The American situation comedy, Leave It to Beaver, is a display of gender and the family dynamic that swept the nation after World War II and the Great Depression. Nuclear families were small; most households consisted of two adults, male and female, and no more than three children. Sitcoms presented wild antics by children and wives that disturbed a quiet family life headed by an indomitable father. Gender roles in sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver were clearly defined and the family dynamic was traditional; the father worked, the mother stayed home, and the children were content and happy.
Contrary to popular belief by the following generations, the quiet and simple American dream lived by sitcoms families never existed outside of the television studio. Television emerged in the 1950’s as a dominating force. Watching television in one’s own home seemed much easier than going to the movie theater. While most of society was at home watching television, movie ticket sales dropped dramatically. This was the birth of the sitcom.
People wanted to see lighthearted entertainment on television after the tumult of World War II and the Great Depression; this gave way to television families and their zany world. The 1950’s is usually regarded as quiet and happy, and Leave It to Beaver “reflected back to America this calming sense of happy normalcy. ” As depicted in Leave It to Beaver, Ward Cleaver worked a nine-to-five job and saw his family at night and on weekends. Fathers were the disciplinarians and controlled all financial matters in the household.
Fathers also offered sage advice to his children. June Cleaver, on the other hand, was a housewife and mother. Mothers, like the children, received a weekly allowance from their husbands and they made sure the house was clean, meals were prepared, and children were happy and content. Wally and Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver were well-adjusted children with relatively happy and content lives. Sitcom families set a national standard for families everywhere. However, a “sitcom” life was often plagued with troubles for the families who tried to achieve the perfect life.
The rise of “middle class” required the “breadwinner”, usually the father, to be away on business for extended periods of time while the mother suffered troubles of her own. While June Cleaver mopped the floor wearing pearls and pumps, real women suffered not being able to sign a legally-binding contract or have a credit card in their own name. After World War II, millions of soldiers were discharged from the military. House developer William J. Levitt touted the houses he built in 1950. They were identical box-like houses.
The soldiers and their families then moved from the city to these suburbs. The neighborhoods where Levitt built his houses were orderly and identical. There were to be no fences built, laundry could only be hung on rotary racks and only during the weekdays, and lawns were to be mowed once a week. Leave It to Beaver was set in this middle-class suburbia. Their home, like other homes on the Cleaver’s block, were comfortable, but modest. Television portrayed suburbia, filled with only young, white couples, most with well-adjusted children, as the perfect place to live.
Television, however, did not mention the culture and diversity that was missing. Everything was white-washed; the houses all had the same layout and everyone had the same goals and economic status. These suburban neighborhoods was the perfect setting for non-dysfunctional, happy families where the mother could lead a quiet life cooking and cleaning during the day, the father could have a warm place to come home to after a hard day at work, and the children could safely ride their bikes up and down the block with their friends.
It has been argued that living in the suburbs and having a family was patriotic. In the 1950’s the United States had just entered an economic boom following World War II. Anything that had to do with bettering the United States was considered patriotic. For example, buying U. S. -made goods such as cars, refrigerators and televisions was considered helping the country by keeping Americans employed in factories, and therefore considered patriotic. Owning a house and having a family were ideals of the time. One of the most important features of the 1950’s sitcom family were gender roles.
Every family featured a mother, father and various children. The mother stayed in the home, cooking and cleaning, and the father spent his day at work. Boys and girls were taught to value and excel at different things. For example, if a couple had boys, the boys were urged to concentrate on academics and sports, and if a couple had girls, the girls were groomed to take care of a home and family. In the twentieth century, women’s opportunities and rights expanded. More women entered the workforce, for example, however, women were still largely responsible for keeping a tidy home.
The topic of women in the workforce was not discussed in American sitcoms of the 1950’s. The only working women that were shown were single white women as teachers of African-American women as housekeepers. It has been argued that the dominant beliefs and concerns about gender pertained only to the middle-class white woman. African-American women felt that their needs, experiences and perceptions were largely ignored while the world revolved around white society. In the 1950’s this was a sad reality. Leave It to Beaver was the only show of its kind to tell its stories from the point of view of a child.
(Linehan, 115) Life in the 1950’s, through a child’s eyes, was sweet and simple. When problems came up, they were always resolved with wise advice and a gently-learned lesson. Ward and June were completely supportive, no one ever really fought, and at the end of the day, everyone was smiling. In the Cleaver household, it seemed that June was low on the list of priorities. She was a housewife and mother who always looked her best and always had a kind word to say. She seemed genuinely happy to play the role in the home that she did. She also had some input on Wally and Beaver were disciplined.
Ward and June talked over what Wally and Beaver’s punishments should be, but ultimately, it was Ward’s decision, and June nodded and smiled, accepting whatever her husband said. She also never concerned herself with financial matters, and left that area of the household to Ward. Sitcoms were an exit for society. They presented humorous situations that always found a happy ending. These comedic situations often mirrored the real worries of the time. Any person watching sitcoms could enjoy the humor while relieving the stress of their everyday lives.
The Cleavers were the quintessential American family who lived the traditional American dream. Gender roles and the family dynamic were clearly defined; the woman was a housewife and mother while the man was a working husband and father, and together they had happy children and lead quiet, happy lives. This is what every American wants – happiness. Television is supposed to be an escape from reality; people could leave their possibly bleak lives for a moment and enter a world where everything works out to a happy ending. This is what Leave It to Beaver provided for its audience – simple happiness.
– 1950s: Pop Culture Explodes in a Decade of Conformity in Pendergast, Sara and Tom, Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. Detroit, U*X*L, 2002. – Finkelstein, Norman H. The Way Things Never Were: The Truth About the “Good Old Days”. New York, Atheneum Books, 1999. – Gourley, Catherine. Gidgets and Women Warriors: Perceptions of Women in the 1950s and 1960s. Minneapolis, MN, Twenty-First Century Books, 2008. – Hausman, Bernice L. Gender and Gender Roles in Kutler, Stanley I. , Dictionary of American History.
New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. – Horsley, Edith. The 1950s. London, Bison Books Limited, 1978. – Linehan, Joyce. Leave It to Beaver in Pendergast, Sara and Tom, St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit, St. James Press, 2000. – Passing Parade: A History of Popular Culture in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Richard Maltby. London, Oxford University Press, 1989. – Suburbia in Tompkins, Vincent, American Decades. Detroit, Gale, 2001. – The 1950s Arts and Entertainment: Overview in Pendergast, Sara and Tom, U*X*L American Decades. Detroit, U*X*L, 2003.
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