Two Cheers for the Cleavers – and their real-life counterparts

By Denise Noe

For good reasons, the television program “Leave It To Beaver” has taken on iconic status. Airing from 1957-1963, it revolved around the adventures of elementary school aged Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (Jerry Mathers), his older brother Wallace “Wally” (Tony Dow) his mother June (Barbara Billingsley), and father Ward (Hugh Beaumont).

Part of what set the program off from its contemporaries was the way it made the children its focus. The plots of “Leave It To Beaver” were typically about the scrapes the kids, especially Beaver, got into. Because of the TV rules of the era, those scraps were not about things like drugs, sex, violence, or the hot political and social issues of the day although the program did do episodes dealing with alcoholism and divorce. The relative lack of “topical” problems gives the program a certain timeless quality as Beaver and Wally struggle to navigate the sort of universal difficulties that youngsters of any period might face on their way to adulthood.  Like “The Andy Griffith Show,” the program combined comedy with a moral lesson growing naturally out of the plotline.

Not that everything was sweetness and light on “Leave It To Beaver.”  One of its most memorable characters was mischievous teenager Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). He fit into the archetype of an adolescent who assumes a syrupy, obsequious demeanor to charm his elders, all the while plotting pranks. Even though June and Ward referred to “Beaver” and “Wally,” Eddie would always say “Theodore” and “Wallace” in a deliberately studied formality. In one episode, Eddie found Beaver’s report card and saw that it had a D- on it.  Eddie took a pen to the grade and wrote over it to make it a B+. Another friend asked him why he did that and he said, “When his parents find out – pow!”

There was a limit to Eddie’s bad behavior.  Rush Limbaugh once compared President Bill Clinton to Eddie Haskell and an irate Ken Osmond contacted his program to say, “Eddie Haskell wasn’t THAT bad of a guy.”

Perhaps “Leave It To Beaver” has become most associated with the traditional marital roles of Ward and June Cleaver – or the neat “fit” between the characters and those roles. Ward was the family breadwinner. He worked in an office but precisely what sort of company he worked for was left vague.

Ward was also a caring and deeply involved father. Co-creator Joe Connelly said he modeled Ward Cleaver on the sort of father Connelly wished he had had. Ward did not come home from work to sack out in front of the TV but always made sure he was updated on his children’s activities.  He was ready with counsel.  He could sternly admonish but usually in a controlled, even gentle manner.

As a housewife, June was effective and efficient. She was not swamped by her domestic duties nor was she at loose ends. She was often shown performing household tasks and the home itself was that of a housewife who managed her time well.  Although the word “homemaker” would not start being widely used until after the show went into syndication, June was a perfect example of someone whose fulltime job was making a home.

Perhaps because of June’s status as an iconic housewife, some people have seen her as a kind of Stepford Wife, robotically submissive under the domination of her husband.  In fact, the program depicted her as having something of her own sphere of authority in the home and as an alert, intelligent character.  She was respectful toward Ward but not hesitant to make her observations known or speak her mind.

I recall an episode in which a character had promised to a present to Beaver.  The excited boy had just received the gift he believed was from this character.  Once Beaver was out of earshot, the astute June asked Ward, “How much did it cost you?”

A friend of mine remembers an episode in which Ward appears to agreeably “submit” to June’s wishes.  The Cleavers are going to visit friends. June asks Ward to notice the new drapes in the window of the house but warns him not to stare.  When they get outside of the car and approach the house, she again reminds Ward to notice the new drapes. “I know,” he dutifully replies. “But not stare at them.”

While Ward was the breadwinner and June the homemaker, roles were not absolutely rigid.  On some episodes, June was shown washing the dishes.  Without being asked, Ward would roll up his sleeves and assist her.

America is a free country and hospitable to a variety of family styles. Among them are the dual-earner family in which both spouses bring in an earned income, the role-reversal family in which the wife earns the income and the husband is the homemaker – and the traditional family in which the husband is the breadwinner and the wife the homemaker.

After many years of increasing workforce participation by women, including wives and mothers, there is currently a trend toward more husband-breadwinner and wife-homemaker families. Such families are sometimes compared to the Cleavers of “Leave It To Beaver” fame. I recall an episode “Sixty Minutes” focusing on four former career women who had given up paid work for fulltime homemaking.  When the interviewer asked if they were modern-day June Cleavers, they appeared to shy away from the comparison and made a point of stating that they were keeping up with current events.

Ward and June Cleaver were characters of grace, caring, intelligence, and competency.  It is good to be a breadwinner committed to family. It is good to create and maintain a pleasant home. To be compared to the Cleavers should be considered a compliment.

 

Denise Noe is a severely and multiply disabled woman who lives in Georgia. She has had articles, essays, short stories, and poems published. Her ebook, “Suffer Little Children,” about true crimes against young people, can be found at BuzzwordBooks.com.

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