Who Was Mother’s Little Helper?

“Doctor please, some more of these, Outside the door, she took four more.” The Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper” paints the tragic reality of the nations most “smartly dressed junkie”: the American housewife. Though the American housewife was not a new concept, what transpired after World War II created new perameters for women that only heightened this preexisting concept of domestication. World War II fundamentally changed the cultural landscape of gender roles and expectations, allowing women to fill traditional male roles while the men were in battle. Prior to World War II, women hadn’t experienced this level of autonomy which caused a new host of problems pertaining to the transition back to such antiquated gender roles. Though men felt emasculated in their new desk jobs, the transition was particularly difficult for women who had tasted freedom in some capacity during the war, encapsulated by Rosie The Riveter, and were forced back into domesticity seceding it. Though America experienced an economic boom after the war leading to prosperity and a renewed sense of hope in the American Dream, the 1950’s were also dubbed the “age of anxiety,” diverting from stereotypes about this “golden era.” For example, about half of the New York population was experiencing some kind of anxiety disorder during this time period. Anxiety was an intersectional issue spanning class gender and race contrary to the popular belief at the time, it was not just a middle class disorder. The gender role crisis was fortified by the Freudian psychoanalytic ideals that had been seeping into mainstream culture, popularizing mental health disorders. It is often said that art immitates life; representation of the addiction sweeping the country spanned multiple forms of media demanding a wake up call for the victims and institutions responsible. Advertising companies capitalized off of these new toxic gender roles and the desire to live anxiety-free lives and in doing so, “transformed doctors and patients into consumers.” 

The diagnosis of mental health disorders was an intersectional issue because there was a treatment disparity between class and gender. Almost everybody suffered, but the wealthy were the ones that had access to treatment. It was not unusual for someone with means to go to a physician for everyday problems such as anxiety due to minor inconveniences, but the poor tended to avoid physicians as they were distrustful, and remained skeptical of the validity of their own problems. This led many to let their problems develop into monsters far beyond average neuroses leading to high numbers of poor people in mental hospitals with schizophrenia diagnoses that arrived through the criminal justice system rather than self appointed administration. The language surrounding those who receive mental help also played a large role in who was getting the prescriptions. Poor neurotic people were viewed as belligerent but rich people with problems were simply dissatisfied with themselves. It is also important to note that marginalized groups suffer from these symptoms on a regular basis but it was thought that “coarser less refined souls” would be unphased by these diseases. Rollo May felt that “anxiety resulted from a cleavage between expectations and reality, he argued that the middle-class white women’s greater distress reflected their higher life expectations,” ultimately making the assertion that anxiety was a middle-class disease. Certain illnesses became “trendy” for this group of people such as neurasthenia: a diagnosis reserved for “anglo-saxon people with refined intelligence and refined sensibilities.” Neurasthenia also had intersections with gender because people believed that unnatural gender roles were the reason so many middle and upper class men and women were suffering the same symptoms. It seemed the only logical treatment for this was to overcompensate to “reverse” the “gender crisis.” For example, some doctors claimed that men should partake in more masculine activities such as physical sports and hunting to restore their vitality while women should go on bed rest to restore their natural passivity. Fundamentally expressing that the catalyst for this disease was due to straying from gender roles led people to believe that pills would restore the natural order of gender thus ridding them of their anxiety. However, “feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that enforced passivity itself was the root cause of neurasthenia, since it kept women from much-needed engagement with social and political life,” commenting on the idea that the oppression women faced was cyclical in nature. Though the disease faded away, other labels replaced it and the same logic ultimately persisted. 

