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TV History: Father Knows Best

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.

History of TV Assignment I

by Allison Olshefke

Allison Olshefke - 1 March 2017 The episode “Woman in the House” from the popular sitcom “Father Knows Best” aired in 1955, a time of impeding social change that was further catalyzed by television’s discussion and non-discussion of untraditional values and expectations for the American family and American women. The three distinct scenes in the clip selected from “Woman in the House” provide insight into the increasingly tense and complex gender and family dynamics present in mid-late fifties American life. The first scene of the clip is centered on the interactions between Jill, Verge’s lively and eccentric wife, and the Anderson family. Jill is portrayed as brash, intimidating, and unapologetically unladylike. She is almost the complete opposite of Jane Wyatt’s character, Margaret Anderson, who fits perfectly Susan Douglas’ “compliant, womb-centered, housewife stereotype” (Douglas, 1995, p. 50). Throughout the series “Father Knows Best,” Margaret is upheld as the domestic goddess, and so the contrast between her and Jill further alienates women who do not fit the mold of the ideal American woman. Although Jill is represented as incredibly intelligent, the show frames her in a way that makes her the most well-read, yet dumbest person in the room. Even though she has read Kafka and Baudelaire, she seems unable to read the room, and makes everyone uncomfortable with her loud, one-sided banter and bare feet. Jill’s intelligence is seen as useless. She comments to Verge that he should have married someone more like Margaret, implying that intelligent women in the fifties were insecure and less eligible for marriage. In the mid-late fifties, the stereotype of happy housewife was meant to convince women that they should be content taking care of the home and returning the workplace to the men; Jill’s character was also meant to enforce this by associating negative implications to the American family life with traditionally non-feminine actions and traits. The second scene focuses on the relationship between Margaret and her daughters, Betty and Kathy. Both girls are still at impressionable ages and look to their mother for examples of how to interact with the world. Kathy is hesitant to have an opinion on Jill until she asks her mother how she feels, and although Betty forms her own initial opinions of Jill, she ends up deferring to her mother’s painfully shallow admonitions. This mother-daughter relationship diverges from the one described by Susan Douglas in “Mama Said.” Douglas’ mother wanted her daughter to go to college and be fulfilled. Margaret wants her daughter to be a pretty young lady and learn to be a good wife (this is especially evident in the episode “Betty, Girl Engineer”). Douglas’ relationship with her mother was imperfect due to the conflicting messages coming through television and other media about how mothers should act. Margaret’s relationship with Betty and Kathy was only ever superficially strained by quickly passing stressors. Although Douglas doesn’t talk about it in chapter two of “Mama Said,” her relationship with her mother may have been influenced and challenged by the idealized mother-daughter relationships seen in fifties’ sitcoms (Douglas, 1995). In the final scene in this clip, Margaret expresses unhappiness with her domestic life, lamenting that Jill thinks of her as “a fool” and a “sweet, prim, dumb, little provincial wife.” This is a moment that demonstrates Horace Newcomb’s idea of “repeated questioning of gender roles [and] family structure” which hints at the intense social revolution that is to come in the sixties (Newcomb, 1997, p. 119). These kinds of moments provided both validation and frustration for the unfulfilled, imperfect housewives watching. It is also during this moment of Margaret’s internal conflict that she suddenly becomes unable to take off her own necklace without her husband’s help; a subtle way of reminding the women in the audience that even though they may have these revolutionary thoughts about their role in society they still can’t do anything without a man’s assistance and reassurance. In fact, all it takes is one empty, dismissive reassurance from her husband (“Stop saying those silly things about yourself… You’re the only one that matters”) to console her. Not only does this clip from “Woman in the House” reveal the nature of gender and family dynamics in the mid-late fifties, but just like in episodes of “Mama” and “I Love Lucy,” the traditional narrative of the American domestic sphere has been challenged. This tension is ultimately restored by the end of the episode (Well, almost: In fact, Jill and Margaret have a small role reversal in which Jill practices sewing and Margaret lounges on the couch reading Kafka). This clip shows television’s ability to create waves that were strong enough to ripple the current of social change, but not treacherous enough to tip the boat of traditional American values that floated unbalanced in the 1950s. Works Cited: 
Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1995. Print. Newcomb, Horace. "The Opening of America." The Other Fifties. By Joel Foreman. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1997. 103-23. Print.

"Woman in the House," Father Knows Best

This is a clip from a Father Knows Best clip entitled "Woman in the House," which first aired on September 28, 1955, on NBC.

from Father Knows Best (1955)
Creator: NBC; Director: William D. Russell, Writers: Ed James and Roswell Rogers
Distributor: YouTube & Hulu
Posted by Christine Becker