October 23, 2006

"The show did everybody a disservice."

"The girls were always trained to use their feminine wiles, to pretend to be helpless to attract men. The show contributed to a lot of the problems between men and women that we see today. ... I think we were all well motivated, but what we did was run a hoax."

So said Billy Gray, who played Bud on "Father Knows Best," quoted in this article that notes that Jane Wyatt, who played the mother on the show, has died.

The writer of the article, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, comments:
"Father Knows Best" was just kind of background noise for me. I watched it occasionally, but if you're talking black-and-white shows about happy nuclear families, I preferred "Leave It to Beaver."...

As a girl in the 1970s, watching this kind of show 20 years after they were made, I never felt inspired to pretend to be helpless or use my feminine wiles to attract men because of that or any show. That wasn't the world I lived in. Watching these shows was like flipping through an old photo album, but never having any desire to wear spats or leg o'mutton sleeves. Instead I took from "Father Knows Best" and its ilk a more basic plotline: That families, at their best, love each other no matter what, and stick together when the world is confusing and cold. In my own home, Father and Mother knew best together.
Are those idealized family shows ridiculous, harmful, or helpful? Don't we know how to extract what is useful from an unreal story? Every decade has its popular shows that are unreal in some way that reflects the insecurities and hopes of its time. But maybe Gray is right, and we extract the wrong things from those shows.

I watched "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" when they originally aired. Like Cooper, I too felt a much closer attraction to the "Leave It to Beaver" family. I wanted Ward and June for my parents, not Jim and Margaret. Who knows what subtle difference made the Cleavers more inviting?


Dave said...

I used to watch re-runs of those shows, in the 80s, on Nick at Nite. And My Three Sons.

Troy said...

Ward always seemed a manlier Dad. He was a great loving father, but if you crossed him or June, hell would be paid. That and there was always a "hunk of cake" to be grabbed with the hand and just when they thought their kids sucked Eddie showed up to let them know their kids were fine. I vaguley remember "Father Knows Best" -- except the mother often knew best it seems to me.

VW: okvat.... European tax policy -- approved.

Ann Althouse said...

I think "Beaver" had more vivid characters all around. There was more humanity on view, and Eddie Haskell was a wonderful villain, and the fact that Beaver's parents saw through his fawning and politeness was really cool and very funny.

Doug said...

I have never seen an episode of Father Knows Best, but have watched most Leave it to Beaver shows. There probably is a small effect on people from the portrayals, but it obviously doesn't last. Just look at Ward Cleaver and contrast him against the fathers of today's sitcoms.

Many of the current father figures could be called "Father Knows Least". Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, Raymond, Peter Griffin (Family Guy) are a pretty clueless bunch. Do these characters undercut the role of the male in a family structure? I know in my family it doesn't, though as my daughters enter their teen years, maybe they will start viewing me as more of an idiot.

I have always thought the more destructive signal that is sent regarding gender relations is the idea that women love the bad boy. Bad boys have even received the Oprah seal of approval in the past. If I had to decide between telling a woman to act hopeless to land a man or having a society that states the way to score heavy with the women is to treat them like dirt, I think the hopeless act is far less harmful.

Sorry for the Greenwaldian sentence structure.

BrianOfAtlanta said...

I don't think I've ever watched an episode of "Father Knows Best". I've watched parts of a handful of "Leave it to Beaver" and seen entire episodes of "My Three Sons". I think I just came along too late for those shows. I remember watching "Gilligans Island" and "The Rat Patrol". "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family" were as close as it got to a nuclear family on TV when I was growing up.

MadisonMan said...

I'm of course too young to have watched LITB or FKB when they first aired -- but in reruns I always thought the FKB family was ridiculous...because Father didn't know best. As troy mentioned, The Mom Knew. (and I always liked her as Spock's mother, too). The show's title always struck me as ironic.

Joe said...

What hubris! To believe this television influenced society.

