Visibility Matters: The Pursuit of American Belonging in an Age of Moving Images

Members of the Hollywood Race Relations Bureau picket Paramount Studios in January 1962 (Jet magazine, January 25, 1962)

Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2015.

Visibility Matters is the history of a notion: that in the twentieth-century United States, to be fully present and fairly portrayed in movies and on television was both a prelude to other forms of inclusion and, in itself, an essential part of true national belonging. Virtually since the birth of the motion picture as a commercial entertainment with a mass audience in 1910s, through the movies’ maturation and then their battle for supremacy with television, and through to the rise of TV as the predominant medium for mass entertainment by the 1960s and 1970s, this conviction prompted racial, ethnic, religious minorities, and eventually other marginalized social groups as well, to criticize what they saw on screen, and to organize and agitate to change it. Even as Irish Americans and Jews, African Americans and women, and Latinos and gays and lesbians struggled to dismantle the legal, political, and social structures that enforced their marginalization, many were preoccupied by whether people like them were fairly represented on screen. They were certain that their visibility mattered.

Over the course of the twentieth century, each of these groups laid claim to full citizenship and seized some share of the political and cultural power once wielded by a narrow elite. Simultaneously, new media technologies and mass cultural forms fundamentally altered how Americans learned about the modernizing world around them, spent their leisure time, and interacted with one another. By tracing the history of its titular notion—an evolving but persistently powerful way of thinking that viewed political and cultural incorporation as worthy, tightly interconnected goals—Visibility Matters provides a novel perspective on these two momentous transformations, their deep entanglement with one another, and the changes they together wrought in American life.

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(This dissertation is copyright © 2015 by Brian Joseph Distelberg. All rights reserved. Please contact me with any inquiries, including requests to republish or otherwise use this work, in whole or in part.)

Header image: Members of the Hollywood Race Relations Bureau picket Paramount Studios in January 1962.  Jet magazine, January 25, 1962, p. 62.