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TV History: Father Knows Best

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Commitment to Gender Roles

by Matthew Gamble

Matt Gamble - Commitment to Gender Roles

During the 1950’s, television served as a way of keeping one connected to the outside world. After WWII, and after the “migration” from urban communities to suburban communities, there was a sense of loneliness that people felt in their new homes. Television filled this void. The shows that were produced during this decade were shows the entire nation could watch, and as a result, the 1950’s can often be touted as the “Golden Age” of television. This Golden Age saw the birth of anthologies, which would later become praised as being the “height of television art.” These anthologies were intimate dramas that exaggerated everyday struggles. For the first time, movie stars would act in these weekly episodes, attracting more viewers to television than ever before. While these anthologies were originally considered the height of television art, major changes in the American television industry from the early 1950’s to the late 1950’s resulted in the decline of anthology dramas, and contrastingly, the rise of westerns, sitcoms, and action series. With this shift from live to telefilm, and from ad agency to network control, one of these new types of series that saw success was the sitcom: “Father Knows Best.” This American sitcom ran from 1954-1960, and is centered around a man coping with the everyday problems of his growing family. In highlighting the episode: “Family Goes to New York,” “Father Knows Best” serves as a microcosm to the family sitcom during this era, stressing traditional family roles, societal norms, and giving viewers a “utopian experience.”
The clip opens with a conversation between Jim Anderson (the father), his wife Margaret and their daughter Betty. They are discussing Betty’s desire to visit New York, and right away, you can see the family dynamics that were consistent with the time period on display in the different gender roles. Father disapproves of Betty going to New York, and is especially skeptical of her going with a boy she has not yet met, even though Mother approves of the trip. Another important part of this beginning sequence is how the only thing Father agrees with is the one line his son says. The son, Bud, describes Betty’s escort in New York as being “probably a gambler” and Father agrees. This small scene within the opening sequence illustrates the gender roles within the family that was portrayed on television. The only thing Father seems to agree with is what his son says, while he seems dismissive toward his daughter and wife’s comments about the situation. This scene ends with Father telling Betty, in a jokingly manner, to bring an outfit that “covers her up the most.” Here again we see how women played the conservative gender roles during this time period.
The sitcoms during the 1950’s served as medium for the “obsession with a view of far-away places” (Spigel 9). In this clip from “Family Goes to New York,” we see the entire family waiting at the train station for Betty to take the train to mysterious and utopian like New York City. This is an example of how the television gave people the ability to bring “another world into the home” (Spigel 7). Once Betty gets on the train, the camera cuts to different clips of nightlife in NYC, satisfying the interest among the audience of “bringing an illusion of the world into the home” (Spigel 12).
In contrast to Betty’s relationship with her father in which she clearly plays the more submissive role, it is interesting to note how in this episode of “Father Knows Best,” Mother does not just have a one-dimensional role. As opposed to having her only role being to support her male counterparts, there are moments in this episode where Mother challenges the things that Father says. An example of this can be scene at the dinner table when Mother and Father visit Betty in New York. After Father’s cynical and almost insulting remarks about Betty’s trip, Mother asks him why he is acting the way he is, forcing him to defend the negativity he’s projecting. Later in this scene, however, “Father Knows Best” again depicts the gender roles typical of this time period through Betty blaming herself when she sees that her escort, Tony, is at the restaurant with another woman. This scene brings the episode full circle, and even relates it back to the title, as Father’s intuition is proven to be correct. In the end, the producers of the show made Father’s pessimism about the entire situation seem justified, and he was right all along, while the mother and daughter were idealistic and naive.

Excerpts from FATHER KNOWS BEST

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This clip contains excerpts from the FATHER KNOWS BEST episode "The Family Goes to New York."

from Father Knows Best, Family Goes to New York YouTube (1956)
Creator: Ed James
Distributor: YouTube (User: MarriageandFamily12)
Posted by Christine Becker
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