The 1950s Television Family
INTRODUCTION; FAMILY COMPOSITION
“Another popular genre was the family comedy, full of warm, homey values typified by The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Father Knows Best, and Mama. Such family shows have been among TVs longest running series.” (Brooks xv)
The situation comedies, or sitcoms, of the 1950s were the portrayals of the “All-American family” as the American people perceived the concept, unlike the real life situations of the American family. With families rebuilding from the wars which reeked havoc on the nuclear traditional family, television sitcoms became modes of escape from the reality of life (Huston). Many of these sitcoms were transformed into television shows, which originated as radio programs during the 1940s (Internet). As radio programs, and later television sitcoms, these shows set the precedent for the image of the “perfect” family. The stereotype for the “All-American family” included the responsible male head of the family, the submissive and obedient wife, the dutiful children, and the occasional heroic canine companion. This ideal stereotype image of the family directly reflects the definitions of the nuclear family explained and described by Webster and Huston. During the 1950s, television families were mostly white, young, and harmonious. These characters were affable to family, friends and neighbors, held ideal jobs, resided in impeccable neighborhoods and controlled spotless homes. In addition to the atmospheric elements surrounding the actors, the characters themselves were spotless and pristine. Fathers carried high quality leather briefcases, wore professional suits, and donned modern watches. Mothers were immaculate; sporting perfectly styled hair, wore spotless dresses and adorned themselves with pearls as their daily jewelry. The children were often clean cut and sported school paraphernalia clothing, such as varsity sweaters and jackets.
The American family was set in the nuclear dynamic for several possible reasons. Some researchers, including Daniel Scott Smith, Louis Wirth, and Ralph Linton, say that the family was originally an extended family, but at some point, transformed into the nuclear family, of just the father, mother and children. Other researchers, such as Marvin Sussman, and Eugene Litwak, claim the nuclear family has always been in place, however, a network of nuclear families inter-related created the extended family that became more prominent at the time, and therefore historically recorded as the extended family (Ruggles).
In Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), issues such as identifying the masculine and feminine roles, the primary financial supporter for the family, and punctuating the concept of mindful and obedient children were clearly defined (Internet). The views of masculine and feminine roles in the family portrayed on television during this time were stereotypical and corresponded to traditional views of such roles which had been dutifully performed for centuries. Males had the privilege to be highly educated, to hold significant careers and were the acknowledged head of the household. Women of the time were discouraged from attending higher education institutions, as had been the tradition for years. Higher education for women was relatively uncommon which brought forth the concept of which women were expected to be wives and maternal nurturers as their primary role.
The children were an essential part of the close-knit family unit, and were not rebellious, nor did they lead alternative lifestyles. On the rare occasion the children were disobedient, it was only in the form of mischief. Their negative acts portrayed in the early television shows consisted of throwing rocks at windows, painting on a neighbors’ mailbox, or being “cheeky” to their parents.
Father Knows Best
Father Knows Best (1954-1960) originated as a radio show, and eventually became one of the first programs to be reformatted for television (Internet). The show projects the image of the family in an atmosphere which radiated warmth, wholesome family values with playful, but never acerbic, humor. The family itself appears as a strong and positive nuclear unit, following the definition of the nuclear family; father, mother and children. James Anderson, portrayed by Robert Young, is the unquestioned head of the family (Internet). He undertakes the role of head of the family and primary financial provider with gusto. He is an “ideal husband” who loves his wife, never strays from the sense of domestic felicity, and is adored if not adulated by his three children. Father Knows Best is not only the title but also the essential theme of the show. The title refers, sometimes ironically, to the often successful and occasionally questionable advice James Anderson provides his family, in particular his three children.
To accompany James Anderson on his journey before the American audience, was his wife, Margaret Anderson, portrayed by Jane Wyatt, and their three children, portrayed by Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, and Lauren Chappin (Brooks 346).
A typical show included James coming home from his place of employment, which we rarely see. He would walk in the home and change into his comfortable sweater from his sports jacket and then handle the day’s problems. Both he and his wife Margaret were considered smart, thoughtful, caring, and responsible parents, who dealt with limited family, social, and cultural issues.
The titles of the episodes give a good idea of the major social and cultural values represented in this early series. In Season One, for example, Episode Two is entitled “Lesson in Citizenship,” while Episode Four is entitled “Football Tickets,” referring to the favorite All-American sport. Episode 10, “Typical Father,” immediately refers to the paternal role, as does Episode 23: “Proud Father.” In Season Two, the apparent undercutting of the father figure in “Father is a Dope,” is countered by the final episode of the season entitled “Hero Father” (Internet).
