by Andrew Donellan
In television, the father is perhaps the most recognizable masculine figure. His evolution from the straight-laced Ward Cleaver to the hip Cliff Huxtable to the oafish Homer Simpson parallels the evolution of social ideals of manliness and masculinity from the Victorian 1800s to the progressive mid-1900s, to an eventual reversion to individualistic primitivism. Leave it to Beaver exemplifies the “perfect” Victorian patriarch and his role as head of the family. The Cosby Show demonstrates the progressive father is still head of the family but is also a more realistic view of the father figure. Finally, The Simpsons illustrates the father’s transformation into a primitive buffoon who is but a shadow of his no-nonsense predecessors. These three series illustrate how television’s father figure has evolved from a respectable, knowledgeable man to a clueless, accident-prone dunce.
In her book, Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman notes the definition of Victorian manliness, according to the Century Dictionary, as possessing the qualities of a man and being ”… independent in spirit or bearing; strong, brave, large-minded…” as well as being ”honorable [and] high-minded” (18). If this is true, then Ward Cleaver is manliness incarnate. He is respectable, dignified, and well restrained. As head of the household, he executes his duties flawlessly— being a role model and positive influence for his children, providing the income for his family, and above all, maintaining the socially prescribed sex roles within the home. These qualities blend together to make what I like to call the “great patriarch.” Ward’s self-restraint and high-mindedness allow him to maintain his manly composure even when his son confesses his misbehavior. For example, in the “Beaver’s Prize” episode, Beaver tells his father that, unpermitted, he went to the movies and won a bicycle the same day. He also discloses that he left the bike at a church to be “adopted” by a nice family. In response, Ward calmly thanks Beaver for telling the truth and prescribes a punishment, no going to the movies for two weeks. Beaver answers with a sincere ”Yes, Sir” and marches to his room.
Beaver’s willingness to tell the truth and his father’s reaction says something about Ward. The patriarch’s reserve provides him the patience to listen calmly while his son speaks of his transgressions; at the same time, his honorable character allows him to thank Beaver for his honesty and prescribe a fair punishment. As the father of a son who has been disobedient, Ward must be stern enough to ensure that his offspring will not misbehave again. He must also be fair and gentle enough to guarantee that his children feel safe talking to him the next time they make a mistake, as in the “Beaver’s Typewriter” episode where Beaver confesses that he cheated on his homework. In short, Ward’s self-restraint, forcefulness (when he needs to be), and honor make him the perfect Victorian man. It seems that 1950s television, while trying to portray the perfect family, still held on to the last vestiges of Victorian ideals. To be sure, Rhonda Wilcox acknowledges ”… critics have been comparing television to serially published multipart Victorian novels” (Abbott, 37). In this manner, the assertion that Ward is the perfect Victorian manly father is not off the mark.
Discussions between Ward and Beaver also shed light on the relationship Mr. Cleaver has with his wife. We also see Ward’s role as the powerful patriarch in his preservation of gender specific duties. In one episode, Wally asks his father why he grills outside when he cooks, but when June (mom) cooks it is inside. Ward thinks about it then matter-of-factly explains ”… a woman’s place is in the home and as long as she’s in the home she may as well be in the kitchen” (The Wisdom of Ward Cleaver, 10/26/2011). He then explains how women are comfortable and happy with the modern conveniences, while and men are rugged and better suited for the outdoors. Here, Ward is clearly positioning himself within the sphere of the dominant patriarch— protecting women from the harsh world outside by claiming dominion over the outdoors and leaving the more delicate tasks to his wife. He is also doing his fatherly duty by passing on the knowledge of “man’s work” to his eldest son, the next great patriarch. Ward’s teaching also extends to the silent, visual lesson that he expects his children to follow.
In discussing Leave it to Beaver‘s legacy, a review stated that through all of the kids growing up”… father Ward… and mother June… observed and nurture their children with quiet selflessness and obvious love” (Orlick). This is indeed true, and, in the case of Ward, it is more than just his nature, it is also a part of his image. Whether eating dinner or reading the newspaper, Ward is always dressed exceptionally in a shirt and tie and khaki pants. He never slouches and is remarkably well spoken. Always neatly shaven, the Cleaver family patriarch is the poster child for Victoria manliness. By being aesthetically impeccable, Ward not only displays his respectability, but also provides a visual example for his children to follow and emulate as they mature.
