Pearls So Bright: In Defense Of June Cleaver
Hello! Please enjoy this guest post by Lacey Clark. Lacey is a 27-year-old traditional housewife from Texas, married for eight years with two little boys ages six and four. She homeschools the boys, and her hobbies include baking and systema training. (and clearly also watching 50’s and 60’s tv!) Enjoy!
A proud husband once proclaimed his love for his wife in a non politically correct way as he came through the door , “Well, what a charming domestic scene! Mother sewing in the kitchen; dinner bubbling on the hearth. Just like something out of Louisa May Alcott.” He saw her beauty, her hard work, he saw her. The mother of his children; his wife. Since that Leave It To Beaver scene in the year 1960, men and women alike have only seen one thing. Pearls. Pearls that shined so brightly that they blinded every moral lesson, every positive attribute to one of the most iconic female characters in American television history.
Pearls or a noose?
It’s been said by some in the male gender, that a tie is like a noose. Tying them down to deadlines, business meetings, fussiness, and ways of the past that just don’t apply to our modern world. If these men knew how attractive women find a man in a suit and tie, they’d probably be more inclined to gladly wear the noose. Are pearls a form of a noose? Let’s explore this for a minute. Pearls. A decoration around a woman’s neck that might make her feel beautiful. A piece of jewelry just like earrings or a wedding ring. Is it possible or realistic to do housework in pearls? Hmmhmm…. I don’t know. I mean, they could have a mind of their own and as you reach into the sink full of hot soapy water to wash dinner plate, they could decide to come to life and choke you. Cause of death: she did housework in pearls.
Barbara Billingsley tried to explain the pearls numerous times in interviews that she had an insecurity about her neck she referred to as a “hollow” and it was her idea to wear the pearls as she didn’t want the camera to pick up the “hollow”. Although, we fans would think she was absolutely gorgeous regardless, or probably wouldn’t have even noticed. She explained this to Oprah on her show, and in a 2000 interview with television historian, Karen Herman. To quote Ms. Billingsley “I’m going to say this one more time” -poor woman, I feel bad for her, “….cameras and film were not the same as they are today….it showed a hollow and cast a shadow across it. That is the gospel truth! Not because I was cleaning the house and vacuuming in pearls.”
I’m going to take it a step further than the always graceful Ms. Billingsley. Here’s a better question. Does it even matter? Is it even really about the pearls? Jackie Kennedy said, “Pearls never go out of style.” We all love her. I think I can recall Lucy Ricardo wearing pearls, as well. Donna Stone of The Donna Reed Show. Julia Child often wore pearls in her trailblazing cooking show, The French Chef. Yet, for some reason, modern women hone in on June Cleaver and the impracticality of doing housework in pearls.
Maybe it is because as society cares less and less about societal norms and acceptances; taking pride in yourself and others in manners of dress and respectfulness, that pearls are a catalyst for the rebellion against a time where people choose to only see the negative. I won’t put on my rose colored glasses (although with the current political climate, I feel tempted), and say that the 50’s and 60’s didn’t have their problems. In fact, much of the 60’s climate looks like what we are facing politically today. No decade has ever been perfect, and I have been accused of and even sometimes have romanticized times of the past, as have our parents and grandparents. Every millennial has heard the “I didn’t come in the house until the street lights came on” story as if that was a gold star upon their aging chests. And we millennials roll our eyes, just as the hippie generation did when they got told similar stories from their parents. Ward Cleaver often told his sons Wally and Theodore “Beaver”, of being the “best kite maker in Shaker Heights” or walking “20 miles a day”. We do like to embellish as parents, and one day I might tell my own children how their mama raced a horse bareback, when really I got a few feet and fell off straight on my left hip and couldn’t walk for weeks.
