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TV History: The Donna Reed Show

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.

Putting a Stoplight on the Spotlight

by Gretchen Hopkirk

The Donna Reed Show, like every television show from the 1950’s, provides a glimpse into the historical and social situations present during the time period during which it was produced. This particular episode of The Donna Reed Show, entitled “Male Ego”, not only exemplifies the assertion that women of the 1950’s were not to steal attention from men but also illustrates the standards that all mothers were expected to meet. The choices in dialogue, editing and mise en scene throughout this clip display the limitations imposed on women in the household during the 1950’s.
This clip begins with the opening credits of the episode, which shows the daily routine of the Stone family. Although there are no words in this section, the credits still manage to say a lot. The uninterrupted shot with action that flows from one family member to the next provides a feeling of serenity, not chaos, within the “typical” American family. Mrs. Stone (Donna) appears to be content and fully prepared to help her husband and kids get started with their day, all while dressed and with well-kept hair. Every item in the house is neat and orderly; even the children’s lunch bags appear to be perfectly put together. Within the first thirty seconds of the show it is evident that Mrs. Stone is capable of taking care of her family and does so with a smile on her face.
If a viewer has never seen an episode of The Donna Reed Show prior to this episode, they can still understand that Mrs. Stone is a loving mother after watching the opening credits. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that her daughter, Mary, has written a speech that is a litany of Mrs. Stone’s selfless virtues and states that she is an example of “a love that asks no questions”. Although Mrs. Stone is a stay at home mother, she is recognized for her hard work. According to Susan Douglas in her book Where the Girls Are, there was rarely a notion on television during the 1950's that a “woman’s daily life might, in fact, be heroic too” (44). The reason for this rarity is because such recognition could upset the status quo of male dominance both in public and in the household.
The consequences of Mary’s homage to her mother become apparent immediately as women are instantly caricatured as weak and weepy. The first shot of the audience includes individuals dabbing at their eyes; but these individuals are exclusively female. These emotions are soon the object of ridicule, as a close up that reveals a woman sniffling (in contrast to the boredom or indifference present on the faces of the males that are watching) is accompanied by a laugh track. This laughter indicates that the viewer should find women’s emotions comical, thus empowering men.
The rest of the clip focuses on Dr. Stone’s discontent with the speech and jealousy of the attention that his wife receives. Through seemingly innocent comments such as “I rushed to her crib as often as you did”, he is attempting to negate the praise that Donna receives. Their son, Jeff, reiterates the notion that the speech was unnecessary when he asks that although he loves his mother, does he “have to drool for twenty minutes just to prove it?”. These rebuttals support one of Douglas’s beliefs in Where the Girls Are. She notes that a common notion in 1950’s television was that the success of a woman would inhibit that of her man: “the more she gets, the more he loses” (59). Douglas refers to this theme in the sense that women had difficulties obtaining jobs outside of the household, but the principle extends to this episode as well. Alex (Dr. Stone) believes that Donna’s job is to be a housewife, and that she should not be receiving so much adulation for simply doing her job. In his mind, if he is not being honored for his work as a pediatrician then his wife should not be honored for simply waiting up for him while he is on the job.
The final scene of this clip shows Alex in his office (his territory). This setting makes him even more cognizant of his masculinity and causes him to act out when people bring up his daughter’s speech. His comments move from innocent to borderline bitter, as he remarks that his wife “used the door like an ordinary mortal” when she brings him coffee (with a smile on her face). Douglas states in Where the Girls Are that earlier television shows such as I Love Lucy featured strong female leads and “gave expression to the deep anxieties over who would wear the pants in postwar America” (51). I would argue, however, that even though Douglas feels that this conflict was “resolved” by the time The Donna Reed Show aired, there was still a level of uncertainty present within society. The punchlines of this scene focus on Alex’s uneasiness with giving Donna or even his own daughter recognition for their accomplishments. Although members of the community voice their praises for the speech, he can only offer sarcastic comments such as “How lucky can a man get? A wife who makes women sob and men dance through the streets”. Dr. Stone makes it clear that he is not a fan of the recognition that his wife is receiving, which is primarily due to what Douglas would refer to as a “crisis of masculinity” in her book, Listening In. Citing Freud, she posits that comedy expresses “barely articulated beliefs and fears” (104). Alex will never outright say that he is upset about the speech, but he will make sarcastic comments about it without hesitation. This episode therefore expresses the continuing male concern that women should not outshine them for doing their household duties.
The contrast between Mary’s praise and Alex’s griping exemplify the mixed messages that women such as Donna received during the 1950’s. Douglas notes in Where the Girls Are that on television “our mothers saw themselves simultaneously revered and loathed” (54). These mixed messages made it difficult for women to understand their role in the home and the outside world following the second World War. Shows such as The Donna Reed Show attempt to put these anxieties to rest by stating what the mother’s role in the home should be. Although Mary seems to be extending a compliment to the other mothers of the school when she states during her speech that “these sentiments apply to all mothers”, her dialogue is actually enforcing an expectation on viewers that any mother must automatically conform to the role of a “guardian angel”. This clip therefore implies that Mrs. Stone is not actually unique for her loving manner, she is just doing her job as a mother.
Gender stereotypes are further perpetuated in this clip, as Alex and Donna agree that it would sound ridiculous for a guardian angel to be “daddy”. This comment not only reinforces the idea that women are guardian angels, but also the notion that men are not meant to fulfill the gentle role of women. Furthermore, Dr. Stone examines a young boy in the next scene, whose mother is taking care of him. This simple casting choice reaffirms the notion that the father would be at work all day and that it is the mother’s responsibility to take care of her family. Subtleties such as this support Douglas’s claim that in 1950’s television there was the “delusion, or the insistence, that all women identified themselves primarily as wives and mothers” (Where the Girls Are, 56). Finally, Donna rushes to her husband’s defense at the end of the final scene to tell about his heroics, rather than simply accept praise about herself. Donna recognizes that her job is to support her husband, and Alex gladly accepts her compliance. This effectively demonstrates to audiences that you should support your husband or praise your father rather than recognize your mother for her hard work.
Although this episode of The Donna Reed Show seems to extol the efforts of Donna as a mother and wife, it actually demonstrates the negative effects of praising women. The use of handkerchiefs in the first scene illustrate the fragility of women and Alex’s sarcastic dialogue throughout the clip show the uneasiness that men felt about giving honoring women. Additionally, the continuity editing of the episode, complete with the actors’ graceful walking patterns, enhances the appearance of the smooth and peaceful life of the Stone family that Donna coordinates (creating an example for the audience of what family life should be like). Finally, the wording of Mary’s speech, coupled with Donna’s defense of her husband, reinforce the expectation that all women should be good mothers and put their families first. This episode of The Donna Reed Show reinforces accepted gender stereotypes of the 1950’s and also posits that women should do what is expected of them without receiving accolades, as doing so would inhibit the success of men. After all, Mary's speech was written by a girl and is about women, but the episode title (and the episode itself) focuses on how all of this affects men.

Works Cited
Douglas, Susan. Where the Girls Are. Times Books, 1995. pp 43-60
Douglas, Susan. Listening In. Random House, 1999. pp 100-123

"Male Ego," The Donna Reed Show

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This is a clip from the Donna Reed Show episode entitled "Male Ego," the fourth episode of Season 1, which first aired on October 15, 1958 on ABC.

from The Donna Reed Show (1958)
Creator: ABC, Writer: Nate Monaster, Director: Oscar Rudolph
Distributor: Hulu
Posted by Christine Becker