In the broadcast era, a figure such as Ward Cleaver was a must in order to attract as large an audience as possible. Debuting in 1957 on CBS, Leave It to Beaver used Ward as head of the household to gain a broad viewer base by catering to the dominant, postwar era belief system. This system revolved around, among other things, the idea that life was carefree (at least superficially) and what problems that did arise could easily be fixed by a talk with dad; or if that did not work, a drive in the country using the newly invented power steering might calm the nerves. In fact, Critic Robert Lewis Shayon pontificates, ‘”Ward and June Cleaver were ’Mr. and Mrs. Average-American living in their typical Good Housekeeping home” (Orlick). This suggests the Victorian fatherly character portrayed by Ward pleased the audience enough to garner the audiences CBS needed to maintain its top position in the ratings game. The self-restrained, honorable, and loving characteristics of the Cleaver household patriarch were so prevalent they could be found in popular magazines like Good Housekeeping.
With its display of the great patriarch, Leave It to Beaver put forth a figure that every father strove to emulate, or at least should have. In this matter, the show acted somewhat like a textbook on how to be the perfect patriarch— sit at the head of the dinner table like Ward, be controlled like Ward, keep your wife safe from man’s work like Ward. Despite his being the perfect father, Ward’s Victorianism could not last. As Michael McGerr suggests in his book, A Fierce Discontent, the Victorian desire to change domesticity and the ideals of work and pleasure transformed them into progressives (68).
Just as the Victorians of the late 1800s and early 1900s became progressive, so too did television adapt to the changing times. In other words, “The assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy changed the nation’s views of itself and its times… and a country preoccupied with civil rights strife, Vietnam, Woodstock, and Watergate would find little relevance to Beaver’s radio-derived simplicity” (Orlick). These transformations in American society spawned the figure of The Cosby Show‘s Cliff Huxtable, the progressive father.
Some would argue that Cliff’s progressivism stems from the fact that he is an African-American; however, I posit the idea that it is not his race but his parenting skills and portrayal that make him progressive. For one, his life lessons are more ”fun” than the straight talk of Mr. Cleaver. For example, in the season one pilot episode Cliff discusses the importance of money with his only son Theo after the boy received all Ds on his report card. However, instead of having a stern and stoic talk with his son, father Cliff turns this life lesson into a game by using Monopoly money. He allows Theo to decide how much money he will earn after his graduation ($1200 a month) and then proceeds to deduct his earnings based on such circumstances as taxes, food, housing, and whether or not Theo will have a girlfriend, until there is nothing left. Throughout this lesson Theo is smiling and having fun as if it were a game of Monopoly itself.
This is a far cry from Ward’s great patriarchal style of teaching. By using entertainment as a tool to teach his son, Cliff is demonstrating a new mindset of raising children, a progressive mindset. As opposed to the strong patriarchal ethos of child rearing, which depends on direct confrontation with the problem, the head of the Huxtable family opts to dispel some of this confrontational problem solving by intertwining the lesson at hand with amusement. The fact that Theo is enjoying this training session with his father points to the progressive tendencies of Mr. Huxtable. Although Ward’s method of teaching was effective, it was nowhere close to the entertaining professorial techniques that Cliff employs. This is because Ward is forever stuck (in reruns) using the Victorian model of straight talking, no-nonsense instructing while Cliff (also in reruns) implements a progressive train of thought that focuses on creative ways of teaching. Cliff’s playfulness does have its limits however.