After World War II, the transition from the battlefield to suburbia led to the phenomenon of emasculation. This obsession with hypermasculinity ultimately deterred men from reaching for a pill to quell their anxiety. The advertising companies understood that marketing to men would not be as lucrative so they learned how to manipulate the market and target women, specifically upper class white women who had access to treatment. Before this time period Freud had come out with psychoanalytic theories which ultimately popularized psychiatry and anxiety disorders as a whole which remained applicable and credible in this time period. “The idea of psychiatric help, understood in Freudian terms, became a hugely popular concern. Everyone thought they should be better adjusted at work and be more mentally healthy. Anxiety was a trendy disorder,” Nicole Rasmussen remarks. Ultimately, the capitalization of the psychiatric craze and the emasculation men felt towards prescription drugs along with the exponential boredom and anxiety felt by women in the domestic sphere provided the perfect niche market. During the early 1950’s, drugs shared the spotlight with popular antibiotics, not yet becoming “blockbuster” drugs, however this all changed when Miltown hit the shelves. “Miltown’s introduction into the market was initially underwhelming, selling just $7,500 dollars worth during the first month after its launch in May 1955. But by the end of that year, sales hit $2 million.” The language used to describe the mental health discrepancies between men and women trickled into how the media targeted their customers. Housewives were expected to remain within their domestic spheres bolstering extreme boredom, pressure, and anxiety, but instead of implementing lifestyle changes to effectively manage their stress, doctors began prescribing Miltown and it soon became America’s favorite sedative and mother’s little helper. In the Miltown advertisement on the left, the tag-line reads “pregnancy can be made a happier experience…” while also promising “complete relief from insomnia, anxiety and emotional upsets” and “no adverse” physical effects. The advertisement depicts a white, well dressed woman holding a price tag for a crib with her dainty gloved hands. During pregnancy, women will naturally experience said symptoms largely due to hormonal changes that are not typically debilitating but women were convinced that these symptoms were a deterrent to their overall happiness, aka, their ability to conform to society’s expectations for women. Furthermore, this advertisement is largely ironic because the FDA stated in 1976 that popular tranquilizers, Miltown included, can potentially cause birth defects if taken with the first three months of pregnancy, less than 20 years after this advertisement was produced. 

Advertising companies disguised their true intentions of subduing women into domestic passivity by promising them relief of their symptoms, allowing them to capitalize off of the panic surrounding shifting gender roles. Throughout the 50’s, these advertisements began circulating popular news sources such as “(Newsweek, Time, Science Digest) and women’s magazines (Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal).” These sources reached a mass audience, specifically women, creating the connection between patients and consumers, planting the idea in people’s heads that a pill would fix their problems. Though the drug was masqueraded as safe, it was still habit forming and people built tolerances causing them to take higher and higher doses to get the same effects easily leading to unintentional overdoses. As time progressed, prescription medication became more and more prevalent and advertising tactics became increasingly overt. For example, in the 1970’s, almost 20 years after the release of Miltown, almost 100 million prescriptions were written for Valium alone, another “blockbuster drug.” A study during the 1960s revealed that women were being prescribed Valium twice as much as men. As sedatives became more associated with women, the neurosies these drugs were treating also grew in association with femininity reflected in the violently misogynistic depictions in advertisements. The Butisol advertisement to the left depicts yet another middle class white woman, this time in the kitchen getting tied up by her child in a playful way with arguably darker associations to the incarcerating reality of domesticity. The rope represents the way in which the housewife is ultimately encompassing child rearing and cooking. The tag-line reads “now she can cope…a daytime sedative for everyday emotional stress.” A frustrating element of this advertisement is the language surrounding the said anxiety. Phrases in the description such as “situational stress,” “worry,” and “pressure” connote problems that can be fixed with therapy or other means that don’t require the numbing of a pill describes as an “anxiety-allying agent,” further bolstering the conception that the pills are helpful and benign. Furthermore, the warning on the ad states that it “may be habit forming” which to any consumer, would not cause concern. There is no mention of possible overdose or fatality. One of the “adverse side effects” is stated as drowsiness similar to a “hangover.” The advertisement overtly expresses the idea that in order to cook and raise children–the limited scope of womanhood–you have to be sedated to be able to perform effectively in the societally contrived role. If women felt slightly stressed, they didn’t have to change their environment or advocate for their emotions, they could simply reach for a pill to quell their anxiety which was harmful to themselves and those around them in their constant sedation. 

In this advertisement, a woman is seen behind a plethora of cleaning products, the brooms resembling prison bars. Her facial expression shows desperation, and anxiety. She is completely overwhelmed by her domestic obligations. The caption reads, “You can’t set her free, but you can help her feel less anxious,” again blatantly avoiding the root cause of the issues by making lifestyle changes but instead opting for quick fix because they firmly believed that women and men had stagnant roles to fill. Again in the description, the advertisers express that “you cannot change her environment of course” because what else would a woman be good for except cleaning, cooking, and parenting? The ad proceeds to say that though “your reassurance and guidance may have helped some,” only a pill can truly lift her out of her depression. The use of your seems to be addressing the husband of the housewife further relinquishing any atonomy a woman had over her body and her mind. Though the pills were advertised as benign medication, in reality, they caused housewives to conform to their gender roles by sedating them into blind submission. 

