“No one is a bigger fan of Ward Cleaver than me but I've got news for Mr Howard, the world has changed since Leave it to Beaver,” sniffed Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in 2007. Later, Canberra’s spin doctor dressed up as a family sitcom dad, enjoyed posing outside of church buildings with his children, and even ran as an economic conservative. Moreover, he openly opposed “gay marriages” like Howard.
Of course the world has changed. But were all those changes for the better? And did we all agree to change with “the world”?
Mr Rudd rarely gives details, and I suspect he was spinning. You see he wants to be loved by all. One part of Kevin’O7, I’m sure, was trying to impress his media friends because it is so groovy to sniff at one of the most family-friendly series from television’s Golden Age. But another part of him was saying, “I need to act like Ward Cleaver in public, even if it kills me.”
For years - decades in fact - the Cleavers were targets of menopausal feminists. Yet, there are many reasons why Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) and his older brother Wally (Tony Dow) were lucky to have two parents, like Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and June (Barbara Billingsley).
For one thing, they were better role models than Papua New Guinea’s cannibals. In fact, the Cleavers I knew were so conservative that they never thought about eating Beaver’s mischievous buddy, Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). You could look up to them. Forget antiseptic “multicultural” values. They were warm, friendly, sincere.
So, is television’s Golden Age out of touch with as many people as our PM thinks, or is his Labor Party? I’d submit that the Cleavers were more representative of their era than Rudd cares to admit. What’s more, they’re - shock, horror - still more representative of today’s average family than Labor cares to admit. In 2010, Australia (like America) is more Leave it to Beaver than Sex and the City.
In truth, Leave It To Beaver (The First Complete Season) succeeds on many levels. In “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled’” (Episode One) we meet a two-parent family with two boys, living in the suburbs, or yesterday’s and today’s sociological reality. And, we also learn that Beaver was “hit” by his father for spilling ink on the carpet. In 2010, many good parents still spank their children - although more need to in my view.
Episode one - a representative picture - doesn’t show June as a tortured housewife, chained to her kitchen sink either. On the contrary, there are many strong female characters outside and inside the domestic sphere, including Mrs. Raymond, the grammar school principal. And when Beaver, says to Mrs Cleaver, “Bye, mom I love you, and I’ll clean up my room later,” does he sound misogynistic?
In episode two, we see Ward encouraging his boys to clean up, and Mrs Minerva helping out. But Beaver’s older brother, Wally makes a sound point: “When you’re an older person, you don’t have to have a reason to be mean.”
He could have been talking about humourless feminists:
June: Why don’t you ever send me flowers?
Ward: I’m the kind who says it with seat covers.
It is sad that a self-styled situational comedy is attacked by elitists, from politicians to sourpuss feminists, for not being realistic, when it never set out to be a documentary. But sadder still, is the fact that a series from the 1950s ends up looking far more realistic than most dramas you’ll find on TV anyway.
In 1958, William Ewald a United Press staff correspondent wrote:
Two things, I think, make “Leave It to Beaver" a stickout. For one thing, its togetherness is rarely cloying. There seems to be a real rapport among its cast members and an air of good humor washes through the show.
It rarely strikes a false note and I suppose this is because its writers-producers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, both tap their own real life families for material. Connelly, I understand, has six kids and Mosher, two. Most writers of TV family comedy, in contrast, seem to be tapping some weird complex of domiciles out in space.
The second big asset of the show is young Beaver himself, Jerry Mather. Generally, I find child actors pretty hateful. They are a sub-species of humanity, better consigned for study in museums than inflicted upon consumers of entertainment.
But young Mather is a living doll (and I'm sure he'd like to swat me for saying so). He is a small boy with permanently pursed lips, semi-buck teeth and the melancholy look of a small, inoffensive pup whose tail has just been stepped on.
John Howard understood that family values were like good wines. They age well.