Ernie Fazio said...

I watched them all on real time. Of course the most interesting thing about them is their use as utopian yesteryears. The nuclear family with dinner together and Mom as a housewife. Of course the Partridge Family was not nuclear--one of the neutrons was missing. There was The Life of Riley with William Bendix, I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet (Rickie Nelson became a huge popstar), the Danny Thomas Show, and the great Donna Reed Show.

Also interesting is "what happened" to all the child stars involved. There are frequent forays into investigating what happened to those kids. The most interesting graduate is Sheila Kuehl, California State Senator, who was the "baby" in Father Knows Best and Zelda on Dobie Gillis (the most teen oriented and funniest of the family sitcoms, where Bob Denver (also Gilligan) became famous as Maynard G. Krebs.) It is perhaps the only one which could really survive today. ah the joys of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Brent said...

Someone help me out here.

We spend time discussing the influence that TV shows have, even subtle influence. Billy Gray says that the show did a disservice in its portrayals.

I thought that liberals told us during the Murphy Brown, Sponge-Bob incidents that "it's a TV show, stupid" and to not worry about the influences, even the subtle ones.

Which is it?

I'm confused.

Strayhorn said...

I always enjoy watching "Beaver" when it comes on - and I watched them when they originally aired. What I find most attractive is the respect that Ward and June had for each other.

Ann Althouse said...

Oh the "Star Trek" connection, not only was the mother on FKB also Spock's mother, but the daughter on the show, Elinor Donahue, was also one of Kirk's lovers -- perhaps his biggest love, if I remember correctly (in "Metamorphosis").

KCFleming said...

It's not a disservice to hold up ideals and tell stories with morals. What a strange statement.

Unless, of course, you view the world through a Marxist lens, where there are only classes, and FKB was then merely an oppressor.

That sort of nonsense has been de riguer on campuses for 30 years, but Bud seems to be parroting a line of thought that was throughly mined decades ago. He should instead be remarking on the hidden meaning behind their clothing styles.

Anonymous said...

"Beaver" presented the family from the point of view of the youngest child and typically focused on his misadventures.

While "Father" also had child-oriented plotlines, the show had a somewhat more adult viewpoint.

There is also a bizarre, unaired (?) 1959 episode of FNB titled "24 Hours in Tyrantland" which was produced in cooperation with the Treasury Department. It was designed to stimulate viewers to buy Savings Bonds. In the episode, Jim, the father, pretends to be a dictator....I'm serious....


I can't access the audio clips of the episode...perhaps someone else can...

PatCA said...

You have just summarized film theory in a nutshell. Film and TV are tools of the patriarchy and narrative structure itself is a sinister effort to control the hapless and helpless masses.

This I believe is largely hooey.

As one brave classmate blurted out in class one night, "It's entertainment! And people like entertainment!"

TMink said...

Sounds like Billy bought the gender-feminist farm. Several acres. Moved in. Predictable comments in that light. The show portrayed the father as wise and useful. Must be PATRIACHY!


Derve said...

It's good we can laugh at "Princess" and "Kitten" today. I watched afternoon reruns on WGN about 30 years ago. It seemed creepy even then. Over the top plasticity in an American family. Still I watched it.

John Stodder said...

When I was in high school, FKB was shown in reruns at just about the time I'd get home, and I watched it almost every weekday. In fact, other than sports and spacey PBS specials featuring the Grateful Dead or Leon Russell, this is about the only TV I watched during my teenage years.

I disagree with the consensus that FKB is inferior to Beaver. Beaver was funny when I was a kid, but as I got older, I found it less entertaining. While some of the situations were funny, and there were some good characters (mostly his older brother's friends like Eddie and Lumpy), there was also a preachiness to it, and a lack of conflict. Whereas, my recollection of FKB was that it was more emotionally real, and the comedy came more from the characters, instead of the absurd situations that Beaver faced.