Housewives like to embellish and compete as well. In the days of past, if you bought a pie at a store, you might have been whispered about. Nowadays, if you make a homemade with dessert full of the evil gluten that is responsible for every illness, pollution, the upset in the Middle East, communism…. you are the talk of the town. You might even lose a play date spot. Gluten and pearls the true evils of the world. Similar generational gaps have taken place. As women’s liberation progressed, and more women started working outside of the home, women who felt as though they missed out on a career before, began to not understand why younger women would choose to stay home and explore their talents and passion for homemaking. This misunderstanding and generational gap begat bitterness to the point where when women used to face criticism for wanting a career, many women today feel the same criticism for wanting to be a homemaker. I, myself have faced that unfair treatment and even in the name of “feminism”.
One of my favorite quotes is by Nigella Lawson, my favorite food writer and cookbook author, “Women of my generation were keen – rightly – not to be tied to the stove, but the ramifications of this were that they felt a sense of dread in the kitchen. How can this be good for anyone? I also feel that to denigrate any activity because it has traditionally been associated with the female sphere is in itself anti-feminist.”
Feminists. Take a look at your movement and decide if you represent all women. Even women who might live traditionally. Might even wear pearls.
And what about *gasp* heels! Surely, heels are oppressive!
When I was in high school debate, I had a pair of the most 90’s heels you could imagine with just a bit of platform. The were rounded at the toe and sturdy. They might have been Kenneth Cole, reminiscent of Mary Jane heels. My debate partner was a gentleman, and often opened doors for me (in 2008, before the days that was considered offensive to modern feminism) , and my dad lent us a dolly to carry our three enormous boxes of printed out evidence pro or con on every single argument we could ever have been presented. But for the times when I had to carry have boxes full of papers and files, or walk all around the school halls from debate round to debate round, you might think these heels might have hindered me. My feet did get sore at the end of the day, but the heels, believe it or not provided a bit of a platform and sturdiness to be able to lift and walk. Don’t believe me? Go try it.
There are many working women with jobs, especially in the legal field that do still, even in 2017, get dressed for their jobs, and that often includes heels. If women who hold professional jobs, dress for the occasion, why is it looked down upon for a housewife to care the same to present herself in a self-respecting manner? Now, as for my job, I am a housewife, or a more commonly used term today, stay at home mom. I don’t go around all day in heels doing house work , because I don’t want to. It’s as simple as that. The pearls are adorable, house dresses are cute, pants, jeans (because I’m a Texan), a cute top or blouse, but I’m not big on wearing heels all day chasing around my little boys who are four and six years old. But, who am I to say someone who does want to wear heels all day should be made to feel anti-woman? Also, let’s keep in mind what should be obvious. Leave It To Beaver was a TV show in the 1950s and 60’s. It’s a trend now to show more of a laidback side of being a housewife, it wasn’t then. Does not make it wrong.
In the same 2000 interview, Mrs. Billingsley said she wore heels in the show because “they” (presumably the television producers) wanted her to be taller than the boys as they grew. She even laughed and said “I was lucky they didn’t put me on an apple box.” This isn’t to say she didn’t have any say in the show at all. As mentioned earlier, the pearls were her idea, and so were the hemline lengths of her dresses or skirts. In the same interview, she explained, with hand motions, “I didn’t want the skirts to go way up here, and I didn’t want them to go way down here. I wanted them just right here.” motioning to what seemed to be just at her knee or just below the knee which is represented in the later seasons that went into the 1960’s. “It was a good idea, because it wasn’t dated.” she proudly stated.
My family comes from a long line of what what people today would call “old fashioned”. Women didn’t dare wear pants to church, you also weren’t even ten minutes late to service unless you wanted everyone to think you were backsliding. My pastor grandfather and many like him, didn’t support television or secular music in that time. This is not a criticism against my family. I love my family and will go to the mat for them if anyone comes against them. I find it intriguing, though, when people bring up the conservative nature of The Cleavers, as if that is one, a legitimate criticism, and two when Beaver is watching television in his dad’s study or doing the twist to records his parents allowed him to buy, I can’t help but want to “crack up” too use phrasing from the time.
