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TV History: Leave It to Beaver

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Complexity Within the Limits

by Daniel Rowe

Typically, the television programming of the late 1950s is seen as tamer and blander than the popular shows earlier in the decade. Shows in the early included variety programs with vaudevillian humor, complex anthology dramas that drew movie stars as guest performers, and sitcoms starring women like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen who challenged the status quo with their verbal and physical slapstick comedy. However, toward the end of the decade, the type of program prominently featured on television changed. The anthology dramas and sitcoms with strong female leads were generally replaced with formulaic western action dramas and tame family sitcoms. Leave it to Beaver was a popular family sitcom from the late 1950s that was known for its inoffensive and conservative humor and its embrace of established cultural norms. “Beaver and Henry,” the thirty-sixth episode of the first season of Leave it to Beaver, is typical of the family sitcoms of the late 1950s in that it emphasizes “traditional” gender and family roles, while simultaneously tackling difficult and sometimes controversial topics in subtle ways.
This clip begins with a conversation between Beaver’s parents, and the content of the conversation is indicative of the way spousal relationships were portrayed on television in the 1950s. When the father incorrectly introduces the rabbit as a male and the mother corrects him, the father inquires, “What’s the reason for this superior attitude?” The mother’s tone, while perhaps dripping with a bit of sarcasm, does not suggest a superior attitude, so the father’s line is rather a suggestion of the male’s discomfort with being corrected by a female. Additionally, the very fact that the mother was the only member of the family to notice the rabbit’s pregnancy is reminiscent of the sentiment that women’s place in society was as child bearers and homemakers. The conversation ends with the mother telling a corny joke and the father rubbing her head, as someone would do to a child. This scene in “Beaver and Henry” is clearly demonstrating the superiority of men in the 1950s household and not challenging gender roles in the slightest. Television historian Susan Douglas lauds the accomplishments of the bold women of early 1950s television comedies, like Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, and Molly Goldberg of The Goldbergs. She says, “Either physically or verbally, or both, these women refused to stay in their place, and broke the stays of corseted demureness” (Douglas 50). Douglas contrasts the portrayal of these women on television with the way women were portrayed later in the decade, in shows like Leave it to Beaver, writing, “By the late 1950s, when these shows were replaced by Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver, with their cookie-cutter moms, television’s physical and linguistic containment of women was complete” (51). The way the mother is characterized in “Beaver and Henry” is consistent with Douglas’s argument in that she entirely one-dimensional; her only role in the show and in the family is to provide support to her male counterparts.
While shows like Leave it to Beaver may not have been as daring as shows from earlier in the ‘50s, that does not mean that moments of complex and important storytelling did not occur within the ever-increasing rigidity of the sitcom format. In “Beaver and Henry,” Beaver has to grapple with the implied death of one of the rabbit’s newborn babies, a death which is caused by Beaver’s ignorance of the effects of how he physically handles the rabbits. The moral implications of this conflict are heavier subject matter than Leave it to Beaver typically addresses, and the way the burden of guilt weighs on Beaver is evident in viewing the episode. He is so consumed with the consequences of his actions, that he and his friend concoct an elaborate plan to potentially save the young bunny’s life. When his father inquires as to why Beaver did not come to his parents with this issue earlier, Beaver replies, “Well…I guess I was scared…’cause I did somethin’ bad,” indicating that Beaver is aware of the moral nature of his actions.
While this episode of Leave it to Beaver does not challenge any societal norms or tackle any controversial topics like race or gender, it does construct a narrative around a moral dilemma, which is more complex storytelling than most “cookie-cutter” sitcoms would attempt. As Horace Newcomb points out, television, as it gained popularity, was responsible for providing content to which people from all across the country could relate (123). Considering the limited programming available on the three networks in the 1950s, this was a difficult task. Thus, tame and non-challenging programming like Leave it to Beaver came to prominence. While this show and others like it rarely challenged societal norms, the writers of sitcoms in the 1950s still managed to construct complex narratives while simultaneously appealing to the masses.

Works Cited

Douglas, S. (1995). Mama Said. Where the Girls Are, 43-60. Retrieved February 28, 2017.

Newcomb, H. (1997). The Opening of America. The Other Fifties, 103-123. Retrieved February 28, 2017.

"Beaver and Henry," Leave It to Beaver

This is a pair of clips from the Leave It to Beaver episode entitled "Beaver and Henry," which first aired on June 18, 1958, on CBS.

from Leave It to Beaver (1958)
Creator: CBS; Director: Norman Tokar; Writers: Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher
Posted by Christine Becker