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The Myth of the Model Family


THOSE OF US WHO grew up in the 1950s got an image of the American family that was not, shall we say, accurate. We were told, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet were not just the way things were supposed to be—but the way things were

It\'s probably good that life wasn\'t like the television shows in the \'50s—we wouldn\'t have many women now. Take a look at the ratio of boys to girls on the most popular family shows. Ozzie and Harriet had two boys, no girls. Leave It to Beaver had two boys, no girls. Rifleman had one boy, one rifle, no girls. Lassie had one boy, one dog (supposedly a girl, but played by a boy), and no girls. My Three Sons had—well, that one\'s obvious. Bonanza had three grown-up boys. Although Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in real life had one boy and one girl, on I Love Lucy they had one boy. The only shows with daughters were The Donna Reed Show (one boy, one girl) and that lighthouse to womanhood—despite its title—Father Knows Best (one boy, two girls). Grown to maturity, that\'s a late-1960s dating population of fifteen men to three women.

Almost all the households were mama-papa-kiddies: the nuclear family. (The exceptions were My Three Sons and Bonanza: Steve Douglas [Fred MacMurray] and Ben Cartwright were widowers.) There were no prior marriages, no children from prior relationships, no threat or even thought of divorce, and the closest thing we saw to physical abuse was Ralph Kramden\'s, \"One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . to the moon!\" There were no infidelities, no drinking problems, no drugs (not even prescription tranquilizers), no racism (How could there be? With the exception of Hop Sing and Ricky Ricardo, there was only one race; even the Hispanic gardener on Father Knows Best was named Frank Smith). There was no dropping out of school, no political discussion (much less political differences), no unemployment (except for Ozzie\'s early retirement), no severe economic problem (except for a crop failure on Lassie, when they had to sell all the livestock, including Lassie; but just before being carted off, Lassie pawed the ground and struck oil, and everything was okay again. Except for Lassie, who looked as though the Exxon Valdez had dumped its forward holding tanks on her). The father was the breadwinner; the mother was the bread maker (the only mother who came close to working was Lucy, becoming the spokeswoman for Vitavita-Vegimen or that afternoon at the candy factory). There was no fear of the bomb (which is what we kids were terrified about in the \'50s), and no severe disobedience (although white lies, mischief, and misunderstandings were needed for laughs). Life was wholesome, wholesome, wholesome.[*FN]


[*FN] As much as the religious right likes to point to 1950s sitcom wholesomeness as the Ideal American Family, these shows, in fact, had a remarkable lack of religion. What religion were these people? They certainly weren\'t Jewish. And, other than possibly Ricky Ricardo, none of them was Catholic. They were probably safely mainline Presbyterians. But that was the name of the game: play it safe. In playing it safe, there was less mention of God and religion on these shows than actually took place in American families in the \'50s.
That life doesn\'t exist anymore. But then, it never did.

 

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