It was the pearls. They seemed so out of place. She always wore pearls, whether she was doing housework, eating breakfast or just reading the newspaper. Barbara Billingsley, aka June Cleaver, the archetypical 1950’s American mother, died yesterday.
The mother to Beaver and Wally, and wife to Ward, on TV’s 1957 sitcom Leave It To Beaver, Barbara Billingsley was lampooned thousands of times for those pearls, the ostensible symbol revealing the 1950’s as an artifice, hiding the dark underbelly of America that would soon surface (see Mad Men). Who wore pearls doing the housework?
Ironically, in reality, the pearls were nothing of the sort. They were a cosmetic decision, since Ms. Billingsley had a cleft in her neck, which she felt showed poorly on television. (When not wearing pearls she would often hide the cleft by wearing a high-necked sweater). So in the final analysis, the satirists were the ones who were wrong. Their iconic symbol of American hypocrisy was simply a smart lady making a practical decision - the kind of thing we wanted from our mothers in the 1950’s. Look past the television set and you see a real mother.
That was why Leave It to Beaver, although never a ratings smash, was a different type of sit-com. It created situations and characters too real to be humorous. Even today, who doesn’t know an unctuous real-life character like the boys’ friend, Eddie Haskell? One of the creators of Leave It To Beaver, once said, “We asked Beaver and Wally’s real parents not to talk about the show when the boys are around. The minute they turn the kids into actors, the show is dead.”
Television was relatively young when Leave It To Beaver went on the air. In the 1950’s, local independent affiliate stations emerged across the country and they needed programming. Reruns of shows like I Love Lucy were shown over and over again. Baby boomers were weaned, often not on the first releases of these shows, but of reruns from five to ten years before. That is one reason Leave It To Beaver made such an impression on American youth culture of the 1960’s. Baby boomers remember the show, or just as likely remember the reruns, and this forms the impressions we have today of white, suburban America just before the Kennedy assassination and The Beatles. (Leave It To Beaver debuted the day Sputnik was launched by the Russians and ended the month George Wallace stood in the door of the University of Alabama protesting integration of the university).
In his book about the 1950’s, The Day Before Yesterday, Michael Elliott described the world of June Cleaver, “No immigrants; less-bitter class divisions; a benign federal government; utter domination of the world economy. America had never been like that before, yet in our addled national memory, we think of such exceptional times not only as the way that America has always been, but as it should be in the future.”
Of course, that would never be. Yet, for all the criticism and seismic change, there is no denying the hold June Cleaver has had on America for over a half century. The directors of the movie Airplane! made the brilliant casting decision to use Barbara Billinsgley in their spoof as the archetypical white-bread mother who translated ghetto jive on the plane - a contrast she captured perfectly.
June Cleaver was instrumental to the development of women on television. Her first offspring was 1960’s mom Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick van Dyke Show, a hip suburban Jackie Kennedy-type. From this came two female archetypes, the single career woman Candace Bergen as Murphy Brown and Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow. The second archetype mothers, became Roseanne, Clair Huxtable, and Marge Simpson. In a sense those two archetypes merged into the most popular mother/single woman ever on television, Oprah Winfrey. The connection may be distant but in spirit and values, Oprah is June’s descendant. They are both a testimony to the power of television, and it’s ability to convey a positive message of motherhood.
Barbara Billingsley was not the real life mother of Wally or Beaver. But, pearls and all, she was the image of motherhood, not only to them, but to millions of American children. Her television descendant, Oprah, once said of motherhood, “Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother”. Barbara Billingsley, the television mother to a generation was the testimony to that and we grieve when a mother dies.
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