Later in the episode, Theo makes a last ditch effort to stay out of trouble for his failing report card by belting out a heartfelt speech discussing all the reasons why his father should love him no matter what grades he gets. After a brief pause, Cliff answers with an emphatic, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life… You are going to try as hard as you can and you are going to do it because I said so! I am your father! I brought you into this world, I could take you out!” All the fun and games are for nothing unless Cliff fails to adequately assert his authority. He must remind his children that he is indeed their father and under his roof his word is law. Here too, the Huxtable family patriarch shows his progressivism. Ward is too much of a gentleman to tell his son that he has just said ”the dumbest thing” he has ever heard in his life. Cliff, on the other hand, is a progressive and not afraid to be blunt and even jokingly threaten bodily harm by suggesting he can end Theo’s life.
Despite these occasional exhibitions of strength, Cliff always reverts back to a gentler state that allows “Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam) and Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe)… [Who are] cute pre-teens [that serve] admirably as foils to Cosby’s hilarious child-rearing routines” (Hunt). Like the Cleaver children, the Huxtable youth, “Secure in a cocoon of loving parents and affluence… steered clear of trouble as they grew up over the series eight-year run”(Hunt). This sounds quite similar to the previously stated quote concerning Leave it to Beaver (… father Ward… and mother June…), suggesting that the two patriarchs are both effective at fathering despite the marked differences in their paths taken to achieve parental control.
Cliff’s progressivism is not only shown in his parenting skills, but also in his interactions with his wife. The progressives of the late 1800s sought to modernize domesticity by creating a new social contract between men and women. Part of this social contract concerning domesticity meant ”… endorsing the concept of’ ’voluntary motherhood’— the right of wives to dictate when they would have sexual intercourse and children” (McGerr, 50). In other words, a husband would now have to respect the wife’s newfound dominance of her sex. Husband Cliff duly takes note of and participates in this new domestic contract. In many an episode, Cliff can be seen seducing wife Clair through such means as dancing, massaging, and making seductive faces. For the most part, she performs these scenes silently, save for the generally romantic soundtrack playing throughout the sequence, which results in comedy yet deep romance. In one episode, for example, after cutting up an apple, Cliff feeds a piece to his wife who is resting her head against his chest. Clair then feeds the remaining piece to her husband who proceeds to eat it in one bite. The scene ends with husband and wife cuddled together on the couch while a romantic, smooth jazz song plays in the background.
This dialogue free scene demonstrates how Cliff takes part in the new social contract sought after by the progressives. Instead of forcing himself against his wife, husband Cliff delicately plucks the outer strings of his wife’s newly found self-determined sexuality—by first cutting the apple, then feeding it to her, then finally ending with his legs wrapped around her waist. This process can be seen as a courtship dance that Cliff must perform if he wishes his advances to be accepted by his wife. This also suggests a progressive shift of thought towards the wife’s role in domestic life on behalf of the husband. Whereas Ward sees June as an object meant for “women’s work” in the kitchen, Cliff acknowledges Clair’s individual rights as a woman and sexual being whom he respects. These romantic, often comical, scenes bringing to light the progressive nature in which the show portrays Cliff.
Throughout this series’ lifespan, The Cosby Show depicted its patriarch in a progressive manner. In a Thanksgiving Day episode, Cliff continuously makes trips to the supermarket, whether it be because he forgot to buy something or because his shopping bags ripped causing eggs to break on the floor, during a severe rainstorm and is dripping wet with a rain drenched hat that droops over his eyes. His miserable demeanor is a clear attempt to knock the great patriarch figure off of his proverbial high horse and bring him to a more tangible level. This depiction of Cliff is also progressive because his wife and the other women force him to brave the storm so they can finish cooking dinner with the provisions they sent him to buy. In this manner, his comfort, and indeed respectability, is subservient to the needs of the women—something rarely seen with Mr. Cleaver. In another episode, Cliff raps in front of Theo and his friend suggesting that the Huxtable patriarch is not only hip (or at least tries to be), but also progressive enough to participate in the youth culture. These examples give credence to the idea that Cliff Huxtable was the quintessential progressive father.