This piece I am writing isn’t to say there aren’t Leave It To Beaver fans, or June Cleaver fans. There are countless of us out there. The Faceboook page of Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers (Wally and Beaver Cleaver) prove that as fans flock to the comments section reminiscing memories of growing up watching the television show, or new fans making the same memories . The show is timeless and always will be. I suspect even 50 years from now, people will still be laughing at Mr. Rutherford tripping over barrel hoops that Wally and the Baver meant for a practical joke for Lumpy. Or shed a tear when June has to apologize to the Beaver in “June’s Birthday” for lying to him when she said she would wear a blouse he gave her as a present, but she distasted. When she got caught, they had a heart to heart. The show was full of laughs and moral lessons.
I bring up the criticism because I have had to hear about it as a housewife too many times and I imagine, as annoying as it is to me, it must have been more so for Ms. Billingsley. I also bring this up to talk briefly about Hugh Beaumont, or as we know him, Ward Cleaver. Beaumont’s actual life and on screen life in “Beaver” remind me of my own family, particularly my dad and grandfather. An actor and a Methodist minister, especially at that time, I can only imagine what he must have faced from possibly two very different worlds and schools of thought. Let that sink in for a minute and meditate on how brave he was and how regardless of whether you are a fan or not, he deserves respect. As does Barbara Billingsley. Take the time to understand the real people behind the characters. Through reading an old magazine cut out article from 1960 bought on ebay, I learned Ms. Billingsley, born in California moved to New York to work on broadway and as a fashion model, leaving college after a year. Married to and then divorced to Glenn Billingsley, a nephew of Sherman Billingsley, the owner of the famous Stork Club. I only know of the club, because that’s where Captain America was supposed to meet Peggy Carter before he died saving the world They never did get their dance. I won’t forgive you for that, Marvel! You broke my heart! So far, this doesn’t sound like Mrs. Cleaver. But, having two boys of her own, and being a family orientated woman herself, she even said herself in a 1991 interview with talent manager, Brad Lemack, she was not that different from her character, “it was similar”, she said. “I had been widowed,” referring to her second husband, Roy Kellino, a director “but during the show, I remarried and then our life became not too unlike it.” And when I would have wanted to deck the interviewer, when he said he was “disappointed” she wasn’t “slapping” her own kids around and completely different from her character, in true to trait, June Cleaver style, she smiled, looked down, shook her head and said respectfully, “No,no, no, I have two boys.” As if to say she understood June Cleaver. And as a mother of two boys, myself, so do I.
In the above mentioned 1960 article I bought from Ebay, it mentioned she went to the writers with the script saying “I don’t see why June is so mad about what Beaver has done. I certainly wouldn’t be.” And there lies the misunderstanding. The critics probably don’t know that in season one in an episode title “Brotherly Love”, June loses her cool, and grabs the boys by the arms raising her voice telling them to stop fighting with each other. While people who haven’t ever seen the show, only see a one dimensional character, the fans, and there are many of us who, see a woman full of grace, duty, dignity, warmth, but also intelligent, dynamic, even can be sarcastic. There are many examples, but one would be season three, in an episode titled “Beaver’s Library Book”, Ward is reading on the couch and June wants to have conversation. She asks him what he is thinking about, and when he claims he is thinking about nothing, she says “You can’t be thinking about nothing.” He replies, “Dear, I have had a hard day, if I want to sit and think about nothing, I think I am entitled.” After a pause she says, “Alright keep your secrets.” In a similar scene, she convinces her husband to give up his books and watch TV with her when he says they’ll “sit around like a bunch of morons and watch television.” She replies “That’s better.” And June Cleaver is definitely not anti-woman.
Some blog posts and articles have been written to prove that June Cleaver was a feminist based on a scene in a season four episode titled “Beaver’s I.Q.” where June says to her son, “Today, girl’s can be doctors and lawyers too, you know. They are just as ambitious as boys are.” If being supportive of women in the workplace in the 1960’s was being a feminist, then maybe so. But, when feminism has become anti-June Cleaver, using her name as an insult towards traditional gender roles and traditional family life, I’d think June herself would have something to say about that. She was after all, in the show supportive of women choosing their own path. As long as they didn’t come from California and wear too much makeup as addressed in another episode where she is worried about Wally being whisked away by an older crush. In another episode where Beaver runs away and June defies her husband’s “authority” was Ward calls it when he wants to teach him a lesson, to go find her son anyway. The “June was a feminist” crowd likes to cite this episode as well.
