Meet Mrs. Swenson: A Retro 'Spective
Updated: May 3, 2019
I've devoted far too many hours to watching old films and television programs like this one on YouTube not to comment on them. As a fan of old movies, one of my favorite pastimes is to scour the internet for some of the more obscure pieces of our culture past and break them down to expose their cores. What you are about to read is my first public instance of this sort of behavior, and the victim in question is General Electric's Meet Mrs. Swenson.
But first, a quick synopsis (or just click on the image to watch the film in its entirety).
Meet Mrs. Swenson tells the story not of Mrs. Swenson herself but of another housewife, Mrs. Ellen Forrest. When her husband Milt buys a house without her knowledge (!!!), Mrs. Forrest drives the children to their supposed new address only to find that the new house they've stumbled upon isn't actually theirs at all! After glancing at the brand spanking new kitchen and electric lighting (#midcenturymodern), Mrs. Forrest happens upon some problems she didn't know she had until seeing the contents of that new ranch style house: walking and cleaning are far too much for her to handle all alone, and her kitchen isn't nearly as new as she'd like it to be.
The Forrests move into their own new home, which is much bigger and older than the ultra-modern ranch style home across the street. Mrs. Swenson finally makes an appearance as the housekeeper that Milt hires, but upon looking at the size of their new house she quickly decides to get a "new factory job" instead. This leaves the pregnant Mrs. Forrest to do all the cooking and cleaning by herself. Tired and worn down, she develops a fever and is quickly put to bed by her husband. After a quick visit from the doctor, it is unclear where exactly Ellen goes off to, but the only thing that is clear is that Milt has plans for the electrical wiring, lighting fixtures, and kitchen appliances.
The film ends with much rejoicing when Mrs. Forrest returns to find a brand new kitchen waiting just for her. No longer will she be left all alone to do all the cooking and cleaning when she has 4 of "Mrs. Swenson's family members" (e.g. G. E. appliances) to help her!
...Or will she?
Who would have watched this?
A lot of films and television programs within the genre of educational dramatizations are geared toward teenage girls and young adults, made with the purpose of being used as part of home economics courses. However, this TV program was made with women my age in mind. The context in which someone would watch this programming would therefore have been more straightforward: Meet Mrs. Swenson was an early infomercial.
Remember that this was still the early days of television, and TV business practices were perhaps only just a bit shadier than they are today. Companies weren't required to reveal whether the film in question was paid programming (e.g. infomercials) until the 1960s, and that battle went on for decades afterward. General Electric, along with many other companies, seem to have taken full advantage of this by producing their own television shows, including Meet Mrs. Swenson.*
What's being sold?
This dramercial takes a multifaceted approach to selling 3 physical things:
electrical wiring for the home
mid-sized family units more suited to the mid-century modern style
Perhaps the most important thing being sold, however, is the concept of the modern housewife, a woman who is aided by labor-reducing appliances and whose sole purpose is to feed, clothe, and emotionally soothe and prepare her young. When given the proper tools, these tasks should be the easiest things in the world to do, right? Also, when your kitchen is up to date, you'll never be lonely or feel anger or remorse or bitterness that you're stuck doing everyone's chores all day while they're busy living their lives. Right? RIGHT?
Why am I so fascinated by these types of videos?
I suspect that, like me, many people like to think that TV programs like this one depict life the way it actually was before many of us were even thought of, let alone borne into adulthood. While I am as much a victim of nostalgia as anyone else, my humble opinion is that it's even more fun to pick these films apart and expose them for what they really are, whether the result is good or bad. (Usually it's a little of both, to be honest.)
When I say on Instagram that I'm conflicted about Mrs. Forrest's choice of cooking range, for example, it's because ultimately she's still going to have a mess to clean up. Whether they keep the old stove or buy a new one, she'll still be alone, slaving over that oven without a dishwasher until the next meal or the next room needs cleaned. There's no real romance there, no matter how much G. E. wanted women to think that there was at the time.
It makes me wonder how many women may have believed that these time-saving gadgets and appliances might lead to a world in which we could all put our feet up and collectively rest on our laurels without thinking about where our children are or whether they're healthy or if they fit in with society's rather arbitrary requirements. It speaks to a Cold War mentality of underlying fear about the future. Given everything that has transpired since, that is fascinating AF.
How does Meet Mrs. Swenson shape up?
It has family conflict and drama! It has a husband who is actually sort of likeable and human. He makes a mistake and then fixes it in the best way he knows how, by buying Ellen the kitchen of her dreams. It depicts the perfect nuclear family, but acknowledges some of their imperfections through sibling squabbles and parents who ARE HAVING A DISCUSSION and not arguing, THANKYOUVERYMUCH. I suppose it also helps that the actors in this film weren't awful.
But then there was that major plot hole with a series of questions attached. Where DID Mrs. Forrest go to recover after her illness? Was she actually sick, or did Milt and the doctor conspire to make her believe she was sick so that she would go away to recover? How did she hide her pregnancy so well for what seemed like the span of a few months?
In my mind, the biggest question of all still remains unanswered: why did Milt toss out that BEAUTIFUL 1920s-era gas range?? I would have gladly taken it off his hands!
And of course, there's everything we discussed earlier about how infomercials were disguised as TV dramas to get us to buy their products as well as buy into their thoughts on what a woman's role in the household should have been. Not to mention, for what was supposed to be an educational drama, there was very little real education involved.
I guess I'll give it a C+. Good execution, terrible treatment of what would now probably be considered historic artifacts in that kitchen.
So where does that leave us? Has anything REALLY changed?
You may have picked up on a subtle trend in recent years regarding social media influencers and the way that they sell us products. The Federal Trade Commision has guidelines on how to conduct these transmissions. Just like television programs must disclose whether their programming is in fact advertising by law, social media influencers are required to do the same. But do they always follow the rules?
The sheer volume of posts that go out must at minimum keep the FTC on their toes. Influencers who have millions of followers sometimes sell dubious products that at best have all the effects of a placebo and at worst can make you very sick. So if you ever hear us joke on Lost in the Pond about how our videos aren't sponsored, it's because influencer culture is still in its teething stage and has forced those of us who create to clarify that we truly just want to share these products with you, not because they're sponsored but because we like them. Or hate them. Or want to comment on them. Or anything other than being paid to endorse them online.
In the end, it's still up to us to make sure that we're making informed decisions about our own purchases, just like it was back then. One of the reasons why I love vintage clothing and antiquing is because the best vintage boutiques are generally quite upfront about the conditions of their wares. We're also living in an age when it's easier than ever to get a second opinion, and consumer advocacy groups are easily accessible via their own websites. However, the internet has only really entered into its teen years, and much like in the early days of TV regulation, it just hasn't sorted itself out yet.
*In a hilarious turn of events, President Ronald Reagan, who was an actor in the 1950s, worked as the host and sometimes star of General Electric Theater. This is another series of great examples of early infomercials disguised as television dramas. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was also the president who lifted restrictions on how much time can be devoted to commercials over the course of an hour of television programming, making it one of his first shows of power. No one can argue that the man clearly stuck to his guns, so to speak.
Tell me what you think. Did you watch the video? Do you agree or disagree or think I'm just rambling? Let me know in the comments below!