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TV History: Donna Reed

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.

A Woman's Dilemma

by Meghan Ludke

Analyses of 1950s television often compare the earlier and latter halves of the decade. The early 1950s, characterized by women challenging the status quo with slapstick comedy, offers a stark contrast to the latter half which often is thought to portray women accepting their roles as homemakers. The Donna Reed Show began in the latter half of the 1950s; thus, it follows that this show depicted the traditional American family: a working father, a homemaking wife, and their two children. This program and specifically the episode entitled “Three Part Mother” do not seamlessly conform to the expectations of late 1950s programming, however. In “Three Part Mother”, Donna Reed exemplifies the tension women experienced during this decade while ultimately returning to her traditional and expected role as a homemaker.

This selection opens by showing Donna’s overwhelming stress, indicative of what the greater mass of women in the 1950s experienced. After a day filled with being demanded of at the son’s basketball game, daughter’s club induction, and husband’s speech, Donna ultimately lets out a “I give up” and escapes to the kitchen. Yet, Donna finds no relief here. Instead, she releases her frustration, yelling “First Woody comes by and says that you can’t survive without me. Then you walk in and say ‘Who needs you? ” Statements such as these reveal important aspects of the social context into which this episode was born. Women of the 1950s were confused as to what their role in society was. During the war, women were told to join the workforce, yet they were pushed back into the household sphere immediately after it ended. In addition to being told to perfectly take care of the house and family, women were told to be good consumers, implying that they needed to make more money in order to spend more money. Susan Douglass exemplifies the layered messages that women faced throughout this decade, stating that messages to women varied drastically: “hey, be a feminist, you’re equal to men; hey, wait a minute, no you’re not; hey, maybe you are” (Douglass 58). Donna’s explosion exemplifies the difficulty of living in this time period with the varied expectations women faced. Equally important to note is the year in which this episode aired: 1958. Thus, this episode is of the latter part of the decade not usually characterized by women’s backlash. Though this scene may not be as biting as those of the early 1950s, this rebellion perhaps still demonstrates that the tension women felt did not simply disappear by the end of the decade as depicted by most shows of this time. Donna’s reaction represents the greater confusion and tension that lingered throughout the time period.

While Donna has an outburst of emotion, she ultimately resolves to the traditional role depicted of mothers and wives. After the children express appreciation for all that Donna does, Donna emotionally exhales “Why did they have to be so sweet?” Not only does this statement reposition Donna in her traditional role, but it also suggests that she felt apologetic for acting out in the first place; her previous outburst did not align with expectations of how she should act. Thus, Donna takes on her traditional role of mother and wife and does so in a perfect manner, attending each of the three events. Donna fulfills the role expected of women, making “television’s physical and linguistic containment of women…complete” (51). Donna’s acceptance of her role is extended to the very end of this clip where she hears the calls “Mother? Mom? Donna?” while falling asleep. Donna softly smiles at these voices, suggesting not only her acceptance of her role but also her enjoyment of it. Furthermore, these voices suggest the continuance of a woman’s work. Donna’s work is not done by day’s end but rather continues indefinitely in the days to come. By the end of the episode, Donna’s outburst is forgotten, her traditional role is alive, and approval of her work is expressed.

While television of the late 1950s did not often use slapstick comedy to rebel against male authority, it was in no way stagnant. Episodes such as “Three Part Mother” suggest that women’s position in society was not completely stable nor approved of by the end of the decade. Ultimately, however, television resolved the tension by having women accept their roles within society by the end of the episode.

Douglas, S. (1995). Mama Said. Where the Girls Are, 43-60. Retrieved February 25, 2019.


The clip contains the final 10 minutes of "Three Part Mother," THE DONNA REED SHOW

from "Three Part Mother," THE DONNA REED SHOW (1958)
Creator: Tony Owen, William S. Roberts
Posted by Christine Becker