I disagree with the whole notion that TV sitcoms reinforced some anti-feminist vision of family life. At least from the early 60s on, it seemed like every other family in a family sitcom was headed by a widow or widower, with the ultimate fruition of the trend to be found in "The Brady Bunch," in which two widowed people blend their families. There is no sitcom I can think of where the so-called patriarchy is reinforced -- except maybe "Beaver," where the dad was a benevolent dictator. In all the rest of such shows, especially FKB, the father was shown as relatively powerless and prone to mistakes, though loving and caring. That's the paradigm for the equal-rights-minded 70s man, not the supposed beasts of the 50s.

JohnF said...

The old sitcoms, more than modern ones, seemed to show the rewards of typical American virtues of hard work, integrity, etc.

I think the male-domination thing is sort of a smokescreen; that's the way it was then. I don't think the shows did anything to perpetuate it. In fact, the 60's culture was mostly about rejecting these values ("turn on, tune in, drop out"), again with little help from sitcoms.

Today, who knows? But I don't think Seinfeld, Friends or 2-1/2 Men influence culture so much as reflect it. Same old.

gail said...

“Bud” says in recent interviews that he went through most of that show wasted. A comment like this just gets him some attention and makes him feel enlightened.

I loved that show! Jim Anderson was so much like my dad (also a Jim) - same laugh, same crinkly eyes, same rub-your-hands-together-its-time-to-get-going positivism, goofy nicknames all around (mine was and remains “Googenheimer” – okay………not exactly “Princess” or “Kitten’”– a drunk on Jackie Gleason I think – it must’ve been how I looked when I was learning to walk), same sweet partnership with his wife and a genuine affection for home life. That man existed in real time for me.

And c’mon – Betty was the overachieving sister all us younger sisters have spent so much time resenting. That show portrayed her as a good student, a school leader and a competitive athlete. Meanwhile, Bud’s still smoking weed.

Chevyiii said...

The audio files for Terror In TV Land need a Real Audio install. conelrad.com, cool site!

knox said...

As a kid I watched "Leave it to Beaver" after school, when it was in syndication. For a while "Father Knows Best" was on right after it, and I never could stand it. LItB seemed to have a sense of humor, even while it was didactic. FKB was phony, stilted and boring. And you can't beat Eddie Haskell or Lumpy Rutherford and his pompous windbag of a dad.

Ron said...

I always find it interesting how many of these old shows I watched as a kid, considering I was born in the 80's. I know for a fact I've seen quite a few FKB episodes but I'm finding it fairly difficult to recall what the show was "like"...probably becuase I haven't been reminded in years. Is it still being shown anywhere? On the other hand, Beaver is easy to picture....I just watched an episode recently. It was actually kind of odd. Beaver had a crush on a teacher and towards the end the teacher has a conversation with him in bed. Well, Beaver was in bed, she was just sitting on it. I for one can't imagine such a scenario with any of my teachers growing up.

Anonymous said...


On Star Trek, Ms. Donahue played an dying interstellar ambassador who becomes inhabited by a twinkling immortal she-cloud or lipglossy dust ball or something.

Prior to that, she was too busy getting the plague for Kirk to have the hots for her.

Maxine Weiss said...

Top 10

1. I Love Lucy
2. All In The Family
3. The Jeffersons
4. Maude
5. Good Times (Willona!)
6. Family Affair (Sebastian Cabot)
7. Sanford and Son (Aunt Esther)
8. Family (Sada Thompson)
9. Eight Is Enough
10. Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) ????

Zeb Quinn said...

Although they overlapped for a few years, Father Knows Best predated Leave it to Beaver by a few years. For a variety of reasons those few years made a difference in those early and developing years of television programming, the way the stories were told, the predicaments the characters faced, etc. Father Knows Best was the best family show on TV before Leave it to Beaver came along.

Claudia Lane said...

Family Ties ... my number 1 favorite family sit com.