Monday, October 18, 2010


I was surprised at all the play the death of Barbara Billingsley got, because she had played June Cleaver in the 1950s sitcom Leave It To Beaver. But apparently she became the symbol for the 50s TV mom, judging not only from the media response to her passing, but to websites which name her in the negative--June Cleaver, the symbol of all that was wrong with the 50s ideal woman, the ideal 50s mother.

Although rebelling against the 50s stereotype seems so 60s or even 70s to me, I respond to the topic differently anyway. I grew up in the 50s, I watched all those shows when I was roughly the age of the kids on them, and my mother was roughly the age of theirs. I never confused them, first of all. And looking back, if I responded to any of them as some sort of model mother, it wasn't June Cleaver. The Leave It To Beaver family was always just entertainment to me, like the Life of Riley family (pictured above) or Ozzie and Harriet. But if I had to pick one who I saw in some maternal way, it was Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best (even before she was Spock's mom.)

But I never measured my mother against the ones on TV--while I might long for a family like the Andersons, I didn't want to be the child of those specific parents. If anything, it was probably Robert Young who suggested to me what I might want to be like as a father. I'm not sure why else I gravitated more towards that show, except there were girls in it (I had two sisters and no brothers) and the Andersons showed up a few years earlier than the Cleavers. But it was all fantasy as well. The way they lived was as familiar and as alien as life on Roy Roger's ranch or Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron headquarters. The kids weren't much like me either, although I could identify with some things, like how Bud Anderson felt when he pretty helplessly got in trouble.

My responses at the time were further complicated when I got a bit of a crush on Donna Reed, even as the mother in the Donna Reed Show. It was like being dazzled by the pretty mother of one of your friends. Now that I've seen her in earlier movies, I know why. She was also a 1940s pinup. So was Jane Wyatt--the last two photos are of them in the 40s. Though I can't find photos of her on the net, I've seen footage of Barbara Billingsley as a smart, glamorous blond, the kind that might be in a Noel Coward play.

But that's something I've learned about my mother's generation in the years since: they were young women once. Maybe not as glamorous as these actresses (whose 40s photos were probably among the ones my mother pasted into her scrapbooks), but wearing their hair the same way, wearing the same style of clothes. I wonder how they saw the transition of these actresses into TV motherhood.

As for June Cleaver, wasn't she an early model for the women who wanted to Have It All? Maybe she didn't have an executive position in the city, but she could bake cookies in high heels and pearls.