The introduction to the first episode aired in 1949 over the radio airwaves of NBC Radio (Brooks 346). It set the scene for both the radio and television series as presenting the stereotypical All American family;
“In an average town, Springfield, on an average street, Maple, lives an average American family, the Henderson’s. The husband, Jim is very much in love with his wife Margaret, and they’re both quite fond of their three children, Betty, Bud, and Kathleen. Which, I should say, is an average way for parents to feel. On this particular morning which is an average sort of day, the Henderson’s are ready for an average sort of meal, breakfast…Well, they’re suppose to be ready, but you know how it is.” (Generic)
Despite the humor of the announcer’s attempt at playfully creating an “average” day in the life of middle America, nevertheless, stereotypical roles for the males and females, parents and children have thus been set. Within the single paragraph, cited above, references to parental attitudes towards children, a husband’s duty to love his wife, and the concept that these attributes may only occur in “an average town…on an average street” are all addressed and placed as the standard for the “American family” (Generic).
Leave it to Beaver
Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) first aired on October 4, 1957, the same day the Soviets launched Sputnik (Brooks 586). Jerry Mathers headed up the cast as the misfortunate, yet lovable Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver. Dubbed ‘Beaver’ by his older brother Wally, played by Tony Dow, the show centers on the trials and tribulations in the lives of the two boys (Internet). Themes for this program did not focus primarily on gender roles and family roles. Rather, Leave it to Beaver dealt in depth with the values and interaction of the parental units and their offspring. The show’s name deviated from the phrase “Leave it to Beaver”. Most times referring to the fact that only Beaver Cleaver would be able to find a way into the current predicament for the running episode. Unpredictable events may have happened to the youngest Cleaver, and at times between the two boys, though whatever the issue at hand became, the Cleaver sons held a brotherly love that quickly became the center of the show. This led to the idolization of Wally by young Beaver Cleaver; “You know something, Wally? I’d rather do nothing with you than somethin’ with anybody else” (Internet).
The themes of the series dealt with events the boys encountered on a daily basis such as; driving, school bullies, teen growing pains, and the most confusing issue; teenage girls. Episode titles themselves gave the viewers the understanding that the show centered around the two boys. The premier season boasted titles such as “Brotherly Love” for the sixth episode and “Wally’s Girl Trouble” for episode 10 (Internet). Through the following years, the issues the boys undertook progressed as they grew. Topics concerning Wally transgressed from teenage girls to college courses and professors, while Beaver slowly began his “torturous” journey with the teenage girl. In comparing the issues the boys dealt with during the premier season, in its final season titles included “Wally and the Fraternity” for episode 28 and “Beaver’s Graduation” for episode 34 (Internet).
Though the centrifugal force of the show emphasized the boys’ life, the show’s comedy found a home at the undermining of the parental control, as well as offering insights to the relationship between the parents and their children in sitcoms.
June Cleaver: Wally, where are you going?
Wally Cleaver: I’m going over to slug Eddie.
June Cleaver: That’s no way to talk, this is Sunday.
Wally Cleaver: You’re right, I’ll wait ‘til tomorrow and slug him in the
The undermining attitude of the child against the parent, as just portrayed, was the worst event that most sitcoms at this time portrayed as a rife in the lives of these characters. Most times sarcasm became the most common form of this sense of undermining, thus beginning sarcasm as a popular way to find humor between the parental units of a family and the children.
The populations in these shows were very homogenous, similar to the setting of the sitcoms, being white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs. Minorities were rarely seen. With the few minorities making appearances on these early sitcoms, the roles were menial and only supportive. In both Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, the families were white wholesome families. There were few guests which were minorities. In the cases which minorities were introduced to the cast, there was often much confusion with comprehension of language, culture, or both. For example, in one situation, June Cleaver was attempting to converse with a new neighbor, who incidentally was Mexican. This new impeccably orderly neighbor spoke only Spanish. With Mrs. Cleaver unable to comprehend the language, she turned to her husband who comes through the clean white swinging door to the living room. She asks her husband, as a dutiful wife should, to translate the language for her. At this point the all knowing stereotype of the male head of the family is broken, when Mr. Cleaver couldn’t make heads or tails of the language. However, in coherence with the image of the “All-American family” Mr. Cleaver takes charge and turns the, what should be awkward situation, into a hilarious comedy routine which resulted with both families spent from attempting to communicate with one another (Internet).
Families portrayed in 1950s sitcoms were not only nuclear “All-American families”, they were also never threatened by death or other events. These sitcoms also never raised social issues such as working women, homosexuality, challenging gender roles, or ethnical diversity. These situations and issues did not fit into the perfect small world they lived in. The small neighborhood, clean lawns and well kept homes were almost immune to the imminent and raucous issues of the real world.
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Until next time,
Peace, Love and Pandas!