A 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?