseball-playing boys, off to do the thing that is more validated as worthwhile by society, snicker at their compatriot, who, far from giving them attitude for their unenlightened stance,  cannot wait to hurry past them to escape this moment of embarrassment.  The message, then, meant to bring on a knowing chuckle, is that taking an active role in the development of the family unit is devalued when compared to doing what a fella should be doing…running off to play with his pals.  Substitute “work” for “play” in the preceding phrase, and it’s not hard to see that the same self-imposed standards apply to what someone “should” be doing in the modern world to gain acceptance via the usual channels.  
  • This is certainly not to say that Norman Rockwell’s darling little paintings are a force for advancing an unsavory world outlook—I mean, it’s not like if you play a Rockwell painting backwards you hear Satanic messages, but let’s not forget that even in so-called “simpler times,” the old paradigms were still lying in wait.  Or, to put it another way, while no one is holding a knife in that Thanksgiving painting, sooner or later somebody’s going to have to use one.

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