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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goodnight Mrs. Cleaver... and thank you!

Having been born during the Kennedy administration and raised on a steady diet of that era's TV fare, I think it is safe to say that I saw pretty much every episode of Leave It To Beaver... most of them multiple times in re-runs.

Some people make the mistake of criticizing that show for setting an impossibly high bar for parents through the characters of Ward and June Cleaver.  But such criticism misses the entire premise of the show.

Leave It To Beaver was a children's show meant to portray family life from the vantage point of the children.  Even a more mature viewer is supposed to consider the show's plot from the perspective of a seven (almost eight) year old.

Think about the fact that the audience is never shown any of the things which would (and should) normally be opaque to a child such as the relationship between the parents and the family's standing in the community. 

Granted, the mores of the late '50s and early '60s would have precluded even the most chaste glimpse into the master bedroom of the Cleaver home.  But to explain why the viewer was given only the vaguest sense of what Ward did for a living, what the family finances were like or the kind of friendships/relationships Ward & June had with their friends and family, one must accept that such things barely register in the navel-gazing worldview of a child.

Viewed objectively, not only were the Cleaver parents not perfect, but their kids had some pretty significant challenges to overcome as well:

For instance, Theodore 'Beaver' Cleaver was constantly getting into low-grade trouble, making bad judgement calls, and seemed to fall in with friends who were less than optimal influences.  Not only that, but throughout the series he seemed a bit rudderless for a boy whose parent's moral compass always seemed to point due north.

Wally Cleaver (Beaver's older brother) was a good kid who was popular and reasonably successful in school and sports.  But his choice in friends was even more questionable than Beaver's (most notably with the smarmy Eddie Haskell and obnoxious Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford).  And if Ward & June were as wise and omniscient as many were led to believe, why was Wally forced to constantly act as translator/mediator between them and 'The Beaver'? 

Yes, I'm sure many parents of that era - especially mothers - experienced a crisis of self-confidence if they made the mistake of using Ward & June as the benchmark against which their own performance as 'grown-ups' was measured.  After all, the Cleaver house was always spotless, voices were never raised, mom cooked and even gardened in elegant dresses and pearls, and dad was of an impossibly even temperament that wouldn't be seen again until Fred Rogers arrived on TV sets a few years later. 

But if you ask the typical seven year old to describe their homelife, it will sound similarly idylic... for the simple reason that they have little or no reference point or basis for comparison other than their own parents.

The way the viewer perceived Ward and June, along with the household they kept, was just that; a perception.  It was intended to offer the perspective of the children; those in the Cleaver household, as well as those following along in family rooms and dens across the country.  

The grown-ups who watched the show were expected to understand the trick of perspective being employed... but often missed this important point.

I don't know if my parents ever tried to hold themselves up to the standards set by Ward and June Cleaver.  For their sake I hope not, because no parent could possibly live up to the way Wally and the Beaver perceived their home and family life (which is how the show was presented).

But as a child, I can say without hesitation that my parents kept me as blissfully insulated from real world worries and cares as Ward and June, and my memories of childhood were as filled with fun, cookies and milk as anything I saw on TV. 

But the most important gift I received from June Cleaver and her television husband was that I went to bed throughout my childhood confident and reassured that all parents - on and off the small screen - love their children unconditionally; in spite of our weaknesses and failings of character.   Kids are never perfect... but a parents love always is. 

If I manage to make my own children feel this way, I will consider myself a successful father.

With the passing yesterday of Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June Cleaver, I felt the need to offer my thanks today for that important lesson which is sorely lacking form any of today's chidren TV.

Goodnight Mrs. Cleaver... and thank you.

Posted by David Bogner on October 17, 2010 | Permalink


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Now THAT I agree with. And I have the first season on DVD right here in Efrat if you're feeling nostalgic...

Posted by: Ben Chorin | Oct 17, 2010 12:08:14 PM

I was going to write a post about Barbara Billigsley and "Leave It to Beaver," but now there's no point... for you captured the essence of that show perfectly. Indeed, it was life as seen from the kid's-eye perspective, and it had a sweetness and innocence that - at least on TV - are now lost forever.

Thanks once again for sharing your insight.

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 17, 2010 5:00:07 PM

Jerry Mathers has a brother is a who sheriff. I know this because he made a presentation to my class. We were college students taking a lower division class about journalism. He was a big man and carried a big gun- no surprises there. But I remember how it felt to see The Beaver's real brother standing there- it was surreal.

Surreal because the Beaver I knew didn't live in a world of guns and violence. He didn't have a brother who arrested criminals or policed the jails.

But I did appreciate the show for many reasons, I suppose in part because I appreciated a life that seemed somewhat similar to my own. Can't help but wonder if our children have a clue about that or if it has been lost.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 18, 2010 2:56:00 AM

Recently, when speaking to friend from Europe, I mentioned someone who spoke like Eddie Haskell. She didn`t have a clue,so I recommended a youtube video to make my point.

Posted by: Ed | Oct 18, 2010 3:52:31 AM

"Good evening Mrs. Cleaver, Mr. Cleaver. Is Wallace at Home?" What a great show. Thanks for the memories.

And, don't forget that Barbara Billingsley spoke "Jive" in the movie "Airplane". One of the classic scenes of filmdom in the last 30 years.

Posted by: MoC | Oct 18, 2010 4:28:48 PM

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