During my experience as a housewife in a modern world, I have been criticized for being submissive to my husband due to my religious beliefs. I’ve even had to explain how Biblical submission does not equal oppression. But, of course, I also have defied my husband at times. It’s called being human. I’m not going to speak for what the show was trying to accomplish or what June Cleaver believed as far as a “Biblical submission”, because I didn’t act in or write the show, but I do want to propose a couple logical questions… Was June Cleaver too submissive? Critics would say yes for the simple fact that she was baking and sewing as her husband walked through the door from a full day’s work. Does this mean she wasn’t also working? Is not homemaking work ethic? Is the act of serving a family and taking pride in that not as valuable as having a job outside of the home? Does June Cleaver even have to defy her own husband to prove she’s woman enough? As if to make up for being a homemaker? What does this say about all the arguments for or against June Cleaver?
I have been told as a modern housewife that I “don’t have to be a June Cleaver/ Donna Reed” as if there’s something wrong with that idea. Almost as if the simple idea of being a traditional housewife who loves to cook, bake, clean, and serve the community is unattainable and even undesired. It also implies these characters never get a little nuts sometimes. Featured in “Three Part Mother” in season one of The Donna Reed Show, Donna Stone is overwhelmed with her packed schedule and demands, has a fit in the kitchen, calms herself down in bed, and figures out a way to make her son’s basketball game, her daughter’s club meeting, and her husband give a prestigious speech. How is that not relatable? How is that not inspiring? I was inspired. Donna Stone has taught me, that being a housewife is not a ball and chain, it is a way to accomplish everything some women dream about. Serving the community, charity work, things that have fallen out of fashion such as dinner parties and thank you notes, baked goods for the neighbors, being more available to the children, and taking homemaking to a level of having your home be a warm and inviting oasis for your family; a refuge in a cold and harsh world. It’s been sixty years. When are we going to stop looking past the pearls that are blinding us to the fact that June Cleaver was just a woman who ran a house. She loved her husband and her kids, and took care of them and herself. The show is called “Leave It To Beaver”, it is not called “The Barbara Billingsley Show”.
The above mentioned, “The Donna Reed Show” is one of my favorite shows ever and does in fact have more storylines for the housewife. The show revolved around and was from the viewpoint of the housewife. In The Donna Reed Show, we saw her rants on the word “housewife”, the charity work, going toe to toe with the mayor of Hilldale to save her tree, volunteering for the hospital, serving the community, and we get to see who Donna Stone was even deeper than June Cleaver. Her ideas, thoughts, dreams, the dynamics of her marriage, and fears that she overcomes.
We even see differences in the two families; no 1950’s show is exactly like the other. That could be the show’s writing and the different storylines that were explored in both shows which are equally entertaining and equally important.
Maybe if there was a “The Barbara Billingsley Show”, I wouldn’t have to pen this piece. We could see June Cleaver interacting with other mothers possibly complaining that Ward slept late one morning and she doesn’t like serving cold breakfast. Or, perhaps we would get to see more of the volunteer work she did to serve the community as hinted in the season four episode “Community Chest”.
But, then I wouldn’t have a show where it showcases a woman who was comfortable with herself and her life with being a homemaker and telling generations to come that it is enough. There doesn’t need to be anything more. Some women are called to go into the workforce, without them we wouldn’t have the Barbara Billingsley’s of the world, the Julia Child’s, the Donna Reed’s, the Nigella Lawson’s…nurses, teachers, and as June said “doctors and lawyers”.
However, some women are called to run a house. In fact, if we talked about it in those terms in modern times, it wouldn’t be misunderstood as oppressive.
My husband has told me before “I earn a paycheck, but you run this house.” Does that seem oppressive to you? Perhaps, it would be in pearls and heels? Again, I propose the question, where is the criticism really originating? Today, it is cool for women to bring down other women whether it is about a store bought cake or a homemade cake. Pants versus dresses. We could all take a lesson from June Cleaver when she said in a season five episode, “One of the Boys”, “Sometimes I think cool means not so hot.”
— Lacey Clark