“It’s Sort of Traditional, I Guess…”

grillingA former student posted a great clip from the old “Leave it to Beaver” show (1957-1963), in which dad explains to Wally the facts of life, at least when it comes to cooking outdoors.

There’s much to comment on here, but it’s the end that I think makes this clip so much more interesting than just seeing it as a vignette that acts out a seemingly alien, 1950s version of gender roles. (After all, let’s be honest: where I’m from lots of people still largely see barbequing as a man’s domain.) For if binary systems (e.g., male/female, inside/outside, raw/cooked, etc.) are devices that historical subjects (necessarily) use to make sense of the world, by allowing them to place things into controlled relationships of similarity and difference, then we’d expect that the paired concepts that we use to do this sort of work will inevitably fail. After all, they are themselves discrete items inextricably of that same world and not, as we usually suppose, somehow exterior or prior to it.

To put it another way, the vocabulary that we use to talk about history it is itself part of that very history, making every part that stands in for some presumed whole (e.g., “all men…” or “women always…”, even “the world” and “history”!) a contradiction waiting to be unearthed. And thanks to dad’s thoughts on the differences between men and women, this is more than evident:

Us men are better at this, ah, rugged-type, outdoor cooking…. Hand me those asbestos gloves, will ya Wally?

But what might be even more interesting is how the humor of this fifty year old scene works; despite what sounds to many contemporary ears as pretty outrageous gender stereotyping, the writers poke fun at the stereotype itself — for the punchline is the contradiction. We laugh because the authority figure fails to live up to his own rugged standards — making evident to Wally (and viewers) either dad’s own shortcoming as a man or, better yet, the shortcomings of his understanding of what a man is, i.e., the limits of his attempt to define a difference between men and women.

Despite the age of the show, this is a rather sophisticated technique, almost postmodern in its reflexivity and in its attention to the gaps that constitute subjectivity; for example, compare it to this scene from the no less popular show from the same era, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-1966), in which the humor comes this time at mom’s expense (representative of the object of dad’s story), in the degree to which she naturally conforms to the stereotype contained in this lesson on gender — a stereotype nicely confirmed for Ricky and viewers alike by her behavior.

There’s no contradictions or gaps apparent here and no ironic reflexivity to be found in this scene.

Who would have thought that “Leave it to Beaver”‘s lesson in tradition would end up being sort of nontraditional, I guess?

3 Replies to ““It’s Sort of Traditional, I Guess…””

  1. Do you remember the episode of Roseanne where she gathers together all the old TV moms from Leave It to Beaver, Lassie, and such? It’s worth watching. There’s a fair bit of critical distance from and understanding of the roles that they were required to play in the 1950s and 60s, and the commentary is a hoot.

    As to the sitcoms themselves, I think it is important to remember the aggressive reinscription of gender roles after the disruptions of the earlier decades of the century (women’s rights, suffrage, integration in the main workforce as a result of these struggles, accompanied by the demands of the “war effort” – and this just scratches the surface). The 1950s were by no means a “return to normalcy” for gender roles, People had to learn how to behave, as the numerous educational films of the era make plain (“how to go on a date”‘ “how to have dinner with your family”). Male dominance and female subservience were presented as normal, when in fact the previous 50 years had successfully challenged many of the structures that supported that model. Sitcoms like “Leave It to Beaver” reflect some of those tensions (Ward and June Cleaver trade quips about gender stuff, they’re on the same page). Ozzie and Harriet is another issue. Ozzie Nelson was widely known as domineering in both real life and on the show. Harriet Nelson in this clip is not behaving irrationally, as Ozzie is trying to imply (“women have a way of…”). Instead, Ozzie is caught lying (“you told me you only went out with her once”), and his list of other girls he dated is just obnoxious – hence Harriet’s suggestion that David take his father home with him.I am not saying for a second that the comedy of the era is not based on gender stereoypes; rather, the stereotypes were as much (more?) prescriptive than descriptive, and occasionally, these were even mocked by the characters supposedly embodying those norms

  2. I don’t disagree. But it does seem that mom lives up to the jealous woman stereotype of dad’s speech in Oz & Har whereas the joke is completely on Dad in Leave it to B–a significant shift, I think. Had Harriet been uninterested, unaffected, retorted with how many boys she went out with etc., etc., then the joke would have been on dad. And also, after women’s prominent role in the workplace in the late 1930s and 1940s, for the war effort, it makes sense that the peacetime of the 1950s was all about disciplining society into a division of labor and influence likely alien to at least the decade before.

  3. I think you are correct that the stereotype of the jealous woman is supposed to be the pivot of the “joke” in the Ozzie and Harriet sketch. Note, though, that Ozzie goads Harriet with increasing insistence throughout, while Harriet remains relatively implacable. I think the real joke here is on Ozzie, who comes off as a pompous ass, and a pain in one, as well. Ozzie seems determined to get a rise out of Harriet, whose only real response is a sardonic request for her son to take him away.

    In Leave it to Beaver (as compared, say, with “Father Knows Best”), the father is pretty self-aware throughout the series. “Asbestos gloves” is an intentional overstatement, and ironic to boot (if that word can still be used without total confusion). I see this as a jab at the gender script being sold at the time, about “manly men” (don’t worry who you killed in the war, it’s in your nature) and fragile women (whose hard work in factories and single child rearing and supporting the war effort in other ways had nothing to do with being frail). Consumerism gets a knock too (“labour-saving devices”). The difference here, as compared to Ozzie and Harriet, is that Ward Cleaver has critical distance from the gender script, while Ozzie is just a jerk about it (and Harriet won’t play).

    As for post-war gender roles and the disciplining of society into those norms, yes, undoubtedly – but note how these were bolstered up by Science, augmented by psychoanalysis, “mother-blaming” and the like. (just ignore the atomic bomb, boys – look at those doting mothers turning their sons into pansies).

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