In the 1940s-1950s, before reality TV and the never-ending avalanche of content from YouTube and streaming services, when real-life documentaries were few and far between, teenagers all over America received guidance in the form of how-to films shown in their high schools.
These films depicted common themes such as how to wear makeup (for girls), how to be popular (mostly advising girls to be modest and not too forward), and how to behave on a date (for both boys and girls).
The idea behind these films was not only to enlighten but to sell a young audience on an ideal way of life. They were, in other words, propaganda.
The sets of rules and behaviors they depict are fascinating to watch, despite how idealized and artificial they often seem. They do, after all, represent the gold standard for good behavior, what young people were taught to aspire to.
Boys were expected to be mature, respectful, and impress a girl’s parents. So far, not bad. They were also expected to call in advance, show up on time, and pay for the date.
Girls were not supposed to ask a boy out, so it was really his choice of who to go out with. But it would be a mistake to believe a girl didn’t have any voice in the matter. Beyond looking pretty, being a nice, modest girl was the surest way to get a date, and you could always refuse the boy who’s too awkward when asking you out, or the boy who calls you last-minute for a date on the same day.
Regardless of whatever power the girls held in the dating scene, it was up to the boys to take initiative and make all the first moves. In other words, boys were supposed to take charge.
How to choose a date
Choosing a date is the first step. While Woody’s first instinct is to go after looks, he is warned against the good-looking girl who acts conceited and “makes a fellow feel awkward and inferior.”
Choosing the nice, modest girl who’s polite and friendly, on the other hand, might pay off. That’s exactly what Wally finds out when he passes Jenny, the girl who goes out with all the boys, over for Caroline, who’s the exact opposite.
The secret to happiness, it turns out, isn’t to choose beauty or the “easy” girl, but someone who’s modest but would also be fun on a date.
How to ask for a date
If you plan on asking a girl on a date, you better practice your phone skills. Stammering and sounding awkward will turn a girl off, and so will calling without a specific plan in mind. To improve your chances of success, have a clear plan, or give her a couple of options to choose from, but don’t put a girl on the spot by leaving it entirely up to her.
Don’t call her last-minute, or you run the risk of her already having other plans for the night. Keep the conversation short and to the point, “it’s the adult attitude toward telephone conversations.”
When to bring flowers
Woody panics slightly when he realizes his brother is bringing flowers to his date while Woody didn’t get Anne anything.
“Anne won’t expect flowers, will she?” He asks.
Luckily for him, his brother sets his mind at ease; “Flowers are for a Prom or a very special party, otherwise you don’t need to.”
What a relief.
How to say goodnight
Saying goodnight is the cherry on top of a perfect sundae of an evening, but you have to do it right. As Woody learns, ambushing a girl with an unexpected kiss is not the way to go, neither is saying a curt “so long” and walking away.
“After all,” says the narrator, “a girl likes to know you had a good time.”
It’s time for Woody to try again. There’s no sweet kiss at the end of the date — these films seem to highly disapprove of physical contact, these kids don’t share as much as a handshake — but this time Woody says goodnight with confidence, and reassures Anne that he will call her next week. Atta boy.
Girls were supposed to be modest but receptive, friendly but not too forward, make an effort to look their best but not act conceited on account of their beauty.
A girl was supposed to be organized, penning in dates on her calendar so she doesn’t forget an appointment like Caroline does when Wally asks her out. She should also know how to have fun and make a fellow relax.
Mind what your date can afford
Boys always pay, but that doesn’t mean a girl shouldn’t care how much the date costs. When Wally asks Caroline out, he’s complemented by the narrator on the good sense of implying his price range to Caroline, so she’ll know what to expect.
Before her date with Woody, Anne tells her sister that the important thing on a date is to have fun and that you don’t need a lot of money to do that. She adds that it’s important to “leave your boyfriend enough money so that he’ll ask you again.”
Before Caroline and Wally go out on their date, our faithful narrator advises that “nothing is more casual and more fun than raiding the icebox after a date, and it doesn’t cost anybody a lot of money either.”
Be ready on time — and respect your curfew
Being ready on time was considered a basic etiquette rule. In a time when you couldn’t just text your date to let him know you were running ten minutes late, planning ahead and being ready to greet him at the door was a must.
A girl should have an agreement with her parents about what time to come in, so her folks knew when to expect her. Inviting your boyfriend in to raid the icebox was allowed, as long as you didn’t come home too late.
Don’t be an “easy” girl
One of the lessons these films emphasize is that girls who date all the boys are not really popular or respected, as illustrated by the story of Jenny.
Jenny will go out with a different boy every night, only to be ignored and brushed off by all of them when they meet in school the next day (talk about hypocrisy masquerading as good principles). She’ll go so far as to ask a boy out to a dance — a move that’s promptly received with the coldest shoulder I’ve ever seen.
Jenny parks in cars with boys at night, but that doesn’t make her really popular, “not even with the boys she parks with.”
She’s an “easy” girl, good enough to be used and thrown away by a group of boys who wanted to get laid in high school but marry a virgin after graduation.
The idea that the girls you fool around with are not the girls you marry was alive and well back then, so if you wanted the respect of your peers — not to mention a husband — you’d better keep your legs closed, missy.
These films are beyond fascinating. Although, as David Hoffman explains about his experience as a high school kid in the 50s, “in my classes, and in the classes of others I spoke with, nobody believed these films. These films were fantasies.”
Nevertheless, these films were made and distributed with the intent to guide young people and shape their behavior. In them, you can see the values that the adults responsible for making the films wanted to instill in the young.
These films might have been about young life and young culture, but they were not observational, they were simply prescriptive. No wonder so many kids, Hoffman included, couldn’t see themselves in them.