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TV History: Leave It To Beaver

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.

The Quiet Rebellion

by Kelly Adam

The clips from this episode of Leave it to Beaver aired on CBS in 1958. The latter half of the 1950s marked a shift from the ‘golden age’ of television, complete with variety shows and live anthology dramas, to the ‘vast wasteland’ characterized by formulaic sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver. These sitcoms are criticized for being “bland, controlled, complacent, and commercial,” and at first glance, it appears that this episode falls perfectly into that category through its reinforcement of traditional family structure (Newcomb 105). However, a closer examination of the social context of the late 1950s can reveal how the show might have actually escalated, instead of silenced, rebellion against gender norms.
The surface-level message from this episode is the preservation of traditional gender roles. The episode’s action does not begin until the husband returns home from work, and when he does, his wife is smiling while cleaning an already spotless picnic table. At a time when the “standards for household cleanliness . . . had been raised to a psychotically obsessive level,” June makes an immaculate house look effortless, presumably as all wives should (Douglas 44). In the subsequent conversation between June and Ward, it is clear that Ward holds the power for deciding whether or not Beaver can have a friend over. June is just the messenger from her son to her husband, and it is ultimately up to the two males to settle the issue. June does appear as though she is going to rebel against her role when she sarcastically tells Ward, ‘Oh I wouldn’t think of depriving you of that privilege.’ However, her tone is very slight, and she quickly bounces back into her role as doting housewife with her wish to make the weekend as much fun for the children as possible.
The reinforcement of gender norms reaches a glaring peak in Wally and Ward’s conversation about cooking. Ward explains very plainly that women do indoor cooking because a woman’s place is inside the home. On the other hand, men do the outside cooking because it’s more ‘rugged’—apparently using modern conveniences outdoors makes you a man but using them indoors makes you a lazy housewife. However, right after Ward passes on this wisdom, he asks for gloves to protect his hands. This joke hints at society’s awareness that hyper-masculine attitudes were actually “a sign of [men’s] struggle” and that at some level, “men were fragile . . . and needed coddling and protection” (Douglas 49, 52). Nevertheless, the dominance of men continues in the episode with June acting as an accessory to Ward’s agency. Ward has to resolve the situation with Larry and Beaver, discipline the boys, and keep the hamburgers from burning while June just stands there, not even able to remember her home address when Ward calls a taxi. Ultimately, June is incompetent, childish, and ditzy, and it is up to Ward to maintain control of the situation.
Television’s “physical and linguistic containment” of women such as June Cleaver may have intended to contain real housewives at home, but it was not very effective (Douglas 51). As Susan Douglas explains, the “media containment [of women] was achieved at the very moment that more and more real-life moms were leaving the domestic sphere and going back to work” (51). By 1955, three years before this episode was filmed, “there were more women with jobs than at any point in the nation’s previous history” (Douglas 55). Given this social context, it is likely that women and families were able to see through the ideology that Leave it to Beaver was preserving and identify contradictions between the show and real life. For example, TV moms such as June Cleaver did not work, but “to even approach the level of material comforts that Leave it to Beaver suggested everyone had, millions of families needed Mom in the workforce” (Douglas 58). Unlike Ward, who dominates the home, “most fathers were never around the house much” and it was up to the mothers to “be totally responsible for the children and everything around the house” (Douglas 44). And finally, contrary to June’s effortless glow and smile, most “housewives in this period averaged a ninety-nine-hour workweek” and were not as fulfilled with their lives as June appears to be (Douglas 54).
The contradictions between the realities of domestic life and the ideal standards set forth by the Cleaver family were likely not lost on the American public. Although Leave it to Beaver may have been trying to seal the cracks in the illusion of the perfect suburban family, people could finally see that it was, in fact, an illusion. And even if this illusion was attainable, who would want it? June Cleaver was the ideal housewife, but “June Cleaver’s life—tossing salad and installing new rolls of paper towels—looked boring” (Douglas 58). Women were not as dumb as they were portrayed on television; they could see the dullness and drudgery in the traditional Cleaver family. Thus, although Leave it to Beaver ultimately held ideological norms together, the show still highlighted “contradictions that were coming into homes across the nation” and repeatedly forced the audience to question the “gender roles, family structure, [and] the nature of authority that drove episode after episode” (Newcomb 119). Leave it to Beaver appeared to provide traditional programming that did not ‘rock the boat,’ but it may have actually convinced families to abandon ship.

Works Cited

Douglas, S. (1995). Mama Said. Where the Girls Are, 43-60. Retrieved February 26, 2019.

Newcomb, H. (1997). The Opening of America. The Other Fifties, 103-123. Retrieved February 26, 2019.

Excerpts from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, "Beaver's Guest"

This clip contains two scenes from the "Beaver's Guest" episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER (1958)
Creator: Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher
Distributor: Daily Motion (User: Zoelewiss)
Posted by Christine Becker