With the dawn of the cable/ satellite era, NBC needed a show that could compete in the growing media scape; The Cosby Show was their answer. With a program that depicted a progressive father while at the same time being, in the words of Jonathan Leonardo, “‘… a sitcom throwback… [and]… Leave it to Beaver in blackface’” (Staiger, 145) NBC was able to create a show fresh enough to be considered different yet similar enough to attract audiences looking for something familiar. On the one hand, Cliff’s progressivism—his humorous teaching styles, acceptance of his wife’s sexual independence, and tangibility— made him appeal to the changing times of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, his similarity to the great patriarch and other throwbacks such as vaudeville performance (Cliff’s riffing with the apple) made him desirable to fans unwilling to give up the nostalgia of 1950s television. In fact, Cosby’s wide demographic, including women 18 to 49 and an estimated 34.1 percent of children, allowed it to be the top ranked network show in late 1984 and thus one of the only network shows to resist the audience drain caused by the onslaught of new cable programs (Staiger 143-144).
Like the fall of Victorianism caused by the change in social thought, the appeal of the pursuit of individual pleasure overtook progressivism. Gail Bederman notes that between 1894 and 1912 “… a growing subcurrent in middle class culture was constructing the capacity for selfish aggressiveness and sexual predation as an essential characteristic of the natural man” (158). When this selfish aggressiveness and sexual predation transfer from a flesh and bone individual to an animated character, the exaggerated result is the figure of Homer Simpson, the primitive, masculine father.
Homer J. Simpson is the personification of raw masculinity, what Bederman designates as aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality (19). In the case of Homer, it is not a stretch to add stupidity, clumsiness, and impulsiveness. He demonstrates these traits (especially the latter ones) from the very onset of the show’s opening sequence. In the first appearance of Homer, he inadvertently is causing an accident in the workplace while simultaneously accidentally catching some radioactive material in his shirt. The fact that he is unaware of the accident and the plutonium not only calls attention to his clumsiness, but also to his lack of attention concerning the world around him. Although Cliff is sometimes prone to unintentional blindness, he most certainly would notice his coworker falling off a ladder, not to mention the radioactive material in his clothing, something Homer does not realize until he is halfway home. In the final portion of the title sequence, Homer is almost run over, and in later seasons is actually hit by his wife’s car as she pulls into the garage. This vehicular assault by the wife suggests that Marge, who is seen as the levelheaded one, is challenging Homer’s position as head of the family. The opening sequence sets up Homer to struggle, if not outright fail, at everything he does. This can be seen in his parenting skills, or lack thereof.
Unlike Ward’s gentle manner of teaching and Cliff’s progressive style of education, Homer opts for a much more rough education regimen. In any given episode, the Simpson patriarch can be seen strangling his son, Bart, at the slightest provocation. Here, the aggressiveness and physical force Bederman describes comes out, albeit in a situation usually reserved for less harsh methods. In strangling his son, Homer personifies raw, primitive masculinity. He does not possess the high mindedness of Ward, nor does he have the creative teaching style of Cliff; instead, he relies on his violent, primitive instincts to educate his misbehaving child. Clearly, this barbaric method of teaching fails to curb the unruly behavior because, without fail, Bart will resume his mischievous pranks. These pranks may have been what one progressive woman was speaking of when she remarked that she was tired of “‘the frustration that children must be permitted to ’express’ themselves without a hint of parental interference”‘ (McGerr 315). Although Homer does occasionally interfere with his son’s misbehavior, the harsh methods he uses are not sufficient enough to stop Bart from “expressing” himself. Perhaps, if Homer were more like Ward, he would be more effective at preventing his son’s bad behavior. Despite the physical force Homer uses to educate his son, he does seem to understand that he must be gentle when educating his daughter.
When it comes to Lisa, Homer tries to be more fatherly by being more kind and sympathetic but ultimately fails to deliver the proper message. In the “Dead End” episode, Lisa confronts her father when she notices that her mother’s grades began to fall once she met her future husband. In response, Homer proudly declares that if not he, someone or something else would have made his wife’s grades fall, and “sooner or later everyone finds their Homer.” Defending her honor, Lisa says that no boy will get in the way of her dreams. Homer replies that it may not be a boy that inhibits her dreams and that she should “just pick a dead end and chill out ’til you die.” This is hardly the advice Lisa was looking for, not to mention the advice a parent should give to his child. To make matters worse, he calls his daughter “my son” then promptly corrects himself with the phrase, “my girl son.”