Representation of the theme of medicating women into passivity spanned across multiple media outlets. The Rolling Stones released a song in 1966 about Valium. They referred to the pills as a“mother’s little helper,” coining the term just before the drug “became the top-selling pharmaceutical in the United States from 1968 until 1982 with a peak of 2.3 billion tablets sold in 1978.” One of the opening lines states “‘kids are different today’ I hear every mother say,” likely referring to the pervasive teenage culture proceeding the baby boom, causing mothers to feel overwhelmed and out of control. The next lines states “Mother needs something today to calm her down, And though she’s not really ill,There’s a little yellow pill.” Again, we see commentary that reflects unnecessary cause for medication, even though she’s not sick she still seeks “the shelter of a mother’s little helper.” The next verse she expresses that “Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag, So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak.” This verse speaks upon the tedious domestic duties that were expected of women. Though the song could be considered condescending and invalidating, it is worth noting that women of this generation were educated, many had worked in the war and experienced life beyond what their mothers had, so to go from living life to merely existing created a depressing reality for many women. Their identity was now tethered to the brooms in their hands, the baby in their arms, and the casserole in the oven. Women were fundamentally reduced to objects, like dolls with different functions. As the song progresses, after analyzing the lyrics, I noticed that at first only “two (pills) help her on her way” but soon, it takes “four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight.” On top of this, she takes “four more behind the door” speaking upon the way women would take more than their recommended doses without consulting their doctors to feel the same pain relief due to their tolerances building slowly. Furthermore, the pronouns of the song change about half way from her to you, signifying a wake up call for the listeners of the song, insinuating that though your addiction isn’t your fault, nobody else is going to save you and admitting is always the first step. The line “(men are) so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind” could insinuate that not only are women domestic servants, but are reduced further to sexual objects that need to be numbed to get through wifely“duties.” The last verse of the song expresses the darker realities of addiction, “The pursuit of happiness just seems a bore, And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose.” The song expresses how quickly an addiction can turn fatal which wasn’t often acknowledged in mainstream media at the time, especially from the advertisers and pharmaceutical companies. This song captures the sentiment that they were slowly killing themselves taking pill after pill with no regard for tomorrow.

         The movie Valley of The Dolls from 1967, the film adaptation of the book by Jaqueline Suzanne, highlights narcotics as a treatment for Hollywood female film stars by their agencies and doctors. The characters in the film refer fondly to their pills as “dolls,” short for Dolaphine which is the brand name for Methadone. The word doll is also used to describe attractive women creating the connection between the pills that women that use them. This could be connected to the idea that women can’t fulfill their “doll” like roles without the help of a pill. The name also reflects the way in which the pills were considered to be toys and childlike crutches for the user leading to dependence and addiction. One of the main characters, Neeley O’hara, is on set complaining of the hot stage lights when she storms off stage in frustration to be berated by her male producers. The director states, “It’s not booze its pills” that’s causing her to act up. Later that night after a troubling interaction with her love interest she is seen “taking dolls” with liquor to help her fall asleep, and again in the morning to wake her up. Soon the character begins spiraling into addiction causing her to be admitted into a hospital. Though the film is a mostly fictitious storyline, it is heavily based on the real lives of Hollywood stars reflecting the self destructive behavior of women all over the country during this time period. 

During the war, men and women adopted new roles: women were effectively running a country, affording them unprecedented autonomy, while many men were contributing directly to the war effort through militia. This temporary military-based society shifted the gender roles, causing a stir after the war was over and a subsequent desire to return to a “simpler time” with more rigid gender roles. Though men felt emasculated in their new desk jobs, women dealt with excruciating boredom and constraint in their suburban, domestic bubble causing anxiety. In the postwar era, the economic boom along with patriotism linked with consumerism caused consumer culture to be at an all time high extending from kitchen appliances to narcotics. Advertisements portrayed sedatives as medicine rather than addictive narcotics with serious side effects. They conflated daily struggles with existential crises to bolster sales while convincing women their anxiety was a deterrent to fulfilling their designated roles. Along with post-war gender panic, advertising agencies created customers out of patients, bolstering high sales and deadly addictions.


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