In the “The Squirt and the Whale” episode, Lisa befriends a beached whale only to discover that her new companion has died after spending two days on land. Homer tries to ease his daughter’s pain by suggesting that the whale is now lying on God’s beach; Lisa promptly corrects her mistaken father by claiming heartbreakingly that whales do not like the beach, they live in the water. Homer apologizes that he is not a perfect father. When Bart overhears this he makes a snooty remark, to which Homer replies, “I am trying to be a sensitive father you unwanted moron!” By using trying and sensitive in the same sentence Homer, and indeed the show, acknowledges the shortcomings of the primitive father when compared to the great patriarch and the progressive father.
These two examples set Homer apart from both Ward and Cliff. By suggesting that his daughter should “pick a dead end” he is doing the very opposite of what a father should be doing, nurturing and inspiring the future goals of his children. Whereas the great patriarch and the progressive father would use this moment to push their kids to be the best they can be, Homer, the primitive father, almost takes pride in leading his daughter down the path of laziness and underachievement. In regard to the latter example, the fact that Homer cannot comfort his daughter (due to his lack of knowledge about a whale’s natural habitat) suggests that he is fully out of touch with Lisa’s emotional state and clueless as how to fix it. In the same vein, his outburst at Bart’s remark demonstrates that, although he tries to be a “sensitive father”, he is dumbfounded as to how to go about it. This outburst also demonstrates his lack of the self-composure associated with Ward because he instinctively yells at his child. Also, although Cliff may yell at his son, it is in a manner that forces his offspring to better himself. Homer’s outburst, on the other hand, serves no other purpose but to belittle and humiliate Bart. This circumstance brings to light yet another characteristic of the primitive father, his impulsiveness.
Homer’s impulsiveness causes him trouble and to end up in situations that are usually detrimental to his health. In one episode Homer is given a doughnut by the devil (played by Ned Flanders). If he finishes it, he will be sent to hell. After receiving these instructions Homer proceeds to eat all but one piece of the cursed doughnut, which he promptly puts, in the refrigerator. Later that night, ignoring all the warning signs posted on the donut’s plate, he devours the remaining pastry as a midnight snack. Following this, Homer is sent directly to hell where his punishment is to eat all of the doughnuts in the world. This particular scene highlights Homer’s lack of self-control because he is unable to resist the temptation of the doughnut to save his life, literally. Ward Cleaver would have no problem resisting the temptation thanks to his manly self-restraint. Likewise, Cliff Huxtable would fare just as well, perhaps after a brief moment of comedic weakness and a riff on judging right from wrong. Homer, on the other hand, clearly makes the wrong decision because, like a primitive man, he is quick to make irrational choices without giving a thought to the repercussions. The punishment the Simpson patriarch receives illustrates a clear portrait of his physical and characteristic images.
Homer Simpson is a bald (except for three hairs), overweight, lazy doofus. In more than one episode he is described, and even portrayed, as an ape—further emphasizing his primitiveness. Instead of sitting at a desk like Ward does, Homer chooses to lounge on the couch in front of the TV with a beer in hand. Unlike Cliff, Mr. Simpson does not dress appropriately for work. Instead, he arrives wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sometimes, nothing but his underwear. Annie Winsor, a progressive-era woman asked, ‘”How can they [men] be gentlemanly, of pure speech and right behavior at home and with ladies, and go to drink and swear and think foul thoughts, to see ugly sites… do ugly and cover them over.'” The answer: “‘There is a code of honor which will protect them from exposure'” (McGerr, 48). In Homer’s case, there is no “code of honor” that protects him from exposure. His wife, and indeed the whole town, knows that he is a drunk and a menace to society when he is intoxicated. In one episode, Homer is drunk at a social get-together in his own home. Here the whole town is witness to his inebriated antics and the embarrassment he causes his wife.
It is also well known that Homer is lazy. In the “How the Test was Won” episode, Homer’s laziness causes him to mail his insurance payment a day late. When he confesses this to Marge she says that she is not disappointed in him and that “In this point in a marriage a wife should know what her husband can do and what he can’t. Who was I to think you could mail an envelope.” This exemplifies Homer’s laziness and evolution—the father has become someone so inept he cannot even mail a letter. By not taking the time to mail the letter Homer is demonstrating his individualistic nature because he is putting his own leisure time above the financial well being of his family.
This also stands in direct contrast to Ned Flanders, the show’s hard-working, very religious Victorian father. Unfortunately for Ned, Homer usually picks on and abuses his neighbor. It is as though The Simpsons is mocking the figure of the great patriarch or, as Matthew McAllister puts it, “The Simpsons often parodies the hypocrisy and contradictions found in social institutions such as the nuclear family…” (McAllister). The contrast between Homer’s lazy, impulsive, aggressive nature and Ned’s gentle, caring, cautious (all extremely exaggerated) nature parallels the battle between Victorianism and primitivism in which “[The] weakness, effeminacy, and civilization [of Victorianism] had been pitted against [the] strength, male sexuality, and primitives [of primitivism]” (Bederman, 92).
Just as “… the war [World War I] would undermine the new regime, progressivism, and point the nation back toward its individualistic, conservative past” (McGerr, 310), so too would the war among networks and cable providers in the post-network era create an individualistic, violent, and primitive character. With the progressive father on the way out, Fox has filled the void with the primitive Homer Simpson. Although Homer is not the best role model, as a result of his unsatisfactory teaching methods and his laziness, the fact that the viewers in the coveted 18 to 34-year-old demographic as well as those beyond that range enjoy the show signifies that he is a beloved character (Horowitz). Maybe it is his lovable stupidity that attracts so many people to the program. Or, perhaps by watching Homer doing outrageous activities in his cartoon world, the audience can live vicariously through him and enjoy the carefree life display that they themselves cannot experience.
Either way, The Simpsons is extremely successful as demonstrated by the amount of transmedia content—video games, toys, clothing, accessories, web content, DVDs, and posters—that stem from the show. The fact that The Simpsons is the longest running sitcom in US television history underscores the program’s longevity and popularity, owing in no small part to the character of Homer Simpson.
In the age of iPhones, MySpace, and even personal pan pizzas it seems as though our society is becoming more individualized even as new technologies are bringing people closer together and, in the process, making the world a smaller place. In the 1950s, when suburbanization was at its highest and American life was centered on the home; Leave it to Beaver was a perfect fit for society. The great patriarch demonstrated all the qualities necessary to maintain this domestic-centered existence. His high-mindedness allowed him to fully understand his fatherly duties and continue to provide for his family’s needs. As a result of his self-reserve, he was able to remain calm when disciplining his children and thus gain their trust. Because he was honorable, he garnered the respect of his wife and children. Indeed, it was these Victoria qualities—high-mindedness, self-reserve, honor—that allowed Ward Cleaver to be the role model for the patriarchs of the Baby Boomer Generation.
As society began to grow less innocent, The Cosby Show and its progressive father mirrored the social changes. Cliff’s creative teaching style allowed him to deal with such issues as drugs, money, and relationships in a unique and entertaining manner that helped his kids to cope with the world outside their middle-class home. His relationship with his wife was passionate and allowed her to express her individual freedoms found in the women’s movement. Also, his tangibility made it easier for his children and indeed fathers in the audience, to relate to him.
Now, Homer, as the patriarch of The Simpsons, exemplifies all the individualistic undertones associated with the previously mentioned consumer-products. Although he cares about his son, it is not enough to try another method of teaching other than strangulation and abuse. He is not concerned with his own health as seen by his constant drinking and impulsive devouring of doughnuts. His relationship with his neighbors suggests that he does not care for their well-being. With the father figure evolving from a respectable Sir to a “cool” dad and finally to a dumb Homer, only time will tell what the next television patriarch will look like and what implications this